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MANIC STREET PREACHERS Resistance Is Futile gets 6.5/10

Manic Street Preachers
Resistance Is Futile
Columbia/Sony

6.5/10

There are some Manic Street Preacher’s fans who think that 1994’s The Holy Bible is one of the greatest records a band has ever put together. I am in this camp, however I’m not one of those Manics fans who compares their third album from 1994 incessantly to their subsequent 10 studio albums. That said, I’m about to do that a little bit.

The Holy Bible is as dark, compact and visceral as popular music gets. Then, following the disappearance of bandmate and lifetime friend Richey Edwards the band responded with 1996’s Everything Must Go, which replaced post rock and dense layered lyrics with more poetic words backed by a Spectoresque wall of sound. This is all a case in point, that the Manics are a band that have never stood in the same place for too long.

Resistance Is Futile is their first release since 2014’s Futurology (not my favourite) not counting a somewhat baffling and completely unnecessary 10 year reissue of the popular but overstated Send Away The Tigers.

The cover of Resistance Is Futile, their 13th studio album, tells a story in a pithy and concise way. It offers us a photograph by Austrian photographer Baron Franz von Stillfried-Ratenicz of a Samuri Warrior taken in 1881. The photograph works in a couple of ways (stay with me), firstly Franz was working in Japan in the 1870s and 80s at the same time as his brother Raimund, which to this day this still causes some issue for art historians, much like the Manics’ back catalogue, something the band is acutely aware of. This issue of “which Manics are you talking about?” is reflected in the passingly complicated relationship that Australian audiences have with the band. Old fans tend to not fully embrace their albums post 2000 because they aren’t like their earlier albums, and people who didn’t like their earlier albums don’t embrace their post 2000 albums because… well… they don’t like their old stuff.

The photograph also pays tribute to one of the last Samurai, a Japanese military order whose prominence in Japan began to dwindle as Emperor Meiji abandoned the Samurai for a more traditional Western style military. You can see it in the eyes of the photograph’s subject, here is a proud man who realises the age of the gun is approaching and his redundancy along with it. Here is a man, who represents a tradition, who in turn represents a band, who in turn represents a musical history, who still exists despite knowing that all the conditions of his irrelevance are established and thriving.

Again, the parallels are not lost on the band who after 13 studio albums have failed to disappear without a whimper: 11 of their 13 studio albums have reached the top 10 in the UK (this album entered the UK charts at #2). The story here in Australia is different, only three of their albums have charted at all and the last of those was 2001’s Know Your Enemy, so it comes as no surprise that this album will go unnoticed here and any mention of it will be met with the response “are they still around?”.

But the brass tacks are this: the band that promised to sell 20 million copies of their debut and spilt in 1992 have outlasted their contemporaries and maintained a complex relationship with audiences and critics along the way. Like the Samurai on the cover, the band is reflexive on their position in society and culture, and whilst they realise they will never be what they were, they have no intention to change.

From the outset, the dismissive and easy review of Resistance Is Futile is that here we have 12 songs that sound like Everything Must Go b-sides. There is melody, and strings and serious subject matter that is treated with unironic exultation.

It begins with People Give In, a coverall for current day malaise: “People get happy / People get lost / People cave inwards / People lose trust”, it’s a fragile verse pulled together by a triumphant chorus “There is no theory of everything / no immaculate conception, no crime to forgive”. Only one track in the strength (or weakness, depending on how to see it) is clear, that this album is dealing with weighty ideas in a more straightforward and direct way than the band has before.

The album’s second track, and notionally their first single (as much as singles exist these days) International Blue has trademark Manics’ moments, “Here’s my gift to you / a soundtrack to the void” and sits nicely alongside Distant Colours, “A Cold War for the mind / My distant colours still bleeding / A broken promise for the soul / Never loving, never healing”. Both sit a melodic sense of calm and beauty against fundamentally existential position.

Dylan and Caitlin brings some trademark tender despair in the form of a musically euphoric duet that explores the dysfunctional relationship of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wife and eventual author Caitlin Thomas. Whilst lyrically the song is dark (“The blank page awaits / Love has deserted and made / A fool and a drunk out of me / My wishes no longer may breathe”) the music and melody fool you into thinking you’re singing along to a timeless love ballad. It wouldn’t be out of place at a wedding except for the fact that it’s about a dysfunctional marriage… which I guess makes it appropriate for a wedding. The track also sees the band enlist the vocals of Welsh singer and multi-instrumentalist The Anchoress (as they have done in the past with Cate Le Bon, Georgia Ruth et al).

The traditional Manics’ politics are still there in Liverpool Revisted which covers the aftermath and lengthy legal disputes of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster whilst Sequels Of Forgotten Wars grapples with our loose grip on history (“No medication left to take / Just defeat and the bitterest of tastes / A blue screen for a drama whore / The sequels of forgotten wars”). Meanwhile Broken Algorithms is concerned with the dangers posed by digital media companies, an issue that has been more predominant in the press since the album was in the can.

In many ways the album is front loaded in regard to “hits”, but backhanded with songs that connect. There is almost a clear A-side and B-side of the album. This is in keeping with most Manic Street Preachers albums, the first half tends to give way to a more passive, melancholic second half.

In Eternity is a bittersweet (but more sweet than bitter) tribute to the late David Bowie (“Close the curtains in LA / Open them up on a Berlin Day / Self-made and self-realised / Always ready to disguise”). Musically it is synth heavy and shows remnants of 2014’s Futurology, which in itself gives more than a nod to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger).

Hold Me Like A Heaven was the last track written and recorded for the album and is probably the standout. On first listen it scans like a standard love song, but those who have followed the band know their defiance against writing such a song, instead this explores a sense of Lacanian lack (“Tattered manifestos litter the mind / Diplomatic plans ravaged by time / It never really was the truth or lies / We just gave up and said our goodbyes”). Again the sense of a band grappling with their own mortality and context settles to the surface.

Overall Resistance Is Futile is one of the band’s more consistent albums and whilst it lacks any Manics’ classics it gently finds its place after a couple of listens. The melancholy is still there, but the band seems at ease with it, even enjoying it. This is not another attempt to change the world through a dozen or so songs, that manifesto got left in the street some time in the late 90s. This is an album by a band that is fully aware that the world is fucked, that life is kind of fucked, that things are only going to get fuckeder, but there is a little beauty scribbled in the margins.

JAMES HALL

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