Friday, 17 November 2017

Album Review: Foreign Skies by The Dreadnoughts (by Emma Prew)

This summer I got to see one of my absolute favourite punk bands who I had unfortunately never managed to catch live before, The Dreadnoughts. To say I was excited would have been an understatement. The band put on one hell of a show at The Underworld in Camden (you can read my gig review here) and during their set they announced that their long awaited fourth album would be released in November – I was, well, even more excited!

On the 10th November the wait was finally over as the band released their first full length album for 7 years (I’m not counting 2011’s Uncle Touchy as a full length). Foreign Skies is a 12 track album of songs dedicated to all of the people who lived through World War I – but also to those who did not. I didn’t realise the significance of the release date for the album until my first listen but, of course, it was released to coincide with Remembrance weekend. This was bound to be a special album.

Foreign Skies opens with a mournful yet atmospheric violin part which slowly builds into a track titled Up High. After 50 seconds or so the vocals kick in – ‘Come my brother, Come all fighting men, Come together while we may, We nay may meet again.’ – but the tempo remains slow and controlled. It was at this point that I suddenly thought ‘Wow, what a voice’. I feel a bit bad saying this but I’ve never really considered lead vocalist Nicholas Smyth, or The Fang as he is generally known, to have an ‘amazing’ voice. By which I mean I enjoyed his vocals previously and considered them good but now I have an increased appreciation for his vocal talent. The chorus of ‘Raise your voice up high, sing for victory… We remember.’ is pretty darn poignant. As I said, it is somewhat mournful but there is also a great sense of pride in the song. Next we have Foreign Skies, the album’s title track so it’s bound to be a goodun’, right? Correct. This song is more than a goodun’, it is a full blown epic in musical form – and I don’t use the word epic lightly. The end of Up High crescendos into Foreign Skies, which actually starts fairly calmly with gentle and melodic guitar… but this is The Dreadnoughts, and so it doesn’t remain calm for long! Setting a recurring theme throughout the rest of the album, this song flits between various Dreadnoughts sub-genres – basically showcasing their whole musical repertoire in one 5 minute song. It’s pure folk punk for about a minute, then there’s some polka thrown in for good measure, then more folk punk. It’s fast paced, then mid tempo, then fast again and keeps you guessing what’s coming next. There is an awesome instrumental breakdown midway through the song which lasts for over a minute before an emotional verse from The Fang accompanied by piano slows things down. The story in this song is set on a battlefield but there is a sense of hope that you might not expect from a war zone as the narrator proudly exclaims ‘I never will return to these foreign skies.’

At only two songs into Foreign Skies I am already beginning to feel that these songs are like a soundtrack to a film – except, no, they are more than that. These songs are a soundtrack to real life, real stories and historical events that happened during the war and that makes all the difference. This is perhaps even more apparent in the third track. Daughters of the Sun has a dramatic instrumental start, which gets increasingly louder before going full pelt punk rock after a minute and a half. The vocals and instruments are fast with the vocals in particular being more raw than on the previous two tracks. This is a head banging, mosh pit inducing track that sounds like classic Dreadnoughts circa ten years ago and their first album, Legends Never Die. At least, that is until another mighty instrumental breakdown with an excellent violin solo backed by pounding drums. The accordion also makes a welcome appearance for a final verse – something that I missed from their live show earlier this year. I love how these songs have so many parts to them, such a talented bunch of musicians these Dreadnoughts. Following Daughters of the Sun is Amiens Polka, an almost entirely instrumental track. Amiens Polka by name, polka by nature. The pace is kept fast for this song but it’s clearly more of a traditional European-inspired tune than your more typical punk rock – which is definitely no bad thing. Amiens Polka certainly got me dancing and when the rousing short chorus, which sounds like it is sung by a barroom of people, happens in the middle I wanted to sing along. The only problem is I don’t actually know any of the words as it is most likely not in English and isn’t typical lead vocal volume. Of course, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the song one bit.

Not content with the array of musical styles that have already been reflected in the first four songs, Bay of Suvla is an acapella song with only a quiet steady drum beat backing. At first it is just The Fang who voices the song and once more I am astounded at how good his voice is. He also has the awesome ability to tell the tales of different people in his songs almost like he is acting in a play but not in a over the top way (so not like Freddy Mercury or similar). The other band members join in with the chorus making this true sea shanty style and this seems particularly apt as this is a song about navy soldiers. ‘It’s a way Suvla Bay, Hauling away to the Suvla Bay, Fare thee well my pretty young maids, We’re bound for the bay of Suvla.’ Something about the guitars at the beginning of the next song makes me think ‘Western film’ – not something I expected from The Dreadnoughts. Well, I said this album was varied! Anna Maria is track number six of Foreign Skies and the band show their ability to pull off another excellent instrumental intro. After 1 minute 20, the guitars get a distortion treatment and it goes more metal than Western but really it’s just classic loud and fast Dreadnoughts. Upon first listen I figured that Anna Maria was a song about a lost loved one and how the song’s narrator wants to have vengeance for his love’s death. Then I realised that Anna Maria isn’t a person at all, Anna Maria is the name of the ship that the narrator sailed on. I’ve always loved the nautical themes of The Dreadnoughts songs and this is no exception. This also happens to be one of the angrier and more violent themed songs of the album, showing the very darkest side of war (not that there’s much light in war either) – ‘Gonna find that coward captain, Gonna break his front door down, Gonna wrap my hands around his neck, And put him in the ground. Sweet Anna Maria, Never more, Never more, I see…’ As Anna Maria fades out we are not given too much pause for breath before the next track muscles in and metaphorically punches you in the face. Jericho is loud, fast, angry and urgent from the outset. Musically this is probably one of the more simple tracks on the album, generally sticking to the more typical punk instruments and playing them hard. That said there is an awesome guitar solo which you wouldn’t describe as ‘simple’. It’s no surprise that this is one of the shortest songs on the album – I mean, it is played at double the speed of most of the other tracks. Jericho is probably the song that would open the largest mosh pit and have the most people going crazy at a Dreadnoughts live show – and I can’t wait to witness that for myself.

