Ah the legendary curse of the sophomore record can prove to be an insurmountable challenge for any band. It can be especially daunting when your debut release takes you from playing the UK dive bar circuit to major support slots for the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Ride, Suede, Jesus and the Mary Chain and Franz Ferdinand. But that is exactly where the band Eagulls finds themselves.
It is undoubtedly an enviable position many bands would love to find themselves in, but it is also a position fraught with all the dangers of a highwire act sans the safety net. The new release “Ullages”, an anagram of the band name, arrives in the usual places on May 13th and follows their 2014 eponymous debut. “Ullages” is what resulted after the band took a breathe and reflected on their explosive ascent up the record industry ladder. “Ullages” also represents a self righting of the incorrect impression given with the debut that they were a band of well connected record industry rowdy punks. This release attempts to present a band who are in it for the long haul and who want to document the ups and downs of life in a more dynamic and meaningful way.
The band was formed in 2010 with members George Mitchell providing vocals, Henry Ruddell on drums, Mark Goldsworthy and Liam Matthews on guitars, and Tom Kelly on bass. The band has received significant support from NME, The Guardian, Stereogum and Pitchfork; along with support from BBC 6 especially Steve Lamacq who named them his New Favorite Band in 2013. They have appeared on With Jools Holland and Late Night with David Letterman and played major gigs like Coachella, Latitude, Field Day and the Reading Leeds Festival.
“Ullages” was recorded at Nave Studios, a converted Catholic Church located in the band’s hometown of Leeds. “Ullages” was produced by Matt Peel and mixed by Craig Silvey of Portishead, Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys and Frightened Rabbit fame. Peel’s goal was to move the band out of their comfort zone and guide the band in recording another record as successful as the debut but in an altogether different way. Throughout the whole pressure laden process the members of the band have been able to maintain their tight friendships. The hype from the debut made them circle the wagons to protect themselves from the usual problems that can rip a young band apart.
“Ullages” captures a band producing an engaging distillation of the shimmering opulence of Cocteau Twins and the melancholy and majesty of The Cure during their most acclaimed “Pornography to Disintegration” era. The album moves away from some of the speedy intensity and heady shoe-gaze fuzz of the debut replacing it with more texture and some splendidly insightful lyrics. The first thing that jumps out at the listener is the overarching sonic influence of the Cure on the entire album. The comparisons are unavoidable. It is like Eagulls are trying to single-handily revive Goth Rock circa 1980, not that that is a bad thing.
The grandeur filled “Heads or Tails” opens with a scintillating atmospheric feeling. George Mitchell is a doppelgänger for Robert Smith vocally and the similarity is at times breathtaking. The vocals are aptly accompanied by a slab of brooding shoegazery. The drum and bass drive the song along. The lyrics are a pessimistic take on chance and fate, “We are all thrown into the world… we never know what our outcome involves.” The song suggests we require a way to gain control on the swirling miasma that is life. We attempt to acquire this control through superstition and ritual, “fingers crossed as we’re driving blind…paper, rock, scissors thrown lets take a stab in the dark tonight.” It is a classic Goth infused song that is a harbinger for what follows on the release.
“Euphoria” is equal parts seductive, lugubrious, and ethereal. There is a bright chiming guitar and that driving bass that is almost like a lead guitar. Again listeners will be struck by how easily this song could fit on The Cure’s “Pornography”. It is another song that demands your attention and draws you further into the release. “My Life on Rewind” features a droning guitar, a rumbling bass and vaulted atmospherics. There is a sprinkling of The Smiths’ guitar. It is a stark dark song; a brooding rumination examining all of the regrets of life that flash past with the pleading thought, “If I could only press rewind.” For those who like their music dark this is the equivalent of a Starbuck’s Sumatra Espresso.
The instrumental “Heartstrings” is the prelude to “Velvet”. This distorted guitar selection is both trippy and surreal. The track perfectly captures the reverb of the converted Catholic Church studio it was recorded in as it creates an infinite feeling of grandeur and majesty. The selection is a perfect set up for “Velvet”. That track has stunning strings throughout; again there is a cathedral aura inhabiting the sonics. In the lyrics Cupid has fallen to the ground and the question becomes is he heaven sent or a fallen angel bent on destruction. It seems the latter, as he is described as “He cuts off the path to our hearts to watch us stay alone, builds an ark to watch us sink.” It becomes apparent this fellow does not have our best interests at heart, “He has one string left to play on his harp his own on-going joke.” This song has a mesmerizing draw that is hard to shake.
“Psalms” is a mesmerizing track. The drum and bass combo with the lush guitar is enticing. It is a selection that ponders the relentless gray of life, dwelling on the monotony that we all go through, likened to the grey concrete slabs in the drive. The highlight of the track is Mitchell’s vocals that are well served by the accompaniment. ‘Blume” feels brighter and up-tempo and is the most approachable song on the release with its definite rock feel. The theme however is more in keeping with the overall arc of the release. The idea being the desire to resurrect a dead relationship which is described as trying to reviving dead roses, “Now I want to see dead roses bloom…dead roses I know it is over, dead roses I can picture you.”
The PIL influenced “Skipping” is the stand-out track of the release. It is a perfect marriage of driving drums and throbbing bass married to an utterly depressing and dark lyric. It is engaging gothic goodness, “If I am guilty then you should sever my head… I am a victim of monotony, followed later by “all I ever wanted was an answer…life is like a broken record skipping.” The buzzkill guitar delivers the final underlying menace that makes for a fantastic track. The thunderous drums and sledgehammer bass deliver up the song “Lemontrees” which has some weighty political themes. This song was the pre release single and introduces some fetching pop elements, all with that undercurrent of dark foreboding riding underneath. Here conformity is taken to task as the track proposes that tradition and ritual suck us into mindless agreement, “we share a nations’ consciousness and just drown our thoughts underneath the lemon trees to sleep.” It is a song with a visceral impact that will not let go and makes a definite impression.
The feeling of menace continues on “Aisles”. This song presents some pretty surreal and threatening images. These images all play out over martial drums and initially sparkling firework guitars that shape-shift into a droning atmosphere of doom. Listen to this one with the lights on. “White Lie Lullabies” has a more ethereal and dreamy sound but is just as intense. The synths and keyboards weave a cobweb that captures the listener. The song expounds on the lies we tell and how we rationalize those lie to ourselves. The music builds to a crescendo that breaking in amazing fashion bringing an end to the release.
At the end of the album I had to ponder if I had just listened to one of the best releases I have heard in quite awhile or a totally derivative release of early Cure inspired music. In the end I came down on the first impression. Where Eagulls departs from being a carbon copy of The Cure is in their more direct and forthright everyday inspiration in their lyrics. Where the Cure has more abstract and poetic lyrical imagery, the content of Eagulls lyrics is based in more of a “in the moment” reality. These lyrics alone justify a listen and they are beautifully married to a familiar but also spectacular accompaniment. “Ullages” in many ways mirrors all the angst and dread of our current times, personally, politically and socially.
Eagulls have a stellar release on their hands, and my hope is that the attention the band drew with their debut can open the door for this more demanding release. “Ullages” should also dismiss any concerns about the band being another well oiled major label creation founded on hype. Hype does not create a vehicle this arresting and insistent. Each listen reveals another excellent lyric. If there is any fairness in the world Eagulls with “Ullages” will kick the term “Sophomore Slump” in its nether regions.