If any current band were to put together a concept record based on historical intellect while referencing great thinkers such as Freud and Nietzsche, it would be I Like Trains. Having spent their entire career to date confounding fans and critics alike - whether it be documenting The Beeching Report which redefined British railway transportation, Captain Scott's doomed return from the South Pole or reclusive chess player Bobby Fischer - they've conspired to produce some of the most invigorating lyrical asides set to music this past decade. 'A decade?!' I hear you exclaim, 'Really?' Really. Give or take a few months. And what a difference that time has made from a musical perspective at any rate. Initially passed off as a post-rock outfit (and while early releases such as 'Stainless Steel' and 'Terra Nova' may have fit that genre structurally), it was always pretty obvious to anyone that's followed them live, I Like Trains were about so much more than that. Musically progressive between every record, it's almost become an expectation for them to take a further step into the unknown, and on album three, 'The Shallows', such expectations are surpassed once more.
Loosely based around Nicholas Carr's 2011 book of the same name, the most noticeable difference between 'The Shallows' and any of its predecessors would be the electronic elements that seem to have taken over from the band's previously guitar heavy ethos. That the record has been produced by Richard Formby, the man responsible for crystallising the sheen on the last two Wild Beasts albums, may be coincidental. What it does represent, however, is a major shape shift in the way these songs build and develop. No less dramatic as a result; vocalist David Martin's unmistakable baritone omnipresent throughout, regaling quips from 'Ask yourselves how we came to this' ('The Hive') to 'Let them take their pound of flesh and be gone' ('In Tongues'); it still heralds a marked departure from the band's past recordings.
And yet, bizarrely, the introductory riff to opener 'Beacons' makes us think of the Stereophonics 'Dakota', a comparison, I'm sure, will render its creators physically sick and one which, thankfully, dissipates by the time its chorus kicks in. As with some of the band's past endeavours, 'Mnemosyne' takes its theme from mythology, on this occasion the Greek goddess of memory. One of the few songs here seemingly built around a guitar riff, 'Mnemosyne' is characterised by four-step textures perfected so idyllically on Foals 'Total Life Forever'. What sets it aside from Martin's distinctive tones are his co-conspirators ability to switch seamlessly from elegiac math rock to elegant electronica at the flick of a switch. Unsurprisingly chosen as the lead single off the record, it marks an audacious, if potentially challenging, leap forward but, if the rest of 'The Shallows' is anything to go by, one which I Like Trains have risen to admirably.
It's also worth mentioning the musical directions which all of the band have collectively embarked on here. Flitting somewhere between the robotic yet freeform stylings of a young Stephen Morris or one time PiL sticksman Martin Atkins, Simon Fogal's use of synthetic as well as live drums makes for an interesting contrast throughout. Most notably on 'The Turning Of The Bones' or 'In Tongues', his input on both seeing him elevated from timekeeper to orchestrator. Likewise, the guitar and keyboard parts delivered impeccably at each juncture by Alistair Bowes, Guy Bannister and Ian Jarrold respectively. Indeed, it is the latter's previous outfit, Redjetson, that spring to mind during the claustrophobic, reverb-laden, six-minute long epic 'Reykjavik'. Arguably the standout moment on 'The Shallows', it's a dizzying kaleidoscope of cascading beauty that mixes the best of I Like Trains old guise with the insightful new to maximum effect.
Elsewhere, 'We Used To Talk' torments and tunnels its way through a concoction of winding rhythms and stop-start keyboards, again eerily reminiscent of the post punk era with which Leeds was synonymous some thirty-plus years ago. 'What do you expect me to find in the shallows of your eyes?' declares the title track inquisitively, Martin's voice almost cracking under its own weight. After the comparatively patchy 'He Who Saw The Deep', there's a feeling I Like Trains have finally made the record they've been striving for most of their existence here. Furthermore, with 'The Shallows' they can rest assured any shackles decreeing them as "that post-rock novelty band" or whatever can be unleashed forever.
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