Barbarians by Young Knives

Judging by their  new single, Sheep Tick, Young Knives have taken a wildly different approach to their fifth album, Barbarians. They have a darker sound and there are more electronics and less of the snappy XTC-influenced indie that I know them for. The sound does suit the subject matter, however, with them using Straw Dogs, a novel by John Gray, to assess if violence is just part of human nature and how we cope with that.

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REVIEWS

Barbarians by Young Knives
1 review. Write a review for us »
8/10 Fred MG 02 September 2020

When they emerged in the mid-2000s Young Knives’ blend of angular guitars and yelped vocals meant that they were lumped in with the nascent “landfill indie” movement. Indeed, I’m writing this review just hours after a Vice piece on landfill indie has placed the band’s 2006 single ‘She’s Attracted To’ among the top fifty anthems to emerge from the “best most average” moment in British popular musical history (number one was, of course, ‘Chelsea Dagger’ - and while we're at it, where was ‘Same Jeans’?! Baffling).

However, Young Knives never really fitted in alongside the Milburns and Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jongs of this world. Clearly an eccentric bunch, even their catchiest music also had an air of wire-brush mania about it that seemed to draw more from Gang Of Four than, say, The Libertines. In the decade-plus since they retreated into the underground Young Knives have let their animal free in the wheel. There are certainly through-lines between new LP ‘Barbarians’ and their earlier work - jackknife tones, unusual structural choices, a propensity for jagged-yet-mechanistic beats - but time has curdled the band’s sound into something truly strange.

For one thing, it’s *intense* now. ‘Barbarians’ is an unrelenting album - synths wax and wane like air-raid sirens, guitars bludgeon you over the head with inhuman force, and robotified voices bark from all sides of the mix. This is claustrophobic, often quite nightmarish stuff. ‘Red Cherries’ is the sort of thing that might occur if Dirty Projectors were ever asked to soundtrack a David Lynch film; ‘Society For Cutting Up Men’ lands somewhere between The Fall and the most disconcertingly airless bits of Talking Heads’ ‘Fear Of Music’; there are parts of closer ‘What I Saw’ which honestly sound like fucking Death Grips.

The fact that Henry Dartnall and brother-bassist The House Of Lords frequently deliver their lyrics - and I must mention what brilliant lyrics they are - in an impassive drawl amidst all of this at first seems incongruous with the noisy screes whirring all around. However, after a while you start to join the dots on exactly what they're getting at. Take something like ‘I Am Awake’, where the lyrics describe a domestic scene similar to that of ‘She’s Attracted To’ (“the table is made up for two”). On this track Dartnall sounds heavy-hearted, beaten down, the home a site of resignation where it once held possibility (however anarchic). When he sings the title-phrase it's less a go-getting mantra with which to face the day, more a bleak surrender brought on by a world that is at once tediously workaday on an individual level yet full of monstrosity at the macro.

Dartnall claims John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’, a book about the essential barbarity of human nature, as a key inspiration for ‘Barbarians’. I can believe it - this is an album that presents someone immobilised by the cruelty overload of modern life, from interpersonal violence (‘Jenny Haniver’) to the toxicity that brews in mob mentality (the title-track). I think that’s what Young Knives are getting at with the frequent use of those Robocop voices throughout ‘Barbarians’, and why they seem so wearied by them - it’s the sound of people coming to realise that the notion of "essential humanity" is as much about unthinking cruelty as it is conscientiousness or generousness.

But Dartnall knows he must hold on to himself amidst all this, shackle the demons inside by squaring up to them. And it’s for this reason that, when he does raise his voice, he screams the bastards down; "I never lie about what I am - I am barbarian".



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