For how long they’ve been around, it’s certainly surprising that Leeds quartet Marsicans are just now getting around to releasing their debut album. They’ve been on the go for close to a decade already, with the current incarnation of the band debuting with the Chivalry EP in 2014 – then, as now, James Newbigging (lead vocals/guitar), Oli Jameson (lead guitar/vocals), Rob Brander (bass/keys/vocals) and Matthew McHale (drums/vocals). Biding their time, they released an album’s worth of material over singles and two EPs (the other being 2016’s Absence) before the question of that all-important first full-length was even raised – and absolutely none of it made the cut for it.
It’s a testament to their self-belief that Ursa Major is comprised of entirely new material. Electing not to include any older fan favourites may puzzle some, but this record represents their next phase, and it’s presented as such: a fresh start for a band drawing a line under their past work. Their gutsy, shapeshifting indie-pop sound is present and accounted for, but their debut album indicates that it’s undergone significant growth. Urgency and effervescence are the band’s prominent traits, typified by the likes of ‘Summery in Angus’ and powerful penultimate track ‘Leave Me Outside’. They’ve been building up steam, and it’s not hard to hear why on their debut album – its title a knowing nod to both their moniker (namechecking the Marsican brown bear) and the fact it’s their first big statement as a band. A bold and multifaceted listen, it kicks the door down – after a brief introduction – with the surging ‘Juliet’, which combines lyrics that speak of anxiety and overthinking with musical jubilance.
That sort of contrast is prevalent throughout the record – it’s a common juxtaposition but an effective one nonetheless; even at its most uplifting, there’s a sense of unease. Newbigging’s way with a lyric is brought into the spotlight on ‘Dr. Jekyll’, which navigates alcohol consumption leading to a changed, exaggerated personality; while ‘These Days’ tackles ill mental health and the topic of coping mechanisms, effortlessly capturing the prevailing societal mood with its chorus of “I don’t wanna go outside most of the time, these days.” ‘Can I Stay Here Forever (pt. II),’ meanwhile, deals with political and personal division, swept along by the rhythm section of Brander and McHale before bursting into life for its chorus, itself outdone by the brief instrumental coda that caps the song off with a flourish. (Before you ask, pt. I remains unreleased despite appearances in live sets.)
They may be armed with more hooks than a tackle shop, but the band crucially know when to rein in their exuberance and show off their softer side. ‘Evie’ contains one of the album’s most affecting sets of lyrics, followed by an emotional gut-check in the form of ‘Someone Else’s Touch’ (the melody of which, sharp-eared listeners will note, is foreshadowed on the aforementioned brief introduction) – the record’s heartbreaking centrepiece that will surely resonate in a live setting once the band are able to take this new set of songs on the road.
Mixing introspective lyricism with the bombast and grandeur they’ve long been capable of, Ursa Major delivers on the band’s promise after a gestation period that seemed unbearable – taking their time en route to their debut album has allowed the quartet to get a handle on themselves and their sound, while simultaneously posing questions as to where they could go from here: a wide-ranging reintroduction that acts as a soft reset, embracing immediacy while also displaying some serious teeth. Their claws are out, and Marsicans are about to make a major impact.