LANDSCAPE + NATIONHOOD
King Penda, last pagan king of Britain leers over us and as he does, notions of identity and nationhood wither and die. Resplendent on the cover of Total Victory’s new album, English Martyrs, both Penda and band are a critical force working to destroy the myth of Englishness. In Dan Brookes they have the sharpest lyricist this ‘country’ has produced in a long, long time.
Total Victory are a guitar band where the music is sharp and the words are sharper. Those weaned on post-punk will enjoy what they have to offer, and Total Victory have a lot to offer. This, their new album, sees the band hitting creative heights that not only matches but topples the standard bearers.
English Martyrs is Total Victory’s version Grotesque by The Fall in that the songs make up a portrait of the country. In contrast to that album, the pulp acid horror is dialled down and replaced by an ever greater sense of social commentary and cutting observational humour. The other obvious comparison is Half Man Half Biscuit, but if England is the Titanic, while Nigel Blackwell’s mob are mocking the middle classes and their pretensions, Total Victory are in the crows nest.
The best comparison may be to the political / social caricatures of William Hogarth or James Gillray, who would offer political satire intercut with sharp humour and a glorious sense of the grotesque (there’s that word again). A Total Victory song has the same quality of looking through a window onto contemporary life.
You must go into the album knowing that on the one level this is great music, there is a whole other layer underneath. You must go into it ready to contemplate how the past, present and future of England are as one, how the population has been moulded to think and act by history; were we are and what we were.
‘Triangulation Point’ gets off and rolling with a riff that sounds like a train struggling up a hill. It’s tense and nervoid, so Total Victory are back. Lyrically, it appears to warn of the dangers of pandering to the lowest common denominator; especially when people don’t know what it is they want. Meanwhile, “In the 21st century nothing unites us like cup-a-soups and ill fitting Gore Tex…” observes Dan wryly, in a few short words sketching an entire cross section of the populace. It comes to an end with the grim moral of “They live for this so they can die for this”; a stark warning of the dangers of giving the vote to people who watch Mrs Browns Boys.
‘Gore Seer’ emerges from the squall like a forlorn tanker from a Mediterranean fog. Sad, yet resplendent and proud. Dan adds a jumble of words for the reader to fit together. What links ionised water and website subscriptions? The meaning of the song always seems to be out of reach. The chorus, such as it is, finally lands halfway: “Gore seer / philanderer / Rockefeller / It’s a good life… Gore seer / retired police / networks of names / copper bracelets”. The guitars are now duplo blocks of sound as Dan finally starts making sense and you’ll wish he hadn’t: “Dreams are just a waste of time”. He confuses us, then exposes us. Are we the gore seers? Like Ian Curtis on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, the barrier between artist and listener is ruptured and the audience left questioning their complicity.
The slow winding ‘In The Home Counties’ punctures the misplaced pomposity of its target and attacks the cosy mind-set of stick dwellers. The target of the song is moving to the countryside, only for our narrator to warn them, in a sad, defeated voice: “when you get there you’ll be happy with a change in the weather”. Meanwhile the notion of finding beauty in nature is dismissed also: “The birds won’t know your name, and their sounds of joy are a natural function”. On top of which comes a warning about the locals mistrustful ways: “the words they use are edged with spite… and every interaction is a chore”. This song feels like a sequel to the amazing ‘Secession Day’ from National Service, another attack on small town life and smaller town mentality. Little Englanders abound, a topic explored in even greater depth in the next song…
‘Once in Every Century’ (submarine bass, keening guitar) juxtaposes modern hollow notions of cultural identity with imagery of the stone age settlements that all cultures originated. From the “wooden frames in the marshland, built in a circle against the headwind” we appear to be in an episode of Time Team, as Total Victory go digging in the North Trench, finding weapons made with “bone handles and polished to sharp edges” as if finding the root of our misplaced national self-image. The chorus, if you can call it such a thing is anguished and rising:
Every culture started from nothing / And develops until it’s full of the hubris / That comes from revering itself / And it’s sick from the myth / It breaks down in a ditch and it forms into silt.
By the end we’re in the realm of JG Ballard style psycho-geography, “the hilltop corresponds with every single last moment in time” as all things come together and happen at once, our past informing our present and our futures, and our futures corresponding with our pasts. “Once in every century we get put up on display”: doomed to repeat the same mistakes, covered in mud. Listen to the gorgeously sad horn and the cornet at the doleful demise of the song, like a funeral ascending an escarpment.
‘Playing Golf With The Precariat’ with it’s fish hook guitars herald the heavier second half of the album, the downbeat nature of the previous two tracks giving way and from here until the final track Dan is spitting fire. This song seems to be aimed fairly squarely at out of touch politicians and their cringeworthy attempts to interact with normal people, like when they have to do things such as eat chips and talk to human children. “Dig foundations on a new leisure centre, I’ve been photographed with a spade” crows our main character, presumably a ruddy-faced blowhard from one of Gillray’s prints; outmoded and out of time . Then comes the blackest joke of the album so far: “Later playing pool with a group of old people, they can’t do it by themselves”. He returns to the office to find letters of complaint and carries out some research by thumbing through “the new Alan Coren” which dispenses advice; “I can show them I’m just like them” he plans. They key line is “Your name counts for nothing if you have to say please” which sums up an entire swath of silver spooned Tories. Self-centred actions rule: “A man only needs himself… If you’re going to keep trusting you’re primed for a fall”. All of which leads us to the realisation that the people in charge are not equipped to be the people in charge. They wouldn’t even go to the poxy leisure centre anyway. In the background a member of the public speaks via the news. You can’t hear what she’s saying. Our character’s not listening.
On ‘Written Backwards’ Dan switches between addressing us, the audience, and the main character of the song. On top of which there is commentary in the form of overheard chatter, a favourite tool in Dan’s arsenal. It all starts innocuously enough in the shape of observation comedy: “Left the house keys on the bonnet as you drove off down the road”. Then it takes a turn into Tales Of The Unexpected territory with “The message scratched on the dashboard made no sense to the policeman, or the fire crew as they pulled you, from the window of the wreckage”. All of a sudden the jokes get grim and the screws are turned as Dan describes the scene is agonising detail “swept the glass up from the road, held back the crowds that gathered”. Later on, gawkers return with cameras. We peruse the papers: “Writer crashed into cathedral, husband shocked at sudden loss”. Things aren’t what they appear though, the rumour mill kicks in: “I didn’t see him at the funeral… if this gets out he’ll be crucified” we are told after a ‘Shadowplay’ style guitar solo. The final verse details a supernatural meeting and the resolution, which we won’t reveal. This is simply a stunning piece of writing that crosses many forms of the written media. They should teach this in schools.
‘Mistakes Upon Mistakes’ sees trouble-maker drums and the sound of a fire engine whizzing past a dole office. The bass, circulates like dirty bath water down the plug hole. It sees Total Victory taking on Half Man Half Biscuit. The following passage could easily come from any of Tranmere’s finest: “Gary piloted his Clio into a reservoir and has not been seen since, outdated instruments and an overexcited local sent the search party the wrong way”. Yet again they’re combining mordant humour about death and mixing it up with farce and parodying country dwellers. Just when you’re contemplating all of this, Dan delivers what may be the best line on the album: “The ghost of Nigel Blackwell haunts this room, even though he’s yet to pass”. Total Victory just did a gag about Half Man Half Biscuit – talk about a handing over of the flame! I think Dan must have received the quickening after writing that lyric.
It’s the turn of the look back bores on ‘The Public Weighbridge’, which concerns a driver (a container driver?) who works for Harper and Sons, “expert in haulage”. He doesn’t like change and the modern world, “what’s new is what we’re against, there must be an end to advance” he gripes. On top of which, he’s having a bad day: “rolled off the ferry and out of Europe, fallen asleep on the public weighbridge”. And of course, the shittiness of his life can only derive from the fact that the world is different to when he was young, nothing else. With a typical dewy-eyed view and the Hovis music playing in his head he muses “All ‘round here was only fields, along with the footprints of bombed out buildings” (fields of wheat?) pointing out the fallacy that in the olden days people could leave their doors open because they have nothing worth stealing. This is the kind of guy whose faults are all of someone else’s making and gets so desperate he resorts to begging for extra-terrestrial life. When they fail to materialise he drives off cursing “along the roadsides are sign of the progress and every one of them makes me sick”.
‘Gold Curtain’ hangs on a bass line that sounds like ‘Girl Like You’ on methadone, while a piano and acoustic guitar laments Albions’ end. The country creaks under the weight of the litany of faults that Total Victory have laid out over the course of the album. It’s all about mentalities and mind sets. Little Englanders are crushing England. England is expiring under the weight of the English Martyrs. And what does a gold curtain conjure images of? The prize at the end of a game show. It’s been 2,000 years since the Romans arrived and what do we have to show for it but Jim Bowen unveiling a speedboat bound for a Halifax drive way? Our last story is of a worker reaching the end at his workplace. “It’s bright though it’s late, so much you have to say. But you’ve learned in your way, the boys want you out”. Dan goes on to say “Edged in silk, woven with rose, patterned gold”, fragments of phrases that bring to mind last-minute leaving gifts, as a girl from the office rushes to Card Factory at 2 o’ clock on a Friday afternoon. Our character, like the country, is reaching terminal point.
A landscape of spectres dominates English Martyrs: the album is full of ghosts and spirits; literal and metaphorical. Shadows of the dead walk the land, false shadows of so-called former glories that refuse to fade. England is a land knee-deep in its relics. References to graves, burials, decay, marshland, bones and fields permeate; Ramsbottom’s Peel Tower features on the inside of the album. And on the front, old Penda himself, from the BBC’s Penda’s Fen. English Martyrs is all about geography, psychology and history. There is no escape: trips to the countryside yield disappointment, trips in vehicles lead to death and despair. In the 21stcentury we are stuck with cup-a-soup and Gore-tex, if we follow ourselves back to where we started we end up standing in the trickling rain among the bones of our forebears.
Lyrically, the most important band around right now.