In 1994 Echobelly debuted on the music scene creating a positive buzz with their combination of Blondie and The Smiths stylings. Like many bands from the era they experienced highs and lows in their career and then made a decision to take a hiatus shortly after the turn of the century. Rather than go extinct the band has been working under the radar for a number of years. At the beginning of this year Echobelly announced they would be releasing “Anarchy and Alchemy” the follow up to their 2004 album “Gravity Pulls”. The release is trademark Echobelly loaded with engaging guitar riffs and Sonya Madan’s alluring vocals all delivering a stellar reboot of the band.
Vocalist Sonya Madan and guitarist Glenn Johansson have always been the nexus of the band as a number of members rotated in and out of group. They met in 1993 in London and soon formed Echobelly. They would sign with the Epic label on the strength of their EP ”Bellyache”. In 1994 their debut ‘Everyone’s Got One” caught the public’s attention with the single “Insomniac” which pushed the debut to #8 on the UK album charts. 1995 would see the release of “On” which displayed Madan lyrical examination of the seamy world of prostitution and homelessness. “On” would produce three top 30 singles. Fortunes would turn for Echobelly in 1996 with both legal and health problems plaguing the band.
After the release of their third album “Lystra” in 1997 the band would take a four year hiatus. They would regroup in 2001 for the release of “People are Expensive” continuing on till 2004’s “Gravity Pulls”. After that release Madan and Johansson would again put the band on hiatus while toying with the creation of a new musical entity Calm of Zero. In 2009 there was significant confusion over whether Echobelly has finally succumbed or if Calm of Zero was simply a side project for the two founding members. There were indications that there was an album ready for release under the Calm of Zero moniker, but it did not come to fruition. Following the confusion and as a kind of litmus test measuring the demand for the band; Echobelly went out on tour. Selling out the London Scala in 2015 gave them the confidence that they needed to continue. Eventually Madan and Johansson would decide to reenter the studio to record “Anarchy and Alchemy”.
“Anarchy and Alchemy” was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with producer Ian Grimble. The recording was financed with a Pledge Music campaign. Madan and Johansson reformulated the band with prior collaborator Oliver Kiernan on bass and Ash Hall as their new drummer completing the quartet. What resulted from their work was an album that is uniquely Echobelly, balancing the tensions of our current time with the possibilities of the human spirit. It hails resiliency in the face of relentless opposition aptly reflecting the journey the band has taken over the years.
“Anarchy and Alchemy” begins with the clever “Hey, Hey, Hey”. This song reminds me a lot of The Decemberists. The folk primitive beat married to that Bob Mould shuttery guitar is a real hook. The album continues to build on its rock strengths with “Firefly” which emanates an insistent stomp rock beat. Madan is brilliant as she weaves a spell with her bewitching and swirling vocal which I wish there had been more of on the release. My favorite song on the album is the title track, “Anarchy and Alchemy” which is a cunning blend of smoky jazz mixed with Johansson’s sharp crystalline guitar. This is the high point of the record and displays the true wheelhouse of the band’s skills. This styling is clearly Madan’s vocal oeuvre and where she really impresses. Also of note is “Faces in the Mirror” which harkens to a Dusty Springfield/60’Brit revival. It is beautifully done and a song well suited again to Madan’s vocal abilities. The grower of the album is “If the Dogs Don’t Get You My Sister Will”.
It has a fantastic guitar opener and I love the ironic title, it becomes more alluring with each listen. Overall the tracks are likable, however after the first three songs which are all solid tracks there was something that kept bugging me. It took till “Molotov” to figure it out. Here it is, both Madan and Johansson have excellent musical skills, but there are times when Madan’s vocals do not seem to mesh entirely with the accompaniment. This is especially noticeable on the later rock tracks. In particular on “Molotov” I wanted something harder for this song; the vocals were too mild and reserved for weighty impact of the track. Madan’s vocals shine on the slower tempo songs. On the faster tempo selections I found I had this desire to see her more fully commit to the emotional core of the songs and that the element of emotional release was missing at times. It is not that this makes the album unlistenable but takes something away from the offering keeping it from being as brilliant as its potential.
“Anarchy and Alchemy” is a noteworthy return for Echobelly. There is never a dull moment throughout and its pacing is excellent. There is a little disappointment in the sometimes lack of connection between the emotional impact of the accompaniment and the vocals. Overall the release is a strong effort. The album is a sophisticated and accomplished outing informed by two performers who know the path they have trod and where they have been and where they want to go. If Madan decides to really let go vocally I think exceptional things could transpire in the future. Echobelly has all the weapons in their arsenal to make alchemy occur.