Album: Working Men’s Club – WMC review

by Chris Hatch

‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,’ proclaimed Ian Brown in 1988, as he and his band stood on the cusp of greatness – and it would seem that, while Working Men’s Club frontman and creative juggernaut, Syd Minsky-Sargeant is keen to distance himself from the legacy of that Manchester scene, Brown’s mission statement is one which rings true for Working Men’s Club today.

While the history of where Working Men’s Club have come ‘from’ – in terms of their line-up, their geography, and their approach to songwriting – is a long and tangled one, it’s clear within seconds of their debut exactly where they’re ‘at’. The electronic kickdrum on Valleys, the opening track on WMC’s self-titled debut, booms with the kind of attention-grabbing ferocity that lays down a marker straight-away – the guitars are out of the window, and the new-wavey angularity of first single Bad Blood is a thing of the past, because on this dancefloor-filling album, Working Men’s Club are an altogether bigger, and more complex beast.

Such was the rush of hype around the band from the release of their first single, they were forced to find their feet somewhat in the limelight. While material from early live shows could feel a little disjointed, and Minsky-Sargeant’s shirt-off, confrontational attitude at times bordered on gimmicky, there was a palpable sense that Working Men’s Club had the essence of something very special. And it’s this ‘essence’ that Minsky-Sargeant refined as he worked away on the album with producer, Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, The Fall, Jarvis Cocker) – approaching the majority of the project without the rest of the band seeming to have allowed the frontman a single-mindedness, resulting in one of the most striking, self-assured, and clearly defined debuts of recent years.

The aforementioned Valleys – a sprawling, dancey, adventurously-produced track – is more ambitious than anything you would find on most debut records. As kickdrums, hi-hats, and basslines gradually layer, the hair on the back of the neck stands up when the melody lines eventually burst in. ‘Trapped inside a town inside my mind/Stuck with no ideas I’m running out of time,’ half-sings Minsky-Sargeant in his detached grimace. But with this new musical direction,  the 18 year old songwriter no longer felt hemmed in. The last two minutes of Valleys, for example, are as far a cry from any generic indie band as you can get – gurgling, acid synth lines bubble away beneath gated, arpeggiated chimes and bright housey piano stabs. It’s so obviously rooted in the past, yet feels unequivocally progressive and new. It’s sublime.

And while Minsky-Sargeant and Orton have plugged in the drum machines, arpeggiators, and samplers, they haven’t left any of their pissed-off abrasiveness behind. The rampant A.A.A.A, is as coarse as dance music gets – and, quite frankly, you won’t find a more demented hook anywhere else this year – the Todmorden native distilling the futility and bleakness of his verses into a primal yell of a chorus. Elsewhere, