I can’t remember being this excited about an album release for a long time. Possibly not since 1995 when the Levellers released Zeitgeist.
Social media and a renewed interest in going to gigs has really reignited what had, on reflection, become a tired relationship with The Levellers. Whilst I still avidly consumed their musical output and enjoyed it, it’s been some time since I was quite so simultaneously nervous and excited about a new album coming out – Static on the Airwaves is released on Monday but my pre-order arrived early, so I’ve had a chance to listen.
Let’s face it, it’s easy enough to have a listen either via previews or via illicit means but I resisted the urge to do this and wanted to wait until my swanky box set arrived today. It was worth the wait. The reviews have been mostly incredibly positive, not something the Levellers always get from the media – and even more credible sources out there were daring to suggest that the new release might go so far as to eclipse their definitive album Levelling the Land. Hmm. Nerve wracking.
The ‘received wisdom’ with the Levellers is that they got a bit shit after Zeitgeist, deviating from their ‘roots’ (whatever they are) and experimenting with their sound in a displeasing manner. I’ve never really bought into that, whilst subsequent releases didn’t quite get to the excellence of their earlier albums, I’ve enjoyed them all – and am personally of the belief that their last album Letters from the Underground was a considerable step up in quality (oddly I saw it described as ‘metal’ in another review of Static on the Airwaves!).
Levelling the Land is an album I fell in love with as a young’un – not immediately when it came out but as friends had introduced me to the Levellers in the mid nineties. It’s provided a fairly consistent backing track to my life since then – it’s going to be hard to expect anything to topple that kind of influence and time-to-develop-unrepressable-fondness. The very idea of suggesting such a thing is, whilst of course exciting, rather uncomfortable too!
So opening up my box set, containing an LP, a smaller record of the recent Truth Is single, the CD, a t-shirt, a sticker, a bottle opener and a signed poster, it was quite exciting. Before realising the box-set was available I’d pre-ordered a signed CD too, so I have two CDs – one signed. The poster is the same as my reward for providing photos that were used in the Levellers video release for ‘Our Forgotten Towns’ too – so I’m awash with duplicates. It wouldn’t be the first time, and they make fine additions to my collection of Levellers ‘precious things’!
Being truly digital I set about ripping the CD to iTunes (the unsigned one – I’ve kept the signed one sealed..) ready for an eagerly anticipated first play. I’ve heard snippets of most of the tracks through the YouTube videos the band released, but only the two singles released all the way through. So I fired up the Apple TV and accessed my music library on iCloud (these tracks uploaded as obviously iTunes won’t match tracks as yet unreleased on iTunes).
Without going track by track the plaudits are justified, even to this admittedly biased listener. There’s some progression, there’s a degree of maturity, there’s anger, there’s melody – there’s everything. Mark’s vocals have clearly benefited from his recent solo material and touring, the whole album is put together in a way that says they are a band comfortable in their own skin, growing in stature and ability but doing so organically rather than dramatically.
Is it better than Levelling the Land? I’m not sure – I can’t cast aside 16+ years of obsession so readily – but to say I’m not dismissing the notion out of hand suggests that as my listen-count for Static on the Airwaves gets beyond the two full times I’ve played it through there is a chance I’ll develop just as strong feelings for this one too. It’s that good. I’m really looking forward to seeing them perform some of the tracks live – particularly the ridiculously catchy final track ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’.
Given the echoes of the era in which the Levellers spewed forth into the gigging and festival scene from a Brighton pub, it would seem that they produce their best material when we’re being governed by the Tories. Mark, Simon, Jon, Simon, Charlie and Matt have really come up with the goods here – thought-provoking, haunting, beautiful and some energy-infused singalong and stompalong anthems – it’s a delicate balance delivered brilliantly.
I’d merrily argue with anyone who wrote the Levellers off as has-beens prior to this release (or, more likely, I’d ignore them with the sense of contempt they warrant) – but certainly it’s definitely fair to say that Static on the Airwaves represents a significant step-up on their recent musical output, which has always been cursed with the ‘it’s not as good as Levelling the Land‘ proclamation. For this new release that claim is at least being mooted quite widely.
In all honesty, I never thought I’d even entertain the possibility of that being achieved – that marks this out as absolutely top notch – an amazing band operating at their very best. Oh, and since it’s still the 23rd of June, a big happy birthday to Mark Chadwick!