In Brief: If you like your Britpop a little grittier and more imaginative, then Kingdom of Rust oughta be right up your alley.
I’m about to make a wild assumption about three guys who I’ve never met and honestly know very little about. You can feel free to correct me if this assumption is way off-base, but I get the feeling that I know the least favorite word of all three members of the band Doves. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on the word “Coldplay“.
Why is that? The two bands are from the same country. They both strive to make highly melodic, larger than life, rock music with a heavy “britpop” quotient to it. For all I know, maybe the two bands have a lot of mutual respect for one another. But the fact remains that one band got immensely popular while the other remains reasonably obscure, despite the fact that both have been doing this whole music thing for about the same amount of time. The reason I’d suspect that the guys in Doves hate to hear Coldplay’s name is probably because they’re so likely to get mistaken for Coldplay. Just listening to their latest album Kingdom of Rust, I’m hearing the same yearning vocal approach (just in a much lower register), a similar “chimy guitar” sort of attack, and the ability to build a hypnotic, radio-ready rock song on top of a simple loop of a few notes. Those elements were all part of Coldplay’s usual M.O., up until they made great effort to change up the formula on last year’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. So, like any other band that bears these musical signatures and sounds even vaguely British (whether it’s an affectation or the real thing), it’s tempting to think they’re just trying to ride Coldplay’s coattails.
The startling thing is that this band, at least on their newest disc Kingdom of Rust, does it a hell of a lot better than Coldplay, at least when listening to it from end to end in comparison to any of Coldplay’s first three albums. Removing Viva la Vida from the discussion (since that was an album that largely found Coldplay not trying to sound like their typical selves), Kingdom of Rust could be the album that finally follows through on the promise that Coldplay offered with each album but failed to fully follow through on. Especially for those who felt that Parachutes was the best of the band’s earlier work, Kingdom of Rust will probably be right up the average Coldplay fan’s alley while satisfying some of the more aggressive urges of folks who hate on Coldplay for falling back too easily on the slow, plodding, gloppy emotional stuff. Doves are not a Coldplay clone – they’re a band whose sound likely developed in parallel from similar influences. If one listens more than just superficially, it becomes apparent that Doves have a slightly progressive edge, which gives them the ability to change musical hats with ease, moving from an anthemic pop song one minute to a darkly hued, muscular romantic ballad the next, taking a few side journeys into electronic territory, and even turning out a funk/rock hybrid at one point that works better than it probably should given the source. This band’s got a knack for working their rhythmic section and making sure that even their most sensitive songs have a good amount of “grit” to them. In that sense, they can actually sound an awful lot like Elbow, except that Elbow spends an awful lot more time in down-tempo mode than these guys do. Occasionally their more radio-ready stuff can border on formulaic, but that’s a minor complaint.
The Elbow comparison is also apt as far as the vocals go. You can really only make superficial comparisons between Doves’ Jimi Goodwin and Coldplay’s Chris Martin – both have that distinctly Brit varnish to their voices, but Goodwin’s range runs much lower, meaning you won’t get any falsetto, but you will get a certain sense of mystique from the way his tongue wraps around the word pictures that this band is so good at creating. He’s only a stone’s throw away from sounding like Elbow’s Guy Garvey, though I have to admit I prefer Garvey for having generally clearer enunciation and a bit more of a range. But Goodwin applies himself well to songs that bleed over into a few different genres, and the band also employs guitarist Jez Williams on lead vocals for a few tracks, his higher register and wispier tone of voice playing as an interesting counterpoint that almost makes it sound like flipping to a different band. (Drummer Andy Williams has had his turns at the mic as well, though not on this particular record.) I like it when bands are able to switch between multiple vocalists – it generally gives me the idea that they create as a collective, rather than the other players just being a conduit for one man’s musical ideas.
