Graded on a Curve: Future of the Left, The Plot Against Common Sense

After two LPs featuring strong songs and the virtue of sonic consistency, the Welsh unit Future of the Left deliver a new album of peaks and valleys brought on by the admirable desire for growth. If The Plot Against Common Sense, which sees vinyl release on July 17th, is the least successful of their recordings thus far, it also presents a band disinterested in resting on their laurels.

Back around the start of this once fresh millennium Mclusky (or if you prefer, mclusky) hit the public consciousness with truly impressive intensity. The band exploded out of the gate with such well calibrated and noisy post-hardcore fury that after hearing a few of their tracks a handful of times I faultily assumed their music was released under the aegis of a racket-loving American label like Touch and Go.

Indeed, they would’ve fit right into the agenda of Corey Rusk’s enterprise, particularly in the years ’89 to ’94 or thereabouts. Huge yet agile and oozing pissed-off intelligence, they really felt like a band reared in Chicago or the Twin Cities or even deep in the bowels of Texas. But no, they were from Cardiff, Wales and had been signed up by the tastemakers at the rather excellent Too Pure imprint, home of PJ Harvey and Stereolab but also such lesser known worthies as Moonshake, Th’ Faith Healers, Pram, and Scout Niblett.

It was a roster in which Mclusky stood out while fitting in very well. And once acquainted with their status as Brits the band came into sharp, vivid focus. Anybody desiring a one album primer in what made them such a big deal is advised to check out the band’s superb second album Do Dallas, their most highly regarded record mainly because it comes hurdling out of the speakers like a radioactive cannonball, opener “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” finding singer/guitarist Andrew “Falco” Falkous swaggering and seething like a fascinating, foulmouthed lunatic. And from that immediate highpoint Do Dallas manages to easily avoid letdown, a notable feat as a decade has elapsed since its release.

Mclusky recorded three LPs and a slew of singles and stray cuts (collected on the limited 3-disc set Mcluskyism) before calling it a day in a manner not unlike numerous bands; two members stopped getting along. Considering that Falkous had become sorta notorious as an acerbic wit and merciless heckler destroyer, it’s not a shocker that differences in personality helped end Mclusky’s reign.

Around five years ago Falkous bounced back with the unit Future of the Left, featuring his talents in consort with ex-Mclusky drummer Jack Egglestone and Kelson Mathias of the Welsh band Jarcrew. Curses was the debut album and it immediately presented a new wrinkle. While not dismissive of the noisy post-HC that informed Mclusky, Future of the left integrated a Roland synthesizer into the equation and introduced songwriting and vocal developments (perhaps aptly described as theatrical) that proposed this new entity as being just as derived from the tougher side of post-punk as it was from the spittle-spraying shrapnel delivered by the late-‘80s Touch and Go/Homestead/Blast First axis.

If Curses delineated this difference, especially on the highly surprising piano and vocals of closing track “The Contrarian,” ‘09’s Travels With Myself and Another drove it home nicely, the kind of record that made new fans out of listeners possibly dismissive of Falkous’s previous work, maybe because they considered it exactly the kind of unsubtle din that, if once a necessity in the execution of Ripping it Up and Starting Again, had long outstayed its welcome, becoming trite long before Mclusky strapped on the gear and belted out their batch of fine clamor.

But Travels With Myself and Another managed to sacrifice nothing in the department of loud pummel. The record actually blended the heaviness of Falkous’s previous work with those post-punk and at times almost new wave-like elements so well that Future of the Left at moments mildly conjured a cross between Mclusky and ‘90s synth-noisesters Six Finger Satellite (the group that helped spawn both James LCD Soundsystem Murphy and DFA-recording artists The Juan MacLean). And I stress the mild in the previous sentence; the connection with that Providence-based band is mainly traceable through Future of the Left’s persistent nods to post-hardcore, said form playing a big part in Six Finger Satellite’s sensibility along with clearly being part of Falkous’s DNA.

For it shows up in spades on The Plot Against Common Sense, the latest release for the band and the first for the label Xtra Mile. And it appears right from the opening cut, which is getting to be sort of a standard move, though by no means a bad one for making a powerful first impression. “Sheena is a T-shirt Salesman” thunders and throttles and is over in just a smidge over two minutes; Falkous can still throw down a scorching slab of snide density with the best of them, just the type of brief molten junk that took up the A-sides of countless 7-inch records in the ’85-’95 period.

