Monday, 14 May 2018

Album Review: Utopia by The Lab Rats (by Emma Prew)

The Lab Rats are a folk punk duo based in Manchester, formed of Molly Yates (Bolshy) and Adam McKeon (Wadeye). I wasn't aware of them until they were announced for Manchester Punk Festival 2018 – they were one of the very first acts to be announced in fact – and I checked them out on the MPF sampler on Bandcamp. I then forgot about them until it came to sorting out my Clashfinder for the festival and I highlighted that I wanted to see them. (At the time of writing this, MPF hasn’t happened yet but, at the time of this being posted, it most likely has happened – hopefully I got to see Lab Rats live in the end!) Looking them up again, I found that they released a new 7-track album, Utopia, on Pumpkin Records at the end of February. I quickly made up for lost time and listened to it as soon as possible. Here’s what I thought.

Utopia opens with the compelling swaying motion of Refugees Welcome and a combination of acoustic guitar and mandolin. But despite the song’s lovely melody, this is not a happy nor care-free song. The way in which the story is told through its lyrics is an interesting one as the song is a conversation with a refugee, asking them questions – ‘Did you risk life just to get to the shore?, Have you travelled all this way to be free from a war?’ – but also being sympathetic and telling them that they are welcome. This is not nearly as aggressive as your average ‘protest song’ and I particularly liked the song for that reason. Next up is Song For A Friend. The mandolin plays the leading melody here while a banjo – at least I think it’s the banjo, which is listed as also appearing on this album (Joel McCarton on violin and banjo), but it could be the acoustic guitar – plays a more bassy-sounding backing. The instrumentation is great but its the vocals that really stood out to me. Molly really showcases what an excellent set of vocal chords she has here, with some almost bluesy, soulful oooh-ooohs at points. Overall this is a fairly melancholic but powerful track that reflects on not always knowing how to feel in certain situations.

The third song on Utopia is a faster paced number titled Keep Smilin’. Keep Smilin’ opens with some strummed guitar chords and a more intricate mandolin part. Lyrically the song is about standing up to your own anxiety and trying to stay positive but also knowing that you’re not the only one who feels this way – ‘I know that it’s not just me.’ It feels like a bit of a call to arms for anxious types and people with mental health problems which is a great thing. Lead You Home follows up next and there is definitely a banjo present here, alongside the mandolin and acoustic guitar, bringing another level of ‘folk’ to the duo’s sound. The violin makes its first appearance in Lead You Home as well, giving the song perhaps a fuller sound than previous tracks. The song is about having friends that will be there for you and make sure that you not only get home safely but also that you have a home to go to. The repetition of ‘We will lead you home.’ felt especially empowering. Friends Not Food is a somewhat slower paced song and this steadiness really allows the vocals and lyrics to be the main focus. Friends Not Food is a letter, of sorts, to meat (and dairy, I assume) eaters who are in selfish, denial about what they do (according to The Lab Rats, at least) – ‘And you don’t think about it, All the things that you do, Say that it weren’t done with your hands, So it’s nothing to do with you.’ This is definitely a vegan and anti-animal cruelty anthem although it will no doubt be a bit controversial for some listeners. I’m a vegetarian and I feel a bit guilty for not being a fully fledged vegan after listening to this song because I do agree with the message.

The next song is possibly my favourite on Utopia. Breathe opens with a sorrowful yet atmospheric violin part which gives way to the vocals of the first verse and a simple acoustic guitar backing. This is a song about wanting to escape the city, with all of its pollution and fast pace, for a simpler and more nourishing space – the forest, for example. The violin returns for the chorus which, although initially fairly sad, is actually quite hopeful – ‘And take me into the forest, And show me the beauty, I’m yet to see, And take me up to the mountains, And show me the wonder, So I can be free.’ As a lover of nature and being surrounded by trees, I can completely relate to this song – although I do at least live in a town and not a big city like Manchester. A beautiful song regardless. The final song on Utopia is Stop This War. Kicking things off in a mid tempo fashion, things soon increase in speed and volume – at least until the vocals come in for the first verse. However the volume and passion remains. As you can probably tell by the title of this song, this is a protest song of sorts against war – but not just armed conflict type war; wars between atheists and religious people, wars between hunters and hunt saboteurs, wars between the activists and oppressors. The song has a great combination of slower verses, followed by more mandolin intricateness and then a faster paced and passion fuelled chorus. ‘How long do we have to fight before you stop this, Stop this war? Stop this!’

What a great album this turned out to be! You can check it out for yourself on Bandcamp here. And like The Lab Rats on Facebook here as well.

This review was written by Emma Prew.

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