Despite six years in the business (the band's first single, "Apprentice Of The Universe" was released on Alan McGee's Poptones label in early 2004), it's always been difficult to establish quite why Pure Reason Revolution have never received the same public interest as other bands ploughing a similarly prog-influenced furrow. Eschewing the wild bombast favoured by Muse, they lack the continental European quirkiness of Denmark's Mew but also (thankfully) the wilfully impenetrable abstraction of The Mars Volta (whose output as far as this reviewer is concerned not only tripped over onto the wrong side of pretentious once Frances The Mute had come and gone but continued stumbling away into the distance, never to be seen again). In fact, Pure Reason Revolution have always been a decidedly cryptic beast, a combination of English esotericism, delightful pop sensibility and thunderous sonic force that made them too much of an uncomfortable proposition for the braying drunken hoards looking for an easily chantable hook and a grunt-along chorus. Propelled into the warm and sweaty embrace of the alternative crowd, where their Jekyll and Hyde persona can truly be appreciated, they have always laid anchor just offshore from the mainstream.
Whilst their initial output (2005's "Cautionary Tales For The Brave" and 2006's "The Dark Third") bubbled and soared like a psychedelic-tinged dream, shot through with healthy doses of near-unintelligible mediaeval mythology and 19th century Romanticism, their follow up, "Amor Vincit Omnia", saw the band step down from their cloud and dig deep into a dark underbelly of throbbing electro-rock. "Hammer And Anvil" finds itself pitched somewhere in between.
Thematically, "Hammer And Anvil" is, like "The Dark Third", a quasi-concept album. But whereas the debut took its cues from usually untouchable subjects of mysticism, surrealism and mythology, "Hammer And Anvil" is born of bloodshed and hostility. Principal songwriter Jon Courtney is on record as having been largely inspired by the Great War: "I've been researching my ancestry; specifically great granddad and his role in [World War One]. I'm staggered by the sheer enormity, the valour, the dead, the mass destruction." Song titles which include "Valour", "Over The Top", "Blitzkrieg" and "Armistice" are testament to this, whilst the cover art is nothing but stark totalitarian symbolism, all grey concrete, aggressively bold sashes and a menacing PRR shield icon (and that's without even mentioning the album title's riff on Communism).
And yet for (or perhaps even because of) all this militaristic imagery, the most striking aspect of lead off track "Fight Fire" is its forthrightness. Swirling ambiguity is replaced by a roaring self-determination, full of pounding guitars, machine-gun percussion and an anthemic, fist-pumping chorus. Pure Reason Revolution's wares are usually marked by a lyrical eccentricity that leaves the listener's head swimming in obliquely-crafted images ("fall of the angels into the dark third/braving his warm smile round the twyncyn", from "The Twyncyn/Trembilin Willows") and phrases fused together like an alchemist's equation ("And mastic guns that skull-bind/A frail love, deus ex machina", from "Deus Ex Machina"). Lines as refreshingly straightforward as "What makes you think you have the right/to this territory?" are unusual in the PRR canon simply because their purpose is clear and direct. And the reason soon becomes apparent, for at the song's source is a certain Tom Bellamy, the album's producer, the man behind The Cooper Temple Clause and, more recently, one half of the much-hyped electronic duo Losers, alongside Eddy Temple-Morris.
The greatest departure however comes with the sonic howitzer of "Blitzkrieg", and is perhaps another example of Bellamy's involvement on the album. Coming across like a soundtrack to a battered bunker rave and sounding about as far from the classic PRR sound as they've ever been, radar-like pulses seethe through white-noise drenched radio transmissions, the crisp drums and rippling bursts of electronic fuzz echoing deep in the depths of the adrenal gland. A pulsating dance beat brings to mind the mid-nineties house scene (think "Insomnia"-era Faithless), and crackling, emotionally detached voices cry out "destroy" at frequent intervals; despite a pathos-ridden break bidding goodbye to the world ("we're dead like rats you know/cruel is the sound/last breath for the lovers"), the overall, decidedly uneasy, impression is of a song brooding and spewing in equal measure.
"Open Insurrection", the seething alter-ego to "Blitzkrieg", sends this sense of unease soaring. A convulsing, dense haze of electronics permeates everything, regurgitating the previous track's electronic swells, leaving the air thick and heavy. Searing guitars pierce the stifling murk, a glimpse inside a head torn apart by violence, mass destruction and despair. It's napalm devastation on a musical scale that razes all before it like the very best scorched earth policy.
And out of the trail of carnage like a guitar-wielding Ferdinand Foch comes "Armistice", a dose of morphine and a hastily applied suture to the seeping gash of "Open Insurrection". It floats along on a dreamy wave of keys, like a body re-emerging from a nightmare. A sense of relief saturates the track, even when the thickly layered guitars return, bearing no signs of exhaustion, but the lyrics nevertheless retain a hint of despondency, a certain reluctance to believe in peace ("Deliverance/is this deliverance?/This is deliverance").
Elsewhere, "Black Mourning", perhaps the closest in feel to PRR's debut, plays out like a fusion of "The Intention Craft" and "Deus Ex Machina", whilst the jaggedly industrial "Last Man Last Round" boasts barbed wire guitars, and a roaring NiN-esque denouement of twisted metal and gliding angelic voices. Despite one or two that don't quite hit the mark ("Patriarch" and "Never Divide" in particular feel a little weak), the diesel chugging "Over The Top", peppered with pin-prick crystalline synths, retains the listener's interest, and the home straight of "Blitzkrieg", "Open Insurrection" and "Armistice" is fifty years of 20th-century conflict distilled into twenty electric minutes.
Never one of the cool kids, Pure Reason Revolution have always played by their own rules (a Christmas single isn't particularly unusual but an a capella version of the 16th-century sacred carol "Gaudete" is) and this album won't change that. From fantasy-riddled pseudo-romantic musings to Latin-dressed love conquering all, to conquering full stop, PRR are still determinedly attached to finding their own way. The greater themes in "Hammer And Anvil" are probably the most easy to comprehend of the PRR canon, but the lyrical eccentricity of previous efforts has just been replaced by equally oblique meditations on war, loss and sacrifice. "Hammer And Anvil" may be shorn of the proggy hypnotism of "The Dark Third" and the electro-dance aesthetic of "Amor Vincit Omnia", but it's still just as intricate and rewarding. Dedicated listeners will find much to enjoy here, provided they're not just after the latest Gap advert soundtrack.
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