Monday, 15 February 2021

Album Review: Dark Hands, Thunderbolts by Crazy Arm (by Emma Prew)

It’s been seven long years since Devon roots punks Crazy Arm released their last album, the somewhat stripped back alt-country Southern Wild. A lot has changed in that time and I feel more in need of new music from this band than ever before. Dark Hands, Thunderbolts is the name of Crazy Arm’s fourth album and, as one of the UK’s most-loved DIY punk bands, there’s no denying that this release has been highly anticipated. Originally recorded back in 2016, with the final finishing touches having been put in place over the summer of 2020, the album has been a long time in the making.

Dark Hands, Thunderbolts sees the band return to the loud, fast riffs and Americana twang of their first two albums which, to be honest, is the Crazy Arm I want to hear. It might have been a long time coming but I have no doubt that this album will be well worth the wait. Darren was kind enough to send me an early preview of the album which, as a long-time Crazy Arm fan (they were literally the first DIY punk band I discovered), was incredibly appreciated. At the time of writing this, the album has not been released yet but by the time this review is published you’ll be able to check it out for yourself – so go, go, go!

Dark Hands, Thunderbolts certainly gets off to a flying start with the volume levels seemingly cranked up within the first few notes of the album’s opening track, Montenegro. It’s a dramatic sounding 30 seconds or so of instrumentation before things ramp up further for a fast and furious first verse. The track was written after a touring mishap in which the band were travelling to Slovenia, refused entry to Serbia, took a ‘shortcut’ through the Albanian mountains and ended up driving along a stunning Montenegro coastline only to arrive at the show with a small audience in attendance and minutes to spare. In summary, it wasn’t worth it but it was a lesson learnt and a story to tell – plus it makes for a fine album opener. Blessed And Cursed starts more slowly than the previous track with Darren’s powerful vocals declaring ‘There's hope for you and there's hope for me, But there's no hope for us, We washed our hands of these troubled lands, And left without much fuss, with no-one left to trust’. It’s a bold opening that leads us into a bluesy punk rock tune with slower paced verses intertwined between hard hitting, err, other verses. It’s hard to specifically categorise one section of the song as being a chorus or a bridge, instead the whole song seems to build triumphantly throughout its duration until a rather abrupt but suitable ending. Fun fact: This is the first Crazy Arm track to feature a trumpet (Simon Dobson) but hopefully not the last. (Spoiler alert: There’s more coming up.)

The foot-stompingly energetic and awesome ball of energy Brave Starts Here is next up. It’s a track I’ve been listening to a lot over the past few months, since the band released it as the first single from the album in November, and is also one I’m pretty sure I’ve heard live – although who knows when the last time I saw Crazy Arm live was! Described as ‘occupying that sweet spot between bluegrass and punk rock’ and featuring some suitably earwormy riffs and lyrical content, it’s easy to see why this was chosen as the lead single from Dark Hands, Thunderbolts. I can already imagine this song being a crowdpleaser alongside classics such as Still To Keep and Tribes, maybe it’s something about those soaring whoa-ohs towards the end of the track. One thing Crazy Arm have always been very good at is creating hugely atmospheric sounding songs that feel like the pages of a novel brought to life. That’s exactly the feeling I get from the fourth track, Fear Up. Something about the way the song switches from gentle finger picked guitars to a chugging rhythm section and onto an almost eerie, resonating guitar part which is later completed with a distinct trumpet melody, just feels so cinematic. Lyrically, the song is a dark one (‘Lonesome and tender, broken and gone, Death loves a cold heart, death wait your turn.’) and the title itself is US military slang for silencing citizens through the threat of violence. A powerful and thought-provoking track if ever there was one.

Dark Hands, Thunderbolts features two instrumental interludes and the first of which, Dearborn, is up next. The violin (Samantha Spake) takes centre stage and the track feels very much like a continuation of the cinematic feelings I was getting with the previous song. It’s a beautiful piece of music that seems to allow the listener to pause for breath and contemplate. As the violins fade away we are soon thrust into a distortion heavy and bassy introduction to the sixth track on the album, The Golden Hind. Injecting political themes into their music is certainly nothing new for Crazy Arm and with The Golden Hind they take aim at the band’s Brexit-voting hometown – ‘So please be kind to The Golden Hind, And say oh-oh-oh-oh, It’s not our fault that we’re deaf, dumb and blind, We say oh-oh-oh-oh.’. The passion and frustration is clear throughout the track’s three and a half minute duration – this is definitely a song to be played loud. Starting out with an attention-grabbing bass line and simple drum beat, Loose Lips is another song that is begging to be played really loud – basically, this whole album needs the volume cranked right up! The song is a truly powerful ode in solidarity with refugees. In fact, for much of the song, the lyrics seem to be from the point of view of the refugee – ‘Personification of dependency, I’m the one who knocks upon the door of need, Demystification got a hold of me, Watch the scales fall from my eyes and set me free.’. I imagine most Crazy Arm listeners are decent human beings who already sympathise with refugees but, on the off chance there are some who are less kind, maybe this song will win them over. It’s an incredible track either way.

Mow The Sward takes a slightly different turn musically, reining in a notch on the post-hardcore vibes of the previous couple of songs and instead going for a more straight up melodic, almost heartland rock style. There are parts of the song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Crazy Arm’s debut album, Born To Ruin, but that definitely doesn’t mean that this is a rehashing of old material. In fact, wedged in between the heavier sounding tracks, it sounds uplifting and fresh. Mow The Sward also features one of my favourite bridge parts of the album – ‘Fuck your views and fuck your advice, Think good thoughts and live a bad life, Gotta move fast, gotta work hard, Gotta knuckle down and play the right chords, Not comatose, not under-dosed, You gotta push ’til you explode, It's all the same, it always is.’ The ninth song of Dark Hands, Thunderbolts is titled …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Meds. It’s a frantic sounding song and, at less than two and a half minutes in length, is a pretty short one by Crazy Arm standards. Both of these elements further emphasise the theme of the song: mental health. In particular, the song focusses on the taking of medication – hence the title – to deal with ongoing depression. It’s a hard hitting track, both lyrically and musically, but is one that some listeners no doubt will be able to relate to. Paradiso is the second of Dark Hands, Thunderbolts’ two interludes and it somehow manages to feel even more cinematic than the first. The star of the show here is the almost dreamlike trumpet playing which is subtly backed up by gentle guitar strumming. It’s a melancholic interval that once again provides the listener with a moment’s pause before we get back into the last part of the album.

The eleventh song of the album comes in the form of the anthemic Epicurean Firestorm. The band were apparently trying for an Arcade Fire style song here which I guess they’ve achieved in that it sounds like a song that could be played in front of a large arena audience, with plenty of ‘Oh oh ohs’ for the crowd to sing back at the band. Overall, the track feels like a call to arms for like minded folk to stand up and be the change that they want to see. Let’s face it, we are living in dark times with the pandemic and climate change just two of the world’s biggest problems – ‘An epic plague, an epic fire, A new disease, a new desire, An endless flood, a killer swarm, We'll have to learn to save ourselves.’. As the album begins to draw to a close, don’t think for a second that Crazy Arm are about to tone things down. Howl Of The Heart is a passionate, reverberating punk rock number that has just the right level of Americana twang for it to be instantly recognisable as a Crazy Arm song. With the chorus mentioning open roads, lonesome crows and hungry wolves, I feel instantly transported to some far off North American mountain range… Did I mention that Crazy Arm have a knack for creating music that feels like you’re reading a book?

The penultimate song of Dark Hands, Thunderbolts is Demonised, channeling feelings of existential dread. Beginning slowly with a repetitive and firm guitar riff, there’s a feeling of building throughout the track’s duration which feels appropriate given that we are almost at the end of the album. Relatively speaking this is one of the more slow paced songs on the album but things do pick up, in terms of pace and volume, for a memorable chorus of ‘Call a doctor, chiropractor, Troubled waters run deep, Call a doctor, call a lawyer, Note to self: don't forget to breathe.’ and beyond into the track’s frenetic bridge. It’s a stark contrast when we come to Dark Hand, Thunderbolts’ closing track which kicks off with a distinctly bluegrass-sounding riff. Health Is In You! is perhaps a case of saving the best for last as this is one hell of a song. It’s catchy, it’s fiery and most importantly it is defiantly pro-feminist. The track is described as being a ‘rejection of patriarchy, a celebration of sensitivity, and a refusal to stay silent in the face of everyday sexism’ and I’d like to say that we don’t need songs like this in 2021, but we do. So, thank you Crazy Arm. ‘Just don't say it if you can't defend it, Just don't do it, we can all see through it, Just don't say shit if you can't defend it, I don't wanna, I don't wanna hear it, Just don't say it if you can't defend it, Man, don't say shit if you can't defend it.’

I’ll be honest, I am not used to reviewing albums that have more than ten songs on them – and Dark Hands, Thunderbolts has fourteen – but this is such a complex and well thought out, wide-ranging collection of songs that no song sounds out of place or unnecessary as part of the whole package. It’s an ambitious fourth album, that’s for sure, but I certainly think Crazy Arm have pulled it off.

Dark Hands, Thunderbolts is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings and you can find it in all the usual places, including on Bandcamp where you can pre-order the vinyl (which is due to ship in mid-March).

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This review was written by Emma Prew.

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