Loveable Kent duo Slaves have furrowed a steady path since the bubblegum punk of 2015’s ‘Are You Satisfied?’, a full-flavoured confection that boasted the bouncing single ‘Cheer Up London’. Since then, they’ve released the Mike D-produced ‘Take Control’ and last year’s ‘Acts Of Fear And Love’, neither of which deviated massively from their sugar-coated punk formula. ‘The Velvet Ditch’, though, represents Laurie and Isaac’s greatest musical diversion to date. And they’ve done it across just four tracks.
In the first half, it sounds like business as usual. Opener ‘One More Day Won’t Hurt’ begins with a quintessentially Laurie Vincent guitar line, a shuffling, shaking riff that retreats to the background as vocalist and drummer Isaac Holman barks through lyrics that satirise the small town loser “sitting on the same old bar stool / Sipping on the same old beer”. Laurie has told NME of the song: “It was a beat that I wrote on a computer as a grime beat, but we covered it to turn into something live and organic with Isaac rapping and shouting over it.” Certainly this is Slaves at their heaviest, but it won’t catchy anyone off-guard.
The same could be said of ‘It Makes Me Sick’, the verse a two-note punk grind accompanied by Isaac’s bone-rattling percussion. Clocking in at just one minute and 47 seconds, it fulfils a similar purpose to the 45-second tantrum that was ‘Take Control’ album track ‘Fuck The Hi-Hat’, proving that Slaves haven’t lost their filth or fury. Because what comes next is something completely different: a bluesy acoustic song. They’ve dabbled with softer tones before: the debut record’s title track ‘Are You Satisfied?’ combined minimalist piano with acoustic guitar. Yet ‘The Velvet Ditch’ is almost unrecognisable as a Slaves song, Isaac purring spoken-word missives over finger-picked notes and Laurie’s wistful backing vocals (the latter even manages a “Yeehaw!” at one point, an indication of the EP’s looseness).
The state of Mississippi, the home of the blues, is sometimes nicknamed ‘The Velvet Ditch’, which is perhaps where the record ties together. Yet the title might also refer to the trappings of success, whereby you could be at your lowest while at your highest. The final track, an aching piano ballad entitled ‘When Will I Learn?’, sees Isaac croon through a bruised sing-sing about the perils of hedonism: “Before I knew it it was 8am / Sitting around in a stranger’s house… When will I learn to say no? / Probably never.”
Laurie now has a young family; clearly Slaves are no longer the people they were back in 2015. This record is the sound of a band in flux, testing boundaries, though it’s also unmistakably them. It’s interesting to note that the ‘The Velvet Ditch’ wasn’t released on the band’s own label, Lady Bird’; perhaps their next album will be a self-released, mould-breaking experiment. Their new EP is a fascinating stop along the way.