Make no mistake about it, Brit rockers Kasabian are not content to die wandering. Let's just say that the four piece are unlikely to turn up a few years from now on some reality TV show, musing on what might have been whilst recruiting a new lead singer. Speaking to the NME recently prior to the release of West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, their kaleidoscopically ambitious third album, the band's creative fulcrum of Tom Meighan and Sergio Pizzorno were in little doubt as to the career shaping leap forward it signifies.
"We've put our balls out again". Asylum inmate #1 Pizzorno commented. "No bands do that now… they ain't got the balls, do they?" Added inmate #2 Meighan. Quite.
Experience has taught us that both come from the media friendly Oasis school of professional hubris, and neither has a reverse gear. Reflecting, Pizzorno clearly regards most of the competition these days as also-rans, his blunt assessment of Kasabian's destiny: "This country deserves a better class of rock star".
The four piece burst onto the British music scene in 2004. From the largely unloved city of Leicester, they rapidly became it's most famous sons in much the same way as The Enemy were handed the keys to its similarly drab neighbour Coventry. Released that year, their eponymous debut album pushed against the tide of the then Libertines-obsessed British "Independent" scene and reintroduced the previously betrothed dance and rock to each other on tracks like "Club Foot" and "LSF". Touting a sound that blended hip-hop's truncated beats with porno wah-wah, across the country many who'd been disenfranchised by the Lib's nudge-wink metropolitan obsessions immediately started connectiong with Meighan's, a singer willing to take the mantle of Ian Brown incarnate.
Gestating away from London was to the band's advantage, and whilst Pete Doherty and Carl Barat were conducting their love-hate affair with the music press, Pizzorno and company were quietly shifting half a million records. Three Brit award nominations followed, along with the development of a prime live reputation. A second album, Empire, was released in 2006, but found less widespread acclaim. Unfazed, the camp pointed to sales which surpassed their debut and worldwide spiraled towards the million mark.
Empire also marked a discernible shift away from the band's early sound, revealing a preference to deal with more traditional rock dynamics. The title track for instance positively strutted like a peacock in full retro plumage, complete with stubby acid-bass and a jarring string section, whilst "Shoot The Runner" was a paean to original glam-rockers like The Sweet.
So now on to that supposedly difficult third release, not that there was much struggle with writer's block according to Pizzorno: "I think the album shows how beautiful we are as a band". Appreciating the modern industry dynamic of building to an event, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum was preceded in late 2007 by the "Fast Fuse" EP, a vinyl only release limited to a hundred copies. And for those fans troubled by some of Empire's nods to the psychedelic outpourings of Syd Barret, there was much more to get nervous about. The title track was more familiar sounding, a pulsing stab of raw garage rock which wouldn't have sounded out of place in a Tarantino gangster-noir. But it was the accompanying "Thick As Thieves" that marked the greater departure, a greco-Kinksian lullaby with the odd frisson of surf-rock thrown in. For Kasabian it seemed, the last train to predictability had already left the station.
Creative freedom and commercial success frequently travel in opposite directions, but if there was pressure to conform from label mandarins, West Ryder… bears little evidence of it. The obvious step might have been to invite the evergreen Stephen Street to produce, or even the du jour helmsman Dan Carey. In keeping however with the band's maverick self belief though, these duties were handed to Dan "Automator" Nakamura, whose previous credits included work both with Gorillaz and on DJ Shadow's almost legendary Endtroducing album. Noteable, but not bankable.
The only plan then it seems, is that there was no plan. Opener "Underdog" at least bridges the gap between the "Club Foot" era and now; over a rumbling loop, Meighan spits his stream of blank verse – "Life in technicolour, sprayed on a wall" – whilst a raking lead guitar riff glows angrily. At the end, a strange micro synth concerto segues into "Where Did All The Love Go", not the first song to bemoan the rise of street violence in Britain, but the thought of this band – hedonists who did what thou wilt and let it be the whole of the law – writing a song containing the authority line "Whatever happened to the youth of this generation" doesn't it has to be said sit quite right.
At times it's a slo-mo reveal, as the weird krautrock interlude "Swarfiga" does little to create momentum, but slowly glimmers of inspiration transform themselves into comets, and it becomes undeniable; Kasabian's best career work is here. "Vlad The Impaler" is the grittiest of psychedelic funk workouts, sweating like Parliament tripping on the neat essence of the 13th Floor Elevators, Meighan's incantation "We are the last beatniks, the last heretics" sounding a little less ridiculous with every repeat. "West Ryder Silver Bullet" is even further from their roots, a duet with Hollywood Valkyrie Rosario Dawson, concocted from cinematic eastern harmonies, anything goes percussion and demented, circular waltz-like beats. And in the end they finally deliver on a legacy they've often laid claim to, but never before fulfilled, as with "Fire" they manage to sound like the Stones of the early-80s, part groove, part blues and all mass market thrills and greasy stadium rock excess. What their chief sponsors Noel and Liam Gallagher will make of it all is anyone's guess.
More and more it seems, rock is rejecting pop on the grounds of its superficiality. Kasabian have challenged their audience to make the leap of faith with them. And West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum is worth that journey in the dark.