Manchester, England quintet Five Eyes boasts members that played in Cyril Snear, Trojan Horse and Sphelm. For this group, and their debut release Shirley Bassey Lungs, the band (Mike McKnight, Freddie Baker, Nicholas Mark Roe, Tim Powell and Darryll Clarkson) tried to rein in some of their technical playing history, aiming for, as they tell us, “a rhythmic sensibility that’s less about wrong-footing the listener with math-rock flexing, and more about potent grooves and counterpoint.”
They’ve hit that mark with this EP. But don’t despair, math- and prog-rock fans: this isn’t a three-chords-only record. Each of the four songs has multiple sections and textures, and there’s plenty of technical, tight playing to slake your thirst. Generally, there’s always one part that’s anticipating the downbeat (the vocals in “Orwellian Sex Dreams” or the piano in “Double Barrel Cure”), which helps to propel the music, and gives the listener a sense of an odder meter than the band’s actually using.
Melodically, Five Eyes has crafted purposefully accessible songs. They include repeated motifs and counterpoints, leaning a little towards pop in places. McKnight admits that he’s opened his ears to “much more melody and simplicity”, and it shows in the songwriting. It’s tough to walk the genre-crossover line, but Five Eyes does it here quite skillfully. Shirley Bassey Lungs would be a fine album to introduce math-rock to a pop-rock fan, and vice versa. “Nocebo,” for instance, starts as a slow soul ballad with breathy, almost falsetto vocals; later sections pick up the tempo and include hints of math-rock in the guitar figures. Or try “Orwellian Sex Dreams,” which is a trance-y, three-four-time in-your-face nightmare of a dream with a cracking drum pattern and keyboards that add just the right amount of extra tension.
That track concludes with “to get to the truth, you gotta follow the money.” Political themes interweave throughout the lyrics. McKnight’s written: “In the absence of context it's easy to assume / The crumbling palace of / Democracy” and “They’ve made it easy for you to sell / Your double-barrel cure / Less liberty / More weaponry.” Interestingly, this was all written and recorded in 2019--this is not a 2020 reaction, but rather something longer-standing. The album concludes on a high note, though, as we’re encouraged to “dance with abandon.”
Shirley Bassey Lungs is a well-done EP, and the band walks the line between technicality and pop beautifully. Breathe in deep and give it a spin!
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