It’s a great way to start the album, but it quickly detours into the herky-jerky rumble of “Failed Olympic Bid,” not a bad song in itself, but a signifier that The Plot Against Common Sense is going to push farther into the sound that’s differentiated Future of the Left than ever before, and a tip off to an admirable exploration that leads to unfortunately uneven results.

“Beneath the Waves and Ocean” is a case in point, opening with the kind of bass line that immediately upon hearing will commence a bunch of Jesus Lizard fans to drooling like a pack of Pavlovian pooches. And up to around the 2:30 mark the song hits a solid anthemic groove, but then Falkous chooses to explore a vocal chant that’s just a mite too obvious, derailing much of the track’s momentum.

“Cosmo’s Ladder” rebounds nicely, achieving an angular almost funk and featuring keyboards/synths that resonate like an amplified digital watch. This is a sound I can thoroughly get behind. And “City of Exploded Children” might be the album’s highlight, beginning with more lumberjack-style bass work, a sweetly needling guitar motif and some of the aforementioned theatrical vocalizing. It’s a singing style that in Future of the Left’s context leads me to think it would appeal to fans of both John Lydon and Jello Biafra, though I haven’t utilized any newfangled poling apparatus to substantiate this hypothesis.

“Goals in Slow Motion” follows a path of relatively underwhelming melodic normalcy to a fine wrap-up in its last twenty-five seconds, specifically a nicely catchy and wordy up-spurt, and as such serves as a reminder that in pop and rock songs the best moments are often just that; bits seemingly isolated from the rest of the tune’s connective tissue. It’s certainly preferable for these moments to happen at the end rather than at the start of songs, but there is also no denying the wait whilst getting there.

And the unevenness continues; “Camp Cappuccino” lands with a splat, but “Polymers Are Forever” succeeds largely on the sheer chutzpah of Falkous’s vocal, the woozy synthesizer/keyboard washes that accompany it, and a really dicey last segment which flirts with a sound reminiscent of EMF/Jesus Jones (I am crapping you negative) that actually manages to not stink up the room. But maybe I just like the weird way Falkous says the word polymers.

“Robocop 4 – Fuck Off Robocop,” a screed directed at Hollywood blockbusters and sequel-itis, is maybe the one track that slips into self-righteous by overstating the anger/disgust and by taking aim at targets far too easy; I don’t like Michael Bay either but raking him over the coals as is done here smacks of fish in a barrel, though I’ll safely assume that Falkous’s retort would be something like: “that’s the point.”

As a song however, the second half works much better than the first, the beginning coming off like mere Locust-lite. The later hunk features Falkous rap-ranting his disdain for Hollywood’s lack of artistic integrity, and as he lays into such names as Johnny Depp and Billy Corgan, he’s gotta realize not everyone’s gonna be happy with his carpet calling, so I’ll give him some extra credit for that.

From there “Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots” rolls along strongly enough, “I Am the Least of Your Problems” returns to the punk-drenched power-booting of the opener and with fine results, “A Guide to Men” gives me an unshakable impression of those bland Gang of Four-influenced bands that proliferated last decade, “Anchor” uses a not dissimilar bedrock as that of “Guide to Men” but with much better results, “Rubber Animals” whips up a nice heavy new wave chug with synthetic keyboard horn vamps, and closer “Notes on Achieving Orbit” hauls out another of those big post-HC bass figures and one of the records’ best guitar lines to end things on a positive note.

So, uneven yes, and uneven records have been on the scene for a long time. This lack of consistency will mean less to those jumping around digitally than to those hearing The Plot For Common Sense’s through the vinyl edition, where skipping forward or back is certainly possible but not at all preferable.

In summation, this LP is the least successful Future of the Left release, but its lesser status comes as the result of ambition, its peaks in quality making for an intriguing listen, one that fans of Mclusky and the previous FotL albums should investigate if they haven’t already. Adjustments will need to be made, but it shouldn’t be that difficult for Falkous to right the ship. Staying away from the multiplex when the next Michael Bay blockbuster torments screens might be a good course of action.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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