Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Wille & The Bandits - When The World Stood Still

“Strange days have found us,’ sang Jim Morrison. “Strange days have tracked us down.”  You’re not kidding, Jimmy boy.
Some artists have responded to the strangeness of the last few years by girding their loins and creating music with uplift in mind, and that’s cool.  Wille Edwards and his Bandits, on the other hand, have chosen to confront the weirdness in its various forms – not just the pandemic, but political and economic turmoil, social divisiveness, climate change, and the impact on us as individuals.
"Bandits at 12 o'clock!"
Pic by Laurence Harvey
This is a tall order.  But When The World Stood Still lives up to the challenge.  Perhaps, having tackled themes like these on previous albums, Edwards has made himself ready for just this moment.
It’s not an easy album to peg though.  The opener ‘Caught In The Middle’ may kick off with a thudding hard rock riff, but it then flits through rapped vocals over piano, and into a mellow pre-chorus in which Edwards croons that “love is a better way”, before revving up into a chorus on which his voice becomes aching and angst-ridden.  And that tension between crashing chords and delicate segments reflects lyrics that balance aspiration and reality.
There are moments across the album that put me in mind of Led Zeppelin.  There’s the quasi-collapse à la ‘Dazed And Confused’ of the hard-hitting ‘I’m Alive’, with its funky groove melding into a semi-Arabic guitar passage, and reverb-induced spiralling vocal.  And there’s the juddering riff that recalls ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ in the bridge of the bright and breezy ‘Daylight’, in which Edwards sings of his daughter that “Your smile always lights the way”.  But in truth WATB don’t sound much like Zeppelin, even if they share a similar spirit of musical adventure.  And if Wille Edwards’ often teeth-gritted vocalising doesn’t resemble the blues-wailing or mercury-like liquid glisten of Robert Plant’s singing modes there’s still, I think, a desire to treat his voice as another instrument to be bent into the mix - and now and then there’s an off-kilter vibe that’s evocative of latter-day Plant too.
For me the best moments are in quieter songs like the title track, and the closing ‘Solid Ground’ (video is of a single edit).  The soulful ‘When The World Stood Still’ is a delicious, reflective song, opening with a gentle vocal over swirling organ and delicate piano from Matthew Gallagher, building towards a real “lighters aloft’ hook on the chorus, as our Wille sings of “sunshine, moonlight, sacrifice”.  ‘Solid Ground’ has an air of ‘Albatross’-mode Peter Green in the tone and pacing of its guitar parts,
Chief Bandito Wille Edwards gets angsty!
over tinkling piano notes and church-like strokes of organ, while Edwards sings yearningly that in an increasingly climate-challenged world “I want my children walking on solid ground”.  He then produces a quite beautiful guitar solo, over an anchoring bass motif from Harry Mackaill, en route to a gorgeous outro of gentle strumming, piano and organ fluttering in and out, and vocal whispering.
Those two tracks are worth the ticket on their own, but the epic, dynamic ‘Without You’ isn’t far behind.  It’s ultra-subdued, ghostly intro suggests a weary wanderer lost in a darkened forest – who then trips over roots and blunders against trees trunks.  Edwards’ keening, haunted vocal suggests alienation and loss even as he sings “You are someone to lean on”, before they ramp up the mood with spooky, weeping lap steel guitar, interpolated with lightning forks of power.  Meanwhile 'Will We Ever' is the bluesiest tune on offer, with Edwards' lap steel riffing over slithering organ from Gallagher, and a gossamer-light Dobro solo over behind-the-beat drums.
My one quibble would be that the more upbeat tracks rarely achieve the focus that was evident on the last Bandits album, Paths.  The semi-funky ‘Good Stuff’ lives up to its title, with a thumping backbeat, and a toe-tapping chorus with uplifting “woah-oh, oh-oh” backing vocals, and the following ‘In This Together’ recovers from abrupt verses as tyro drummer Tom Gilkes drives it along into its punchy chorus.  But I’d have liked just one unquenchably anthemic tune to add a little momentum.
How good is When The World Stood Still?  I can’t really say.  I’ve listened to it several times now, and I’m still getting to grips with it.  What I can say is that’s an absorbing hour of imaginative music that transcends easy labels – and on that basis alone it deserves your attention.
When The World Stood Still is released on 28 January on Fat Toad Records, and is available to pre-order here.

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