Wednesday, January 30, 2019

the return of WANKLE (another dream of a different Nineties)

I saw an early version of the James Lavelle doc at a festival a few years ago and what amazed me, first and foremost, was how many UNKLE albums there'd been.

the first was bad enough - so i guess i'd assumed that that would have been it

but no, no, they persisted after Psyence Fiction (yuk wot a title) -  there's something like FIVE subsequent UNKLE albums!

and what's worse is that they get increasingly rocky, involving such as Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age

like Lavelle started buying into this really naff idea of rock rebellion and intensity and authenticity

like a less tastefully executed version of the Death in Vegas approach - a studio assembled simulacrum of rock, without the actual rhythmic engine of band-energy powering it

i guess it shows the odd lingering prestige of rock - and especially the punk strand within rock - as the ultimate stand-in for rebellion and individuality, which continues to exert its thrall over people who've come up through hip hop or dance music, and whose creative procedures are radically different

for some reason deep in their hearts their burning desire seems to be to collaborate with Noel Gallagher (as with Goldie circa Saturnz Returnz) or Pete Doherty or somebody like that, despite being light-years ahead sonically of those guys

the other thing I gleaned from the doc - and Lavelle's embrace of rockism - was that he'd managed to convince himself that  being a curator really is the same as being a creator -  that's there's really nothing to writing songs, creating a distinctive band-sound, a band-voice.

all you need is some famous pals, and some connections - and taste, and attitude

simply convening the ingredients would somehow generate vibe in itself, hey presto, through the magic of chutzpah


hubris 101: not knowing your limits, the nature of what you are actually good at (in his case, arguably at any rate,  branding, packaging, spotting talent in others i.e. Shadow, Krush, building a buzz)

yet despite this, UNKLE is still going - there's a new album out at the end of March -  The Road: Part II/Lost Highway -  a "filmic" affair whose cast includes the  Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox, and more

first single

press release:

“Once you have walked the road, everything becomes clear,” says Elliott Power on the Prologue to the sixth album from genre-bending pioneers UNKLE. ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’ is the sound of an artist forever in transit on life’s journey of discovery.

“My work has always had an eclectic essence and soundtrack-influence in its structure,” says Lavelle. “If you go through the back catalogue, there’s a continuity between the motion and the ambition of the sound. Ideally, you’re constantly collaging and sampling elements of what’s relevant at the time to create something new.

“Now, there’s a lot more freedom. When I first started, the walls between genres in front of you were a lot greater to climb. We’re at a much more open-minded and eclectic place with music now.”

"I started doing a show on Soho Radio last year, which made me think about playing records in a different way,” says Lavelle of his life after ‘Part I’. “It wasn’t about trying to make people dance in a nightclub. It was a breath of fresh air, and about playing a more eclectic mix. ‘The Road Part 2’ was made in the same way – it’s a mixtape and a journey. You’re in your car, starting in the day and driving into the night. The language of it was for it to be the ultimate road trip.

He continues: “It’s the mid-part of a trilogy. The first record is like you’re leaving home; you’re naive and trying to discover. There are elements of my early days in there, as well as a bit of everything since. There’s an optimism and excitement to it, as there was with me having to direct this project alone for the first time.

“This record is the journey. You’re on the road, out there in the world. There are let downs, highs, lows, love, loss and experiences. The third record to come is basically about coming home; wherever that may be."

With the album split into two acts each with a beginning, a middle and end, the trips from light to dark, from brute force to tenderness make for both the full arc of the adventure and suites to be enjoyed separately. It’s a bold, assured and confident collection – from the Americana of ‘Long Gone’, to the Kanye West ‘Black Skinhead’ - inspired ‘Nothing To Give’, the alt-orchestral rush of ‘Only You’ to the guitar-heavy mantra of ‘Crucifixion/A Prophet’ and the electronic child’s lullaby of ‘Sun (The)’ – via covers of ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ made famous by Roberta Flack and the ‘guilty pleasure’ of the euphoric ‘Touch Me’ by Rui Da Silva. Helping to travel further down the myriad avenues of UNKLE’s sound are the full spectrum of collaborators and guests.

‘The Road: Part II/Lost Highway’ welcomes The Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  Philip Sheppard and artist John Isaac among others –  as well as spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox (who used to be Lavelle’s landlord) and Stanley Kubrick’s widow Christiana, who leant her trust and voice to Lavelle following his acclaimed exhibition to the seminal director. The two names who crop up most throughout the record however are rising West London singer and producer Miink and experimental rapper Elliott Power.

“They’re just both so incredibly talented, and everything I love about London right now,” says Lavelle. “I’ve been playing a lot with going back to sampling and going back to certain aesthetics from when I was first buying records and DJing, then to mix that with something contemporary. They’ve helped me create this ‘Bladerunner meets London Soundsystem’ kind of vibe.”

