I remember Therapy? from their early days but only in passing. They were a prominent member of a new crop of British rock bands who showed up at the point that Kerrang! shifted alternative and Tommy Vance left the Friday Rock Show and I drifted away from mainstream rock music. And so I've not heard their rise to prominence, their drift away from it and their reaffirmation as a force to be reckoned with once they got old enough to sit apart from the trends. I had no idea that they were still a band, but they've kept going throughout and this looks like their sixteenth studio album. So it's about time I took a listen.
This is a short album, only just nudging past half an hour, because the average runtime of its songs is pretty close to the standard radio friendly three minutes. If that suggests a punk mindset, then you'd be absolutely right. This is alternative rock with all the energy of punk but little of the more downbeat seriousness that I've always caught in American alt rock of the same era. It doesn't feel like a band wallowing in grungy self loathing, even on a song like Joy which could easily have been called No Joy. This is a band who want to rock and just prefer to do it in an alternative framework.
I can see why this approach didn't connect with me in 1991 or 1992 but it's quite interesting in 2023. I hear a lot of pop punk here, but it's grittier and more down to earth than anything I've heard by Green Day or the Offspring. It's not so reliant on hooks, but the hooks are there. Oddly, I also hear Metallica here, but not in any of the usual ways that bands tend to employ to channel them, such as their crunchy guitar tone or James Hetfield's vocal style. However, I kept hearing moments of Black-era Metallica in shifts and breakdowns, and especially in escalations and backing vocals.
I guess the lesson is that they're happy with keeping toes in a bunch of genres, so much so that it's hard to determine what drives them the most. This isn't metal but there's a lot of metal here. It's more punk than it is rock and it often sounds like it wants to be pop music, but never to sound that soft or clean. To Disappear is so grungy that it's close to sludge, but it's stubbornly up tempo so it doesn't sound remotely like any sludge band I've heard. Andy Cairns's guitarwork often plays with dissonance and feedback, to the point that there's a subtly experimental edge.
Talking of Cairns, he's also Therapy?'s lead vocalist and he takes the opportunity to sing in a whole slew of styles. His go to style is a clean punk voice, like you might expect from pop punk, but it has more raw edge than any of the usual suspects in that genre, especially given that he clearly likes a variety of post-production jobs to suppress or torture his voice for effect, to meet a mood or a tone that he's driving with his guitar. He also has a theatricality to him that renders him the centre of attention, whatever else is going on. He even dips into sections of almost spoken word on Mongrel, which has quite a creepy effect.
While I respect a lot of punk musicians, I've always been too much of a metalhead at heart to see a punk-driven album like this as my particular cup of tea, but I'm happy I listened to it and I wonder if it'll stay with me and, if so, how much. I certainly loved the opener, They Shoot the Terrible Master, and if that isn't an esoteric yoga position it should be. I loved its urgent verses and its earworm of a chorus, from its opening drunken a capella rendition onwards. I dug Mongrel with a weaponised take on feedback and its relentless bass. Ugly is a real trip, from its weirdly folky opening.
My eighties brain still thinks of the nineties as new and it seems odd to find that its leading lights are celebrating their thirtieth anniversaries. It seems especially odd to discover that they weren't just there to jump on a trend but to help create one, so explaining their longevity. All power to this bunch of Northern Irish lads who have stuck to doing what they want to do throughout. So this isn't my favourite genre and I have next to no background in Therapy? and their peers to bring to bear. I can still see that this is clearly a good album.