Eighth track, Black and White, opens with a great swinging motion both in the music and vocal lines. The first verse is sung from the point of view of a soldier, ending several of the lines with ‘Sir’. It’s really great how each song of Foreign Skies tells a story as the album progresses through this period of history. It doesn’t feel like a ‘concept’ album as such although clearly all of the songs have their similarities due to the theme. Black and White is a prime example of really transporting the listener to another time and place. The verses of this song are mid tempo followed by faster musical interludes and it all kicks off for the chorus.‘Walk into the black and white…’ Gavrilo is next up and it is a song that combines many different sounds and influences from around the world. Opening with the lines ‘Hello my dear old friend, Good to see your face again. How is your little cell?’, Gavrilo sounds very Baltic-inspired but there’s also hints of Spanish style guitar in there – or maybe it’s just my ears! Either way, this is a great foot stomper of a track. It has a decent amount of heavy guitar and shouted backing vocals as well to ensure that you don’t forget that this is a punk band at heart. I haven’t done too much research into the specific subject matter behind each and every song on this album but I did look up ‘Gavrilo’. If like me you didn't know, Serbian Gavrilo Princip was the man charged with causing the outbreak of World War I when he shot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But even if I hadn’t done my research, this makes for an excellent song nonetheless.

The tenth song of Foreign Skies is completely different, so much so that it isn’t really even a song. A Broken World is a spoken word piece voiced by Zoey Exley and based on the poem ‘September 1918’ by Amy Lowell. The reading is accompanied by sorrowful piano and it is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. The line ‘Some day there will be no war.’ is particularly moving. I do feel that the placement of this track is a little odd. It is not quite at the end of the album nor the end of the first half, and not even the penultimate song either, but that doesn’t stop it from being poignant anyway. Just listen to it (or read the original poem, I guess). Drawing us towards the end of the album is Black Letters, a song that is fairly stripped back with an acoustic guitar in place of the electric. This is a much slower paced track than much of the rest of the album and it feels all the more thoughtful because of this. At first I thought this song might be quite hopeful as the end of the war is mentioned but after a few listens I think perhaps it is not quite the happy ending. ‘By the time you read these words there will be no more war… For me, There will be only peace.’ The author of the letters knows that they are going to die in war and will never see their loved ones again, but there is a sense of peace in knowing that they have served their country. It really makes you stop and think.

Phew, that was pretty heavy going. Where are the songs about drinking cider I hear you ask? Cue album closer, Back Home In Bristol. Kicking off with a generous helping of accordion and the lines ‘Bless me father I have sinned…’ , this song is pretty much all of the best bits of The Dreadnoughts’ musical repertoire all rolled into one. It’s no wonder this song has a video really – it’s a fine example of what the band are all about. Back Home In Bristol has a super catchy chorus and there is, of course, the mention of the band’s favourite West Country brew – cider! Well, this song is about Bristol after all. ‘Well I wish I were back home in Bristol again, Raising a cider with the West Country men.’ This song definitely has a feel good nature and a distinct sense of optimism about going home at last after the war. The drunken singalong bridge is bloody brilliant too. You can really picture the ship that is taking the soldiers home during the final instrumental of this song which plays out the song and the album as a whole – and brings us home in style!

I read a comment somewhere online about this album before it was released, therefore before I had listened to it, and it said that The Dreadnoughts had matured. ‘The Dreadnoughts mature? Nah!’ I thought but… now I get it. These aren’t simply songs about drinking cider, well aside from the last one which is a little bit about drinking cider. As much as I love good ol’ songs about cider, I didn’t know a Dreadnoughts like this was possible. I didn’t expect it. Foreign Skies is an album of many parts, each song consists of many parts. There are ups and downs, slow songs and fast songs, happier tunes and sorrowful songs, the themes are mostly serious but the music can be downright jolly and uplifting at times. The Dreadnoughts are masters of sea shanties, Baltic-inspired polkas, heavy rocking and rolling punk rock – and now they’ve well and truly mastered the historical epic as well. Is there anything this band can’t do? In summary: Foreign Skies is incredible.

Buy/stream/listen to Foreign Skies now on Bandcamp and you can also find The Dreadnoughts on Facebook.

This album review of epic length was written by Emma Prew (and I may never write another album review again).

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