Remember back nearly a decade ago Shihad came back from its brief name-change (as, mumble-mumble “Pacifier” – the mind still boggles) with Love Is The New Hate, the first promise of a return to the roots. It never quite had the magic, the “heavy” felt sprayed on, just as easily wiped off with a quick wash – but now, with their tenth album, and talk was on early here; the return of Jaz Coleman in the producer’s role – they seem to have gone with a Hate Is The New Love idea for FVEY (pronounced “Five Eyes”).
There’s probably a few still with baited breath – do we/don’t we – you can always just as easily not bother with a Shihad album and still turn up and be well-entertained by one of the world’s best live rock bands. So usually it’s no drama – I don’t ever intend to hear Ignite and I know I’m not missing out. I just know. But FVEY is worth your time. And more than that it is very nearly every bit as bloody good as you’ve been told. It has most of what’s been promised – big surges, the return of the riff, shades of what made Churn so wonderful and the small handful of offerings that followed – there’s actually plenty of the pop-song dynamic from both Killjoy and the “fish” album applied here. And there are those anthemic stadium-fillers the band first dreamed up on The General Electric too (okay-okay, maybe not quite stadium-fillers but whenever I’ve seen this band live I’ve felt like they’re about to lift the lid on any of the giant stadiums you care to think of).
And the heavy is baked on. That shit ain’t coming off. It’s soaked right in.
Look, there are a couple of lyrical howlers I reckon – but I’ve always turned a blind eye on that if the song has felt right. But there’s a tautness here that hasn’t been on display since The General Electric. There’s also more ideas in these songs – the slow but steady expanse of Song For No One, the punk-ish, bratty, pulsing energy of The Living Dead, the giant – widescreen – anger of opener, Think You’re So Free and the follow-on title track, shades of Split Enz (no, seriously! I always look for them, I hardly ever find them – but they’re there in the band’s best work) across The Great Divide. I’m not entirely sold on Model Citizen, the anger feels a bit faux there – a bit like AC/DC’s War Machine but hey, by that point, you’re so buried deep in the album it just doesn’t matter. And when Model Citizen calms down, gets to where it’s supposed to be going, it’s a good song. It just starts off a bit too bratty.
I like that the band hasn’t forgotten about its younger fans too – all this talk across the last decade, us whiney old gits, talking about being passed over for the youth of today, or yesterday. Well Shihad might well have delivered – finally – its return-to-roots album but that doesn’t mean that the youngsters sold on the albums I probably won’t ever bother with will feel alienated here. Wasted In The West is the sort of song that I can imagine being a highlight of any other Shihad album and here it’s just one more in a strong, strong line-up. I can imagine some school kid loving the shit out of this and it being that touchstone, sending them back – if they hadn’t already got there – to Killjoy and Churn. And I like that.
The rhythm section – Shihad’s (not-so) secret weapon – stomps out a beauty on Loves Long Shadow, and across so many of the songs here. Wonderful, perfect space between Phil Knight’s precision riffing and Tom Larkin’s dynamic drumming. Karl Kippenberger’s bass creating better grooves than it’s – seemingly – been allowed in over a decade. At times I don’t even worry about lining this up with other Shihad albums, I want FVEY to party with Faith No More’s Angel Dust.
Album closer, Cheap As, moves from what feels, at first like solid (but rudimentary) rocker to a double-time explosion. It marks the end of a huge journey – not just the 53 minutes of this album but the 20 years it took to get to it, to get back to the magic.
Jon Toogood sounds re-energised and though he’s always sold it so easily for the shows that hasn’t so often been the case on the record. Here you can feel that he means this – political lyrics, urgency, death to complacency and, fortuitously for Shihad, he can flirt with pop and whatever else thanks to side-projects. This is Shihad doing what it does best, lean and mean – stomping down a set of kick-ass rock tunes. I know you’re supposed to rave only about Churn and Killjoy but my favourite Shihad listening experience, album-wise, is The General Electric. That’s the biggest – best – range from the band. That’s the most sonically diverse album they created. It never tipped over into parody. It just feels right.
Finally that album has a rival, an ally, a close companion, boots strapped on and ready – this album will lead Shihad’s charge for however many more years they want to knock it out of the park on the stage. It proves this band was never any fluke. It proves that early vitality was able to be channelled again. Did Jaz sprinkle his mad, mystic voodoo-shit on the band and its tunes? In one way or another – yes. Did this band arrive ready to make this album having taken stock – yes: a greatest hits album and tour, the tell-all band doco, members of the group engaged in other projects outside of Shihad. This was, in a sense, a make-or-break album for Shihad. They were already made. But it’s been time – for a while now – that the band really made it again. Made something of themselves, gave something from themselves. And here it is. However it happened it’s a glory.
Whatever happened, however it happened, this is the best Shihad album in 15 years. And one of the best rock albums you’ll hear this year. More importantly than that it is – for this band – the best record they could have possibly made this year.