If I was to venture that 2009's best punk record (that's punk with a small "p" by the way, the version that comes without the safety pins, Mohawks, and leather jackets) had been made by a Welsh trio, I'm sure you'd all know the band I'm talking about. After all, the Manic Street Preachers have already reached the twin critical peaks of unimpeachable integrity and total artistic freedom, all the while managing to stay commercially viable. Their last album Journal For Plague Lovers – billed as the sequel to 1994's coruscating The Holy Bible and featuring Richie Edwards as a beyond-the-grave muse – was bathed in the kind of hosannahs normally reserved for Radiohead and R.E.M.
So, the band I'm referring to are a group made up of auto radicals, full of vigour, seeping credibility from every pore and undoubtedly form a barometer of our consciences. That band however are not the Manic Street Preachers. Instead, I give you… Future Of The Left. Huh? I hear you say. A little introductory bio then…
Formed after the violent combustions of the more orthodox hardcore Cardiff outfits Mclusky and Jarcrew, the trio of Andy Falkous, drummer Jack Egglestone, and splendidly named bass player Kelson Matthias debuted promisingly in 2007 with the sardonic amphetamine grind of Curses. But now with Travels With Myself And Another they've managed to harness the quiet rage and bitterness of their first record, whilst adding in new layers of fractured melody. The result is a near masterpiece.
Falkous and company don't see eye to eye with anybody — they conjure up new metaphors from non-sequiturs and failed political manifestos, discombobulated cut-ups Bukowski would've applauded. Proof of their ability to render these taboos into conversation can be found on "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You", a blacker than pitch comedy of devil worship etiquette. Wicked, Falkous' character sketch embodies what the band are seemingly all about, confronting their audience at every level — verbal, intellectual, and spiritual. The subject here is conflicted by his desire to get with Mephistopheles, but his babysitter's lift is late and he's got no way to transport his goat to the orgy. And all of this bumps jarringly along with the smack of synth beat which feels like a rubberised hose on the rib cage. It's the kind of philospohy so beloved of Steve Albini, producer of Falkous and drummer Jack Egglestone's previous outfit Mclusky, blurring the edge of ethical principles that mollify our daily existence.
Like everything that really matters in modern music though, all this bothering of the moral majority works because the music makes the words mean something, revelling in a hate-love symbiosis where the morbid and the deranged cloister each other. Opener "Arming Eritrea" grinds like T-Rex being pulled apart by Albini's Big Black, impossibly/epically intense, never quite letting you get away from the feeling of being tutored by a superior being. Here and there too the sublime lives in the same space as the ridiculous; at the beginning of "Throwing Bricks At Trains", Falkous candidly reveals a "slight bowel movement preceded the bloodless coup", whilst on closer "Lapsed Catholics" he muses ruminatively on whose (Hollywood) prison break was the most impressive, a sanguine but mocking response to the British media's attempt to lionise Morgan Freeman whilst mistakenly thinking he'd died in a car accident.
Strangely this lyrical sociopathy reminds me of Mark E. Smith and The Fall, an idiosyncratic worldview which fuels the likes of the pneumatic "Chin Music" and the equally unyielding "Drink Nike", both the kind of thing Therapy? used to scratch into our foreheads before their lineup became like an excercise in muso speed dating. Stay contorted then, because "Stand By Your Mannatee" is both side-splittingly hilarious and face-splittingly crazy, its opening stanzas — "This one time/ I was running through the fields/When I came across a dead guy/With a letter in his hand/So I scanned it/I thought the grammar was ok/There was such a lack of purpose/It was difficult to care" — go places less travelled without fear or repentance. It's also the most vital 128 seconds of 2009 yet.
Look, I love the Manic Street Preachers, I saw them first in late 1991 in a club where they played to about 300 people. I thought Generation Terrorists was – and is – the last great glam rock album of the twentieth century. And I can't quite tell you at what point they became a part of the rock establishment along with U2 and everyone else, but I just don't buy the more art than commerce angle. Maybe fifteen years ago. But not now.
As for the heirs apparent? Well, few bands make music like Travels With Myself And Another any more, not because it isn't utterly beautiful and compelling in the same way a mushroom cloud in a silent film is, but because few people will pay to hear it. Few make music that vents like a molten composite of art, politics, and life, doing it all straight into your ears because it's the easiest way to get into your brain. But thank whatever gives you spiritual belief, because Future Of The Left still do.