(All Album Reviews by Epilepticgibbon)
Never heard of Those Men? I’m not surprised. I hadn’t heard of them myself until the summer of 2007, but what a treat it was to eventually do so. They’re a duo consisting of Martin Clarke (vocals, acoustic guitar and drums) and Mark Elliott (guitar, bass, synths and drums) based in Leigh On Sea in the UK.
Those Men is neither musician’s first band: Martin used to be in bands such as Elastic, Jump on Tufty and The Trampoline Situation, while Mark has been a founder member of Foreheads in a Fishtank. Fantastic names all and, if I’m honest, a bit more interesting than Those Men, but what this project lacks in terms of an exciting name is made up for in terms of the music.
Those Men play a style that they refer to as prog/art rock but although that is an appropriate label for their music I’d say that they will best appeal to a particular type of prog fan (more about this in a moment) plus I also feel that they might have a wider appeal than just to traditional progheads.
Their nod to prog rock of the past is partly indicated by their use of authentic instruments: they use a Shergold 12 string guitar, Guild bass and analogue synths, all of which are circa 1979, plus there are genuine samples from a Hammond organ and Mellotron which help to complement and enhance the sound. Their love of the past is further indicated by some of their influences, including Pink Floyd, Genesis, Mike Oldfield, the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, but those usual suspects are joined by some rather less predictable and more diverse choices, including The Pixies, Massive Attack, Julian Cope, XTC, The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, Elgar, and Prefab Sprout.
Referring back to my earlier comment, I think Those Men will appeal most to prog fans who don’t expect lengthy epics (the longest track on the album is a little over five minutes), and those who like catchy pop hooks and witty lyrics. With reference back to their influences I would say that the Bonzos, XTC, Thomas Dolby and Prefab Sprout come through particularly strongly, but hints of Genesis do emerge from time to time. In many ways this album might be best described as poppy art rock, but please don’t take this as a bad sign because as far as poppy art rock goes this is first rate.
In addition there’s considerable variety across the CD, so the opening track “Secondary Spirit”, with its acoustic guitar and strong keyboard elements, sounds a little like Wind and Wuthering or And Then There Were Three era Genesis, a classy example of the kind of poppy prog (or proggy pop?) that Genesis were perfecting at that point.
The second track “Tree” is much more typical of the rest of the album, I would say, given that it’s an excellently written piece of catchy art pop/rock, sounding a little like a 1980s Julian Cope song but with a great keyboard solo about half-way through.
Third track “Golden Love” is the first to make me think quite strongly of XTC but it’s by no means the last, plus there are perhaps touches of The Beatles and there’s a definite theatricality about this song. It’s another classy pop song but again there’s a fantastic arrangement and an epic-sounding instrumental section.
“Wollical Eye” starts with intriguing keyboard effects that appear occasionally throughout the song and overall this track has a great sense of originality, both in terms of its instrumentation and its arrangement. There’s nothing else quite like it on the album.
“Ladyman” is definitely one of my favourite tracks, a delightfully catchy number with more than an edge of XTC to it, but perhaps there’s also a hint of Massive Attack or Frank Zappa creeping in at times too. It’s extremely difficult to pin down exactly what Martin and Mark have done with this track but it represents a wonderful mixture of great songwriting and musical contradictions. And it’s followed by another of my favourites, the intriguingly titled “Persona Dolls”, which strikes me as another classic example of whimsical, catchy, XTC’ish British art pop.
It’s followed by the equally eccentrically titled “Two Tall Trumpets”, which combines yet more XTC’ish quirky English charm with a mellotron sound and a slightly sinister edge, before ending with a section that sounds like it’s from Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” soundtrack. This track is almost unclassifiable, though it does remind me a little of the wonderful Scottish band Dawn of The Replicants.
“Kate In The Compass” is a step back towards normality, a jolly and pretty guitar pop song that again reminds me of XTC. Then with “Marsupial Daddy” Those Men go all Beatlesque, with marvellous results.
“Seven Lies Leaving” is another great piece of songwriting that has a real sense of energy about it, but it’s nice to hear it drift into another softer Genesis-style section about half-way through, before the reprise of the energetic section.
“Disable The Water” continues the run of tracks with a great chorus and I am again reminded of the eccentric charm of Dawn of The Replicants, whilst the title track is rather beautiful, reminding me quite a bit of “Entangled” by Genesis but with hints of The Blue Nile thrown in and there’s a definite Those Men twist to it.
The final track, “Time on the scale of one to four”, is the shortest and it makes for a slightly eerie ending... think Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” for an idea of the basic sound and how effectively it brings the album to a close (just as “Street Spirit” does on Radiohead’s The Bends).
Overall, this is a brilliant debut without a weak track in sight (or sound) and Those Men have deftly combined some traditional progressive rock elements with the excellent melodic pop songwriting of bands like XTC, Prefab Sprout and The Beatles. I’m not sure that this will appeal to those fans who like their prog symphonic, lengthy and bombastic, but to those who are looking for strong songwriting, eclecticism and something a bit different then SobGod should go down a treat. I look forward to 2008 when Those Men are looking to expand into a full band for touring purposes. It’ll be very interesting to see how they reproduce these delightful songs live.
Best wishes: “Secondary Spirit”, “Wollical Eye”, “Ladyman”, “Persona Dolls”, “Two Tall Trumpets”.