But then, Lavelle has always been an artist as inspired by the past as he was racing towards the future.

“The way that things are now are what we were always doing with Mo’Wax,” says Lavelle. “The legacy was that we broke down barriers, took down everything culturally-lite and put it into something. Now street culture is the predominant visual culture of the world. It’s mad to think that Supreme is more popular and recognised than Louis Vuitton. Every major label and rapper is making sneakers and toys. At the time it was seen as vanity and gimmicky, but look at the way culture is now. That’s what we started.”

The striking artwork of the hooded knight that adorns the sleeve on 'Lost Highway' is by celebrated artist John Stark – renowned for drawing upon magical realism and using the more mystical elements of the past to reveal something profound about the present.

"It’s about the yin and yang, night and day, the rolling journey," says Lavelle of the artwork. "Here's a Ronin-like, lone warrior. It represents what it means for me to be going out into the world and finding myself."


  1. Liking things everybody else hates has always been my thing, I actually bought psyence fiction and liked it. I also think UNKLE is the worst name for a band ever, and of course i lke it for that same reason. And they made my favourite video ever!

  2. well, not exactly the video was made by a son of ridley scott

  3. I find it baffling how Rockism has become such a moral issue for the Poptimism crowd. You don't like rock music, fair enough, it's not my favourite genre either. But now Rockism is increasingly being conflated with the "toxic masculinity" meme. Being born an average white bloke and having a taste for guitar music is like the 21st century version of Original Sin.

    1. i love rock music (well more rock music historically, rather than any current practitioners, although I like 21 pilots if they count). I also believe that the value-system of Rockism (which also underpins a lot of hip hop and left-field / underground dance music) has a lot going for it, while equally having its blind spots, etc, as all ideologies necessarily do.

      I'm very much not part of the Poptimism crowd, even if I (apparently, so they say) coined the word 'poptimism'
      - when i used it, it was meant a mildly derogatory term for a sort of incessant optimism about the state of chart pop.

      the point here though is that Lavelle is subscribing to a very boring and limited idea of what rock is, one that's been done to death, utterly worn out. And also that the execution betrays a lack of a gut understanding how rock actually works, as a band-based form. what you're getting here a studio-assembled simulacrum.

      it's also just a bit surprising that a figure associated with the high tide of a Nineties New Thing cultural moment/movement (beats + samples etc) should lapse back into this sort of sub-Iggy approach (letting my demons out, etc etc). It's like he turned into a Stussy version of Stiv Bators or something.

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  5. UNKLE always had a faux-rock element to them, though. The first album had vocal appearances from Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft, who were a big deal at the time. And I remember when Lavelle used to have a little paragraph in The Face[?] of what was 'hot' that month, and he started listing stuff like Placebo[!] as the new cutting-edge shit. He was feathering that bed already.

    A fun fact: UNKLE were actually not bad in their early days. Tim Goldsworthy used to be the musical component, and some of their tracks and remixes had a dusty, dry appeal.

    Then Lavelle spunked a £1m album advance on making toys and dicking about and not actually recording anything, so Goldsworthy jumped ship and Lavelle had to draft in DJ Shadow to produce the album in a mad rush.

    1. yeah i seem to remember giving a decent review to the first single maybe - i didn't know that story about the million quid advance. Tim Goldsworthy then he did a similar runner from DFA about a decade later, right - i'm not sure what the circumstances around that were though.

  6. Lavelle seems to have a fair bit in common with Bobby Gillespie, a non-musician whose belief in rock n'roll mythology nearly matches that of the Pope's belief in Catholicism, and for whom the 90s never really ended.
    I think I own three UNKLE albums that I got off the back of DJ Shadow's first two. One of them has a lot of Ian Astbury on it. I don't play them. I suppose they don't offer the guilty pleasures of bad music I do like that has 100% belief and commitment behind it. 80s Marillion being the ultimate example, always compelling to me, in the same way of zoo animals picking ticks out of each other's fur

  7. good comparison. Bobby G did on at least a couple of those albums surround himself with some very good collaborators and producers (i.e. not just the other members of Primal Scream heh heh) which produced some great results eg "Higher than the Sun". But unless my memory of Psyence Fiction is inaccurate that never really happened with UNKLE. The Ian Astbury inclusion says it all. Although Ian Astbury in his way is just as earnest and in it "for real' as Marillion i would think - so it's rock authenticity / belief by proxy maybe. I'm sure Josh Homme believes in rock to his heart's core.

    That's funny what you said about Marillion, i have in idle moments thought i'll give those albums a listen, decades after the event - and it would be Fish's mad eyed belief in the whole prog dream that would carry it off i should think, if at all.

    i just recently read an essay in a Virgin Rock Yearbook of the early 80s about the Prog Renaissance of that time. Loads of names I'd forgotten - Pallas, others i've already forgotten for a second time.