Manic Street Preachers, ‘Futurology’ – NME First Listen

As good as last year’s ‘Rewind The Film’ was, there was always a nagging sense that the Manic Street Preachers had something more explosive they were working on: that while the largely acoustic sound of their 11th studio LP was a gentle, sophisticated return, it would be album number 12 when they tapped back into the passion, the fury and the anger which make them such a beloved institution.

And so we have ‘Futurology’: an album that’s as strange as ‘Rewind…’ was subtle, brimming with ideas and new sounds and fuelled by anger and regret. For my money, it’s one of the most interesting albums for a long, long time…

The Manics are waging war upon the plagues of modern society: corruption, greed, apathy and filthy wealth. These are the same sickening ills that they set about destroying and dismantling nearly 30 years ago, but the truly troubling thing here isn’t that they’re still here and as nasty and contagious as ever – it’s that there are so few artists (hell, there’s so few people, period) prepared to take them on. And so ‘Futurology’ – to me, at least, on this first listen – isn’t just an attack on those who perpetuate that stuck-in-the-shit inequality, but a riposte to everyone who stands by passively and simply let it happen.

The title track, then, serves as a manifesto for all that follows: a declaration of positivity to tee-up the rest of the LP and a reminder that right can trump wrong in the end. There’s a bubbling urgency and vibrancy and vitality here that was lacking from ‘Rewind The Film’, and a chorus that’s a mantra for belief in a greater good: “We’ll come back one day, we never really went away/ One day we will return, no matter how much it hurts – and it hurts.”

‘Walk Me To The Bridge’
It starts out fidgety, dank and dark, with lyrics that hint at suicide (“Driving slowly to the bridge, with nothing left that we can give/ We smile at the sickly world, it never really suited you”). And then, out of nowehere, there’s a HUGE bridge into the chorus: a shiny, uplifting whomp that comes on like Simple Minds and a refrain that feels like a happy, long-forgotten memory suddenly bursting inside your brain: “So long my faithful friend/ I don’t need this to end/ I reimagine the steps we took/ I’m still blinded by your intellect.” Come the end, the sombre start will be blown skywards by a sax solo that’s got the same kind of ‘us against the world’ hope as ‘Born To Run’-era Springsteen.

‘Let’s Go To War’
A sidewinding guitar riff that has shades of Public Image Ltd and feels like a sinister, slinkier cousin to the koto-sounding keyboard melody from ‘Tsunami’ from ‘This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours’ rubs against a stern and stark drumbeat. The title, the moody and tense friction, and the relentless-chant of the chorus make for something ominous and intimidating, but it also sounds a lot of fun, too – especially when James Dean Bradfield’s voice breaks as he yelps “We need go to war AGAIN”. A blow against the dearth of creativity and risk-taking in modern music, and a demand for art to remember its art and not just commerce once more.

‘The Next Jet To Leave Moscow’
Rumbling, woozy power-pop that flicks in and out of focus, but lyrically it’s one of the sharpest, sourest on the whole album and its got the Manics’ own history at its core rather than wide-ranging polemic: “So you played in Cuba did you like it brother? I bet you felt proud you silly little fucker.” If you’re going to do battle with the past, then what better way to begin than with your own legacy? With about a minute to go, it’s lit up by a fantastic, slightly scuzzy guitar line that’s oh-so slightly reminiscent of ‘Gold Against The Soul’.

‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’
So far, one of the main reasons to fall in love with ‘Futurology’ is the Manics willingness to back up their words: it’d be no use knocking other people for having no ideas or ideals if they themselves were content to dole out more of the same. ‘Europa Geht Durch Miti’, then, is proof that they’re determined to branch out and abandon their own comfort zones. This is a squelchy, whirring and industrial stomper with android-like backing (and German-sung) vocals from Nina Hoss. A weird, wonderful banger.

‘Divine Youth’
‘Rewind The Film’ was a reminder that the Manics are increasingly comfortable with letting others take the spotlight: when I spoke to James before the release of the album, he was adamant that Richard Hawley’s dulcet, velvety tones would bring something special to the track that wouldn’t have been possible if he’d sung it on his own. ‘Divine Youth’ is a ballad that pits him against Welsh singer Georgia Ruth, and it’s a stormer: a weird, warped take on Tubular Bells or even East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ with demented, discordant keyboards and a strange sci-fi ballad that’s got corporate power and domination on its mind.

‘Sex, Power, Love And Money’
One of the strangest hotchpotches on the album: the riff is sludgy grunge reminiscent of Nirvana and the verse is delivered in a strange, barked-rap that’s one of the most un-Bradfield like vocals I’ve ever heard. But then there’s a giant guitar crunch and a storming chorus of “SEX… POWER, LOVE AND MONEY” and it all seems to make sense: a song that’s deliberately gaudy and makes rhymes out of ‘obsession’ and ‘recession’ and culminates in a guitar solo last heard on ‘Generation Terrorists’.

‘Dreaming A City’ (Hugheskova)’
We’re still in the realm of the sci-fi, here – and it’s so overblown you’ll either think it silly (boring people) or stupendous (me). There’s all sorts of futuristic city-at-night atmospherics at play which make you think of Blade Runner, the Jetsons, Coruscant or God knows where, but the whole thing is stitched together by a rumbling, relentless bass line and intergalactic riffs. A breather after ‘Sex, Power, Love And Money’, but still rather outre.

‘Black Square’
One of the more straightforward tracks on the album – and also one of the best and most heartfelt. A loveletter to the power of art (like much of ‘Futurology’, it’s as important to the Manics to work out how to respond to the shitness around them rather than just point at it and hold their noses) that also takes issue with the dumbing down of culture: classic themes for a classic-sounding MSP song.

‘Between The Clock And The Bed’
Soft, splashy pop with a dreamy vocal from Scritti Politti frontman Green Gartside and one of the album’s gentlest, warmest tracks. “Yes I’m as guilty as the rest/ A man of little consequence,” sighs Gartside before a balm-like chorus blooms into life and James takes over vocals. Like so much of ‘Futurology’, he’s got conflict on his mind, and he’s stuck in the same sort of time loop as Billy Pilgrim was in ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ : “Hatred and fear grow perfectly together… I live through these moments again and again/ Repeating images of enemies and friends.”

‘Misguided Missile’
A spiky, sparse intro that reminds me – oddly – of Trent Reznor’s score for ‘The Social Network’: it’s got the same brittle, bristling tension and feeling of creepy unease. And then there’s a walloping, sing-along chorus: “I am the Sturm Und Drang/ I am the Schadenfraude.” For anyone not in the know, Sturm und Drang was a German literary movement which treasured extreme emotion and subjectivity, and insisted they still had a place in society despite the clinical logic of the Enlightenment. On a superficial level, of course, ‘Futurology’ was recorded in Berlin and there’s hints of Bowie’s work in the same city running throughout, but it seems there’s a deeper meaning here, too: the idea that passion and hope can trump weary cynicism is a key theme. It’s always been a key theme for the Manics.

‘The View From Stow Hill’
Eerie but comforting at the same time: restrained acoustic guitar that’s got the simple charm of a nursery rhyme mingling with darker, stranger forces – flashes and fuzzes of electronic noise and off-kilter rhythms reminiscent of German electronic groups such as Tangerine Dream and Kreidler. “How did this town get so old?” sings James, crushed beneath the weight of history. “The air I breathe feels so heavy and cold.”

And so, fittingly, we end with another instrumental: a chaotic coda for the Manics’ most radical albums in years, and a jumble of odd, distracting ideas and squiggles of noise that, according to the band, was influenced by everyone from Robert Fripp and Can to the Trans-Siberian railway. It might seem strange for them to sign off such a lyrically sharp and focused album with a track that’s scant on words save for a few bellowings of the title, but right now, it feels as if no other ending would have made sense: what better way to reflect the saturation and confusion than with a mish-mash of oddball ideas and a score that sounds like it should soundtrack a hybrid of Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven?

‘Futurology’ is released on July 7 2014.