Kingdom of Rust is an album that drops the listener into an immersive world with hints of science fiction, a set of songs with soaring melodies but also with ragged edges. Nearly every track is a solid place to start – this band’s diversity is displayed with amazing consistency of quality. I’d venture to say that what the individual songs mean – if you can even discern that much – is generally less important than the overall mood and feeling of the songs, and that’s generally an aggressive but hopeful mood, with even the band’s most melancholy tracks having a certain “lift” to them that keeps the band from drifting into depressing territory. I wish I could coin a genre term that described this music beyond generic “rock” or “Britpop” – it’s technically “indie”, but probably way too accessible for your average indie snob, and yet it might be intelligently phrased enough to win the snobs over in spite of themselves. The best I can do is to say that in an era where most of the rock music that looks to win over your average radio listener seems to be heavily keyboard or synth-dominated, Doves make a strong case for the many colorful ways in which a simple combo of guitars, drums, and bass can be used.
The “science fiction” descriptor I used above is best applied to the opening track, which is a way great way to get things started, but from what I can tell, a bit of a detour from Doves’ usual sound. Not that I’m complaining – the electronically warped, cymbal-heavy beat makes a great backdrop for a futuristic composition that picks up momentum as it goes, and the whole thing has a “big screen” sort of feel to it. (That’s not surprising. I recall the band mentioning that they were trying to come up with their own score for the closing credits of Blade Runner. I’d say it’s appropriate, but then I’ve only seen one of the five or so versions of that film in existence.) Jez WIlliams is singing lead over the robotic beat, which is also unusual for Doves – Jimi Goodwin’s deeper voice just chimes in here and there with the song’s title. The band creates an excellent aural painting of a dystopian world run by machines and polluted with noise and exhaust, and the guitars begin to grumble as the bass and drums get busier and busier, leading up to the climax of the song, before it’s all dismantled quickly and stops cold.
2. Kingdom of Rust
The title track has a bit of “jangle” to it, with its syncopated rhythm guitar and the nervous lead guitar that trembles on top of it, but it’s also played softly and carefully, which for me sort of dulls the impact. This is Jimi Goodwin’s first turn of many at singing lead on this record, and while his voice is perfectly suited for the mysterious aura that this song gives off, whoever produced this one doesn’t do him any favors, sometimes letting both the guitar and vocals lapse into the background, as if begging you to turn the volume up so that you can get blasted by the symphonic streams and angry guitars that take over during the noisy bridge. There’s a “chimey”, melodic sort of riff to balance the whole thing out during the chorus, which fits well with the lyrics and their uneasy balance of foreboding and optimism. It’s a bleak, wintry world, in which things have grown old and stale, and yet somehow, with an “ocean of trust”, we can all get through it.
3. The Outsiders
A wonderful blast of electronic noise opens this quick-and-dirty rocker, which assaults the listener with an awesomely loud and fuzzed-out bass line and slamming drums, bringing a little bit of spaced-out funk to the band’s gritty but anthemic sound. The focus on a heavy groove, almost putting the rhythm section in front of the lead guitar and the vocals, is very reminiscent of Elbow, except that Elbow rarely plays it this abrasive. I like that the guitars scratch and grumble – it keeps the song from sounding too polished, and makes it sound like the kind of thing that would be pretty awesome rattling off the walls of some indoor venue that the band found themselves in. Jimi sings to a character called “Johnny”, one with whom he’s apparently made his share of trouble – they live in a universe in which it’s “just the two of us”, and apparently the whole world is theirs to go out and wreak havoc in, with a simple “clicking our heels” to take them home when they’ve had their fun. I love the defiant attitude here.
4. Winter Hill
This is probably one for the Coldplay fans. I mean nothing derisive when I say that, as there’s still a bit of electronic interference and fuzzy low-end to remind you that you’re listening to Doves, but… you know how many of the tracks on A Rush of Blood to the Head were characterized by repeating guitar or piano riffs that just pound into your head so that you recognize the song immediately the next time it crops up somewhere? This song’s melodic guitar riff is very much like that. It’s more mid-tempo and relaxed than anything heard on the album so far, and while the memory is memorable, the tempo and the lack of “soar” in Goodwin’s voice seem to hold the song back from greatness, making it one of a few moments on the album where a little less polish and a little more spirit might help a song to exceed expectations rather than just being an agreeable single. I also get the funny feeling that I’ve heard Coldplay sing a song about a hill with snow on top of it. But don’t write this one off – its snowy landscape and its mention of “the sky full of birds and the dusk approaching” seem to tie into some themes that turn up throughout the record, so it feels like an accessible entry point ot a larger story that I haven’t quite unraveled yet.
Here’s a glimpse of Doves’ more experimental side – you’ll get the clue right away from the obscure, drawn-out ballet of bass, vocals, and background ambience that this one isn’t bound to be a hit single any time soon. This one didn’t appeal to me at first, but as I’ve listened to it more, I’ve come to appreciate the way it builds from its molasses-heavy intro to something more nimble fingered and wholly different by the song’s midpoint from the place it started. Picture a train slowly leaving the station and then speeding up, with objects and people that were once easy to make out from one another starting to blur together as the train starts to outrun the traffic running alongside it. Then the cabin starts to rattle and things get knocked around a bit, as represented by the shift in time signature and the tricky drum and guitar breakdown that comes up in the song’s middle, with heavily processed bits of Jez Williams’ vocals just barely making their way through all of the racket. Then the train finally slows down as it approaches the next station, and Jimi breathes a slow sigh of relief. The darkly melodic bent to this one is just delicious once you get your head around it. Since I keep comparing them to Elbow, I’ll point out that the band’s got an edge on Elbow here – sometimes when Elbow attempts slow, progressive songs of this nature, they threaten to collapse under their own weight, but Doves know how to keep it moving along.
6. The Greatest Denier
Time to dive back into catchy, up-tempo rock territory, with this glittery, rhythmic song that seems to have a new sound effect to throw at you every thirty seconds or so. I’m probably exaggerating, but this one’s got a great guitar hook to it without ever sounding like it’s going for obvious “anthemic chorus” territory. It’s a subversively catchy song, if that makes any sense. Jimi’s lyrics are posivitely sinister, threatening the fall of entire cities in his beloved England, and glaring straight into the listener’s eyes, warning, “I can cut you with a look”. It might creep me out, if I wasn’t so swept up in the intricate patchwork of gleaming and gritty guitars and the highly danceable rhythm.
7. Birds Flew Backwards
The mounrful vocal cry that opens this song reminds me once again of Elbow, specifcally the deep moans of anguish in one of their sadder songs like “Some Riot”. In a rare move for a highly rhythmic band, this song is almost all ambience – no drums or bass that I can detect, just just some minimal electric guitar and a deep wash of strings and disorted vocals to fill in the background. It plays as more of an interlude than a fully realized song, and I’m not sure that Jimi’s low-pitched vocals are the best match for this sort of style, but it’s intriguing all the same. (I have to ask, when considering the song’s title, whether the birds fly backwards at the speed of sound. Not that this sounds like Coldplay at all. I’m just sayin’.)
Well, I’ve been enjoying Kingdom of Rust a good deal so far, but this is the moment where the band goes over the top and turns out a song that is pure genius. The kicker? It’s a sappy love song. These sorts of things are normally where a record like this lays off on the heavier sounds and goes for a breather – and sure, this one’s got the prominent strum of an acoustic guitar, but the band’s rhythm section is back, creating an intoxicating whirlpool of sound punctuated by the cry of an electric guitar which plays the role of siren, beckoning us into the churning depths. It’s a song about a lover who apparently works some form of black magic, so hopeless is Jimi’s lack of ability to think about anything but her. I love the way that this song mixes the sweet and the sinister – losing one’s mind to a “dark magic mirror” has never sounded so enticing. There’s even a wonderfully “dirty” guitar solo near the end just to remind you that Doves don’t feel quite right doing romance without a little bit of grit thrown in for good measure. This will be a future single, if there’s any justice in the world.
Bring out the disco ball! The twins (Jez and Andy Williams) follow up Jimi’s darkly sinister love offering with a song that mines similar themes, while existing a world away on a musical level. It’s a futuristic send-up of disco/funk, and against all odds for a band you might normally tag as “britpop”, it works frighteningly well. The boys were clearly having fun with a badass bass riff, most likely just jamming on it in the studio and seeing what came out of it, when they concocted this one. Andy’s drums are delightfully sassy, making liberal use of the hi-hat (I suspect this is just to make me look like a fool when my wife catches me “singing” along to the drums – you didn’t think it was possible to sing along to drums, did you?), and in addition to supporting Jimi’s wicked cool bass with the occasional guitar lick that pops out to add an exclamation point, Jez is singing lead, bringing the song into full-on 70’s mode with the careening melody of the chorus. All of this is to support a description of an addictive love, as if Jez has been drawn in by the same “dark spell” that captivated Jimi in the previous song. Whoever she is, she must be pretty unforgettable if she managed to inspire two back-to-back songs that are this awesome. “Compulsion” rates as my favorite track on the record, despite sounding nothing like the rest of the album.
10. House of Mirrors
Completing a hat-trick of kickass songs is this stomping rocker, giving us another round of aggressive percussion and thrillingly muddy guitars to serve as the backdrop for a paranoid tale of a trip through that old favorite carnival attraction that traps you in a maze with your own twisted reflection constantly getting in the way. The production is appropriately thick and hazy here, with the reverb set to its muddiest level possible and an indelible melody emerging from the muck against all odds. It’s haunting, but once again, it’s so exuberantly catchy that I can’t resist it. Jimi’s enunciation could probably use a little help in a few spots here, especially when he cries, “This chill is comin’ way may”, and it sounds to me like he’s saying, “The sh*t is coming my way” instead. (On the upside, at least the sh*t is directed at the artist for a change – I’m used to it hitting me, the fan.)
The closing track is one of the few that I’ve had a hard time warming up to – not because it’s drenched in haze or a bit too experimental for my liking or for any other “difficult artist” sort of reason, but more because it seems a bit too easy given how the band has upped the musical ante with the tracks that preceded it. The slow, mid-tempo climb is a nice way to take us up out of the haze and finally see the blue sky above the rusty, poilluted atmosphere that most of the album dwells in. But let’s be honest, we’re back in Coldplay territory on this one, especially with the incredibly vague metaphors about “the ground beneath and the earth that we walk on” and how “somebody’s giving in but I’m not” and so forth. (Didn’t Coldplay write like four songs about not keeping their feet on the ground, or is that just me?) I appreciate the optimism, but this one tries a little too hard to be universal, making it mostly interchangeable with the work of several leaders and followers of the whole Britpop craze.
But hey, if the worst criticism of Doves that I can make is that they occasionally stoop to the more obvious approach of a few contemporaries that they’ve likely been doing this longer than, it isn’t really that big of a deal. Doves are every bit as deserving of exposure and a wide fanbase as more massively popular acts like Coldplay, and while it seems the general public is a little too quick to say “X is like Y” and not give an intriguing band like this a chance to be heard on their own terms, Kingdom of Rust might walk the line between art and accessibility well enough to snag some of that much-deserved attention. It got my attention when I had previously never heard of ’em, anyway. I guess every little bit helps.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Kingdom of Rust $1
The Outsiders $1.50
Winter Hill $1
The Greatest Denier $1.50
Birds Flew Backwards $.50
House of Mirrors $1.50
Jimi Goodwin: Lead vocals, bass, guitar, drums
Jez Williams: Guitar, vocals
Andy Williams: Drums, vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.