Demob Happy – Dream Soda
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Demob Happy – Dream Soda

Demob Happy are one of those bands who will appear, to the casual observer, to have come from nowhere – but that's not really the case. Press play on their début album and while it may seem to have just appeared, perfectly formed and effortless this belies the fact that these guys have poured seven years of passion into this project to get to this point: Demob Happy in fact formed as teenagers in Newcastle way back in 2008, moving to Brighton two years later to continue their development. The first track on Dream Soda opens with a jagged riff played on a pitch-shifted guitar before blasting us full force with the same riff powered along by the whole ensemble. It's a regular feature of their sound, those octave defying guitars, adding a certain darkness, a certain murkiness and is one of the features, along with lead singer Matt Marcantonio's drawling vocals, seemingly resigned, caught between indifference and belligerence, that allies them so easily with the rise of a new grunge movement. When 'Haat De Stank (Take From Me)' gets past this opening barrage it doesn't take long to defy all the expectations it has set up – there is a certain level of complexity to Demob Happy's writing that makes it impossible to absorb completely with just one listen. Sure, these guys rock, their music is hard and relentless – that much was clear to me when I caught them live toward the end of last year, but listen to this album several times and it will still be revealing new twists.

Next up 'Suffer You' is an early single and a total belter, smashing it almost non-stop for just shy of three minutes. It's relentless and makes good use of the fact the whole band adds vocals, almost all of the lines are doubled up with close harmonies, it lurches cleverly between half-time choruses and double-time verses but the heaviness never lets up. The opening salvo continues with 'Succubus', another single, that pumps along with a repeating dirty bass figure that's intersected by counterpoint jagged guitars. In mythology a succubus is a demon that appears in dreams, taking the form of a woman to seduce men and here the bridge passage hints that the demon in question is the television media, seducing us all into a state of lethargy, “television life, makes me feel all right/watching over me, brainwashed by BBC/television hum, makes my body numb/taking care of me, brainwashed by BBC/you need a love song you can't have”.

There's a dissonant ominous hum preceding 'Junk DNA', drums that sound like they're in the next room and an esoteric guitar riff swaggering around some Eastern scale. It kicks in full force as you might expect then heads into a verse with some surprise major notes and more ensemble vocals before hitting a chorus with some borrowed pop 'whoop-whoop's as a surprise treat and some great counter-point lines that sound like the best bits of vintage Foo Fighters . The song lurches through various time signature changes that make it quite hard to pin down, on the 10th listen this is a completely different beast to the one I thought I'd heard when the band previewed it a couple of weeks ago – and it is all the better for that.

'Man You're Wrong' is a bit more laid-back, with a more obviously melodic vocal. There's still that murky deepness but here, at this slacker pace, with the melodic guitar dancing on top, it feel almost like it's going to be a Weezer song. However the signature Demob menace persists, there's a bluesiness, a longing that prevents them from approaching power pop even on this, which is ostensibly a ballad. 'Summer Cash' begins with a meaty fill on the kit and then hits us with a deep, dark, slow paced riff. When the vocals come in they once again defy the set-up with one of Marcantonio's twisting melody lines, always heading off in strange directions. When the chorus kicks in it's another surprise, almost Brit-Pop-esque, a progression that wouldn't sound too out of place on Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even Peace's recent 90s era-borrowing Happy People, but again it's just a feature within a larger picture.

'Wash It Down' is annoyingly good, there's something about the pre-chorus that really bugs me on this one, and has for weeks, it really reminds me of some classic slice of 90s indie pop, but I can't for the life of me remember what it is. Early single 'Young & Numb' is still sounding great here on the album, full of aggression and momentum, I find it almost impossible to listen to it without thinking of Nirvana's 'In Bloom', and that's a good thing! The vocal sound, the scuzzy bass, the powerhouse drums, even the guitar effect in the verses remind me of classic Nirvana but, of course, there's more to it than just that. The layered vocals and guitars are used very intelligently, the vocal lines are hooky but not saccharine and the studio sound has been pushed as far is it can go – the levels of distortion are brutal but not messy, so there's great articulation to the notes no matter how full on they are.

The drum intro on 'Another Dreamer' could be lifted from Toni Basil's deliberate one-hit wonder 'Hey Mickey' but then it gets stuck into being a full-on blues stonker that delves into 12-bar blues territory in a way that could be cheesy in the hands of any other band. As I listen to it I'm trying desperately to figure out where I've heard it before, when suddenly it dawns on me that this is just a stand-out track that stuck in my head from a live show nearly a year ago. 'Summoner' keeps up the relentless pace of the second half of the album, there's more fun with pitch, all the guitars sound like they've been altered in some way and the effect is thick, discordant and totally vibey. About a minute in the guitars drop away and the bass is left on it's own, a menacing build leads into a section that is far bouncier than you might expect, before dropping several bpm to an extreme half-time outro that builds to an abrupt stop. On paper this linear arrangement, where the band staunchly refuse to return to a section, shouldn't work, but in Demob Happy's capable hands it's one of the highlights of the album.

'Underneath Your Tree' takes things down a step, opening with an acoustic guitar that sounds like it has been tuned down a step or two, and again the sound is pure Nirvana, with Marcantonio's vocal sounding more like Cobain than anywhere else on the album and that acoustic sounding like it has been played hard with barely repressed aggression. The melodies are incredibly strong, great rousing lines for the chorus like a great pop song in disguise. For once it's no surprise when the bass and drums come in on the second verse, but it's refreshing to have some convention at this late stage in the album and this song is fantastic, losing none of their cleverness with some great chord choices. Album closer 'Strange Things' begins full of atmosphere, allowing delay to shape the groove in a similar way to 'Planet Telex' the opening track from Radiohead's The Bends, again there's something painfully familiar about several elements in the song but I'm struggling to place them all, evidence of either very clever borrowing, or really great song-writing – or perhaps both, as David Bowie said, “the only art I'll ever study is stuff I can steal from”! This song sounds simultaneously like the Beatles, Nirvana and Radiohead whilst being unmistakably, undeniably pure Demob Happy.

Dream Soda is a stunning début album, repeated listens are very rewarding and I have a new appreciation for a band who equally enchanted and confused me when I saw them live for the first time. When grunge happened in the early to mid 90s it was largely seen as an American phenomenon, it never really took off here in Britain, in response we tried to bury it with waves of squeaky clean Britpop led by bands like Blur and old-fashioned Rock'n'Roll by numbers in the hands of groups like Oasis. Demob Happy are seen as part of a new wave of grunge inspired British rock from groups like Royal Blood, Drenge, Kagoule and Wolf Alice. If I were to compare this album side-by-side with Royal Blood's self-titled début last year, which is one of the most commercially succesful of this new movement, I'd have to say, for me, this beats it hands down. There is so much more depth, musically and lyrically: the songs are acerbic and dissident, the arrangements are complex, yet they fly by with pop-ease and all the cliché’s they throw at you are delivered with knowing sarcasm. Quoted in the bands biography Marcantonio has stated that the album title “is a pun on cream soda.... it represents everything that’s over-sugared, force-fed and corporate-owned. To us it symbolises the current cultural onslaught that aims to stupefy a generation through mass media and insidious advertising.” Heavy stuff, but I feel that the title could just as easily be a play on Dream Pop – a genre of music that has risen to the forefront in recent years. Dream Pop prides itself on timbre and texture, seeing these as more important than melody or structure, burying the lyrics in layers of ambience. In other words 'style over content', which seems to be the antithesis of what Demob Happy have achieved here. The pop heart to the album is self-evident but it comes from bands like 10CC and the Beatles, who were always given to idiosyncrasies that helped them to rise above the bubblegum pop of their rivals. The rock influences are also plain to see, Queens Of The Stoneage, Nirvana, Kyuss and more are thrown into their melting pot, but they always rise above ending up greater than the sum of their parts. There's always more than meets the eye and I expect and hope this is the beginning of a long journey for this excellent band. Although it's not going to be easy as they've given themselves a pretty hard act to follow!
Adam Kidd




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