Review: Slice of Life. 2019. Don’t Turn Away. Overground Records. LP | CD | digital download. Released 16 August 2019.
FOR A PROJECT that emerged from discussions amongst a bunch of musicians biding their time in airport departure lounges in the closing weeks of The Last Supper tour, Slice of Life has proved to be a remarkably productive and a resilient musical collaboration. From the moment the band formed, its live and studio activities have wrapped around the other commitments of band members for whom it’s far from their only creative outlet.
As Slice of Life’s identity has crystallized, the band has shown itself just as home on the stage of major festivals as it has been at tiny, cramped punk shows or when holding court at art centres, micro-pubs and other quirky venues across the country and beyond. When it comes to longevity, by the turn of this year, Slice of Life will have been in existence longer than Schwarzenegger (1992-95), Stratford Mercenaries (1995-99) or, for that matter, Crass (1977-84).
As a live act, Slice of Life is definitively Ignorant’s show. He’s ably backed by his trio of talented musicians, but it’s Ignorant who fronts the act, handles the introductions, tells the jokes, delivers the side-stories and pulls the reminiscences and recollections from memory while the band await the next musical cue. Away from the live experience, when you listen to the band’s studio work, the material is immediately reframed in a more collaborative light.
This latest release shows the band growing in collective musical confidence… The result is a compelling mixture of the melancholic and the militant
Don’t Turn Away offers a collection of impassioned, emotionally literate, heartfelt songs which alternate between the empathic and the indignant with an equal sense of confidence. Extending the lyrical vista of 2014’s Love and a Lampost, this material sees Ignorant exploring the themes of personal frailties, of self-doubt and of mental resilience alongside wider concerns of resistance and righteous rebellion. This latest release shows the band growing in collective musical confidence, while frontman Steve Ignorant’s lyrical preoccupations see him move further into more personal, reflective areas alongside wider social and political concerns. The result is a compelling mixture of the melancholic and the militant.
The spartan, stripped back sounds of the band provide few hiding spaces and without the comfort of volume and projection it’s hugely important that they’re tight and rock solid. Carol Hodges brings both a power and a disarming, lilting quality to her work on keyboards, setting the emotional tone for many of the songs. She’s also an extraordinarily accomplished vocalist, although only gets the chance to really show those talents on a few songs here. Pete Wilson on guitar and Pete Rawlinson on bass have developed a great partnership, and in the studio it’s even more evident how effectively the pair craft a rich, full soundscape through clever musical choices and astute understatement.
They craft a space in which Ignorant can make best use of the power of restraint or fully let rip. Ignorant is completely at home belting it out there, but here he allows the quietness of his vocals on different numbers to reveal the vulnerability of a voice pushed to the edges of this singer’s comfort zone. In thinking through his delivery, Ignorant makes great play in his phrasing of hitting (or deliberately sliding past) the subtle percussive beats of the band.
Title track Don’t Turn Away sets the tone perfectly; framing the album’s key creative tension between razor-sharp and sometimes bitter lyrics and beautiful, unfussy acoustic musical arrangements. The seething, barely contained rage of Your Day Will Come, its tense, terse invective pushing against the lightness of the jazz-infused melody, its disarming singsong textures and its rich vocal harmonies.
The Right Way shares a similar juxtaposition, its delicate musical motifs providing a perfect backing for Ignorant’s storytelling. This time his ire is directed towards the self-obsessed keyboard warriors of the web, whose arrogance and disdain can often hide resentful self-doubt. (Its simple but seductive chorus is also an irresistible earworm).
S.A.D. is a thoughtful and sensitive appreciation of mental health challenges, depression first among them. Its explores the sense of weakness and vulnerability that can overwhelm those afflicted by its darkness, and urges empathy and honesty in confronting the stigma and silence. It’s one of the most powerful and affecting moments on the album.
A thoughtful, personal statement of outrage which sees Ignorant push his voice to the point of cracking with the strength of his conviction
The Story Continues might sound more like the title of a Conflict song, but this is a more intricate and its layered affair, with the feel and texture of a confidential late night fireside chat about the iniquities of the world. Song for Myself sees Ignorant calling once again on the spirit of Alan Sillitoe (author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) to deliver another melancholic and beautifully atmospheric reflection on self-doubt, loneliness ageing, endurance and personal resilience (“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Gigger”, perhaps?)
The joyous Diffability sees Ignorant channelling Ian Dury’s songbook, in a riotous and sympathetic shout-out to the weirdos, the outsiders and the “non-normal” of the world in a celebration of uniqueness and individuality. It’s the most straightforwardly upbeat song in the collection, and benefits from that contrast.
Three songs on the album have evolved from the time that Ignorant was fronting Stratford Mercenaries. Slaughterhouse is as passionate an acoustic number as it was as the frothy singalong Won’t Get Me on the 1998 album No Sighing Strains of Violins. Originally appearing on the same album, Stretford Blue is always a highlight of the Slice of Life live set, lit up by Ignorant’s raging vocals as he takes aim at the posturing and plastic rebellion of those who profit from the system they profess to despise (Hodges’ singing is completely ace on this too). Stratford Mercenaries’ song This is Our World here morphs into the fantastic and fitting endpoint Whistle Down the Wind, a thoughtful, personal statement of outrage which sees Ignorant push his voice to the point of cracking through the strength of his conviction.
This is a powerful, assured, convincing set of songs that show Ignorant setting down a marker and asserting his own independence of thought. Back in 2011, The Last Supper tour generated criticism as well as excitement, but that sense of hostility seems to have quietened, affording him more space to perform and switch between whichever voice from his repertoire (from full-on punk to reflective acoustic artiste) he chooses. Next year’s tour of Crass songs will see him reinhabit the former; it’ll be fascinating to see where his experimentation with his other musical and lyrical personas will take him next. On the strength of this album, who the hell would want to turn away from finding out?