Lice. What were they thinking? Naming bands after unpleasant diseases and complaints is a familiar trope — almost de rigueur in some genres: Collapsed Lung, Prolapse, Anthrax . . . but Lice? A mild annoyance that can be treated with proprietary shampoos and lotions? Really?
Perhaps it’s some kind of in-joke about band names. This would make sense, as the Bristol quartet say they are satirists and provocateurs, as well as documentarians of the state of the nation, as is made plain by the title of this, their debut album. They have grand ambitions — to interrogate, challenge and subvert the role of rock music, song lyrics and protest songs.
Influenced by movements such as the Italian Futurists, Lice have written a pamphlet to accompany the album (released on their own label, Settled Law), a short story set in a dystopian netherworld that features, among other characters, a talking penis. The story is apparently a sort of sci-fi projection of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “ideological state apparatuses” — the maintaining of capitalist power structures through ideological rather than repressive means.
So what does this all sound like? Lice have emerged from the Bristol scene that produced bands such as Idles, with whom they have toured, and their music shares the same punkish/post-punkish lineage, vocalist Alastair Shuttleworth’s spoken/shouted/mumbled delivery echoing The Fall’s Mark E Smith and Public Image-era John Lydon.
But there are other Bristolian threads too: Shuttleworth’s whispery delivery on tracks such as “Espontáneo” and “Persuader” brings to mind the city’s trip-hop acts such as Massive Attack and Tricky, while spoken-word vocals are also a speciality of another Bristol band, The Blue Aeroplanes.
Wasteland also features the pitched rattle and crackle of a hand-cranked instrument of their own invention (based on a device invented by the Futurists) which they have dubbed the “noise-intoner”. There is, then, a lot going on here.
Whether listeners will be able or willing to unpick all these threads, particularly the Althusserian bit, is debatable. Shuttleworth has expressed frustration that in their live shows, audiences show their appreciation for their riffs, which he seems to think is not necessarily a good thing, and for which he has at times challenged them. But it remains a fact that they are very good at riffs — churning, twisting, juggernauting riffs, as on the monstrous-sounding “Arbiter”.
But there is much more to their sound than this. Apart from the spooky scrapings of the “noise intoner”, there are wicked prog-rockish changes of pace and fiendishly clever time signatures. The whole album is swathed in an atmosphere of dread and lowering skies.
Clearly, a great deal of thought, learning and reading has gone into this album. But is rock music — a pretty blunt instrument — the best medium for these ideas? And if it’s satirical, isn’t satire generally funny? There is nothing here to provoke even dark and hollow laughter. It’s exciting, alive, packed with musical ideas and (sorry, Alastair) great riffs. But as a concept, Lice’s album may leave some people scratching their heads.
‘Wasteland: What Ails Our People Is Clear’ is released by Settled Law