SKUNK ANANSIE – Black Traffic

Returning after an eight year hiatus, Skunk Anansie had to ensure their comeback album was absolutely stellar.  The resulting release ‘Wonderlustre’ did not disappoint; in fact, it was a career highpoint for the British band.

Debut releases – or in the case of Skunk, a record breaking a long absence – allow plenty of time for a band to guarantee they have a collection of first-rate songs to make up the record.  Follow ups are usually created in a fraction of the time, with the label breathing down the band’s collective neck to deliver the goods, while an established fan-base clamours for more.  …And so it is with ‘Black Traffic’.   While it is Skunk Anansie’s fifth album overall, in places, it has a slightly weaker feel, typically associated with a sophomore release.   There are some fantastic tunes, but as a whole, it lacks the consistency of its immediate predecessor, largely thanks to a few aggressive alternative rock/pseudo metal offerings where the band sounds like they’re just trying far too hard.  While these sound better after being allowed time enough to sink in, SA always sounded stronger – classier, even – when delivering more pop-based material…

The band chooses to open this record with two of those unsubtle rockers in order to make an impression.  Both ‘I Will Break You’ and ‘Sad Sad Sad’ are delivered with metallic riffs at reasonably high speed.  Listeners who enjoyed the harder edge present on the band’s earlier works will likely get a kick out of these, since they hit harder than anything SA has recorded previously.  For other listeners looking for the kind of sophistication that made ‘Wonderlustre’ one of 2010’s best albums, these tracks will be disposable.  Of particular difficulty is Skin’s deliberately confrontational and harsh vocal performance on album opener ‘I Will Break You’.  While she has a superb vocal range and an undeniable presence, on this particular number she squeals to the max, initially sounding quite edgy, but quickly sounding too much like hard work.  On ‘Sad Sad Sad’, her voice is much more palatable, but despite a good performance and some solid hard rock riffs combined with electronic drum loops creating a reasonable enough backing, bog standard song writing on the chorus [chiefly rhyming sad x3 with bad x3] really lets things down.  It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while both these tunes are a little grating on record, they have all the hallmarks of the kind of numbers that make killer live performances.

Blending string sounds, a programmed drum and a soft bassline, ‘I Hope You Get to Meet Your Hero’ is one of ‘Black Traffic’s high points.  Skin’s vocal is full of longing, as she cries out every word.  While her full range is undeniably superb, it is on softer numbers such as this where she sounds at her best – the softer notes allow her screaming top end to have a much greater impact, and since she uses that top end sparingly here, the impact it has when it eventually appears is nothing short of wonderful.  The album’s first single, ‘I Believed In You’ is a little harder, with Ace’s rhythm guitar acting as the driving force.  As the chorus hits, drummer Mark Richardson gets to cut loose on a part far more groove laden than many of this album’s cuts – and it’s good to hear a real drum too, since ‘Black Traffic’ is heavily reliant on programmed rhythms.  Lyrically, the accessible and buoyant tune is given some real bite via its bitter lyric; specifically the line “do me a favour, go and slit your skinny throat and let the blood flow freely so all you boys can choke”.  Overall, while this melodic rock tune with slight alternative leanings could be written off as “Skunk Anansie by numbers”, the band are certainly playing to their strengths.

Most of ‘Black Traffic’s strongest numbers can be found nestled on the second half, and they are tunes that, again, highlight the band’s softer side.  The poppy ‘Our Summer Kills The Sun’ ranks among Skunk Anansie’s best ever songs, thanks to a sophisticated, radio friendly mix of electronic beats, ringing guitars and a hushed, almost questioning vocal.  By the time it all blooms into a simple hook full of harmonious, multi tracked voices, it’s one of a couple of tracks that could stand up to most of ‘Wonderlustre’.

‘This Is Not a Game’ aims for a huge, epic sound. The basic tune works around a classic quietLOUDquiet structure, where the verses are soft and (again) very electronic, while the chorus features some louder, chiming guitars. The combination of guitar and strings during the chorus provides one of ‘Black Traffic’s most enjoyable moments on a musical level, but Skin’s voice is absolutely awesome throughout.  Moving between a soulful cry and full on rock belt, this particular performance could raise neck hairs.  Although at first, ‘Drowning’ sounds a little empty and over-mechanical, later listens uncover the makings of a solid pop tune.  A mix of drum beats and strings during the second half creates something hugely radio friendly, while Ace’s understated guitar lines add depth.  An overly simple chorus actually makes ‘Sad Sad Sad’ sound like first rate song writing, but this can ultimately be forgiven since everything else is so well put together.

With an instant familiarity, the album’s closer ‘Diving Down’ sounds as if it could be a ‘Wonderlustre’ leftover.  As with ‘I Believed In You’, the sturdy pop/rock here adds nothing new, but it’s certainly just as enjoyable as any other similar recordings from Skunk’s back catalogue.  It is a guaranteed fan favourite – strong enough to help sweep away the memories of ‘Black Traffic’s less enjoyable numbers.   Opening with two of the album’s rockers and closing with this hugely emotional tune, if nothing else, it proves that somebody within the Skunk Anansie camp knows the power and importance behind sequencing an album for maximum impact.

‘Black Traffic’ would be a fantastic record by most people’s standards, but measured by a couple of Skunk’s previous outings, it could have been better.  Put in context, it’s not anywhere near as good as ‘Wonderlustre’, although it’s best tunes as good as the best ‘Post Orgasmic Chill’ had to offer.  Its brilliant moments piss on most of ‘Stoosh’, but that is to be expected from a band far more mature in both talent and years.  While devoted fans will love ‘Black Traffic’ from the off, those other listeners who enjoy the more restrained parts of Skunk Anansie’s music – ‘Wonderlustre’ in particular – may find this album more of a challenge.

September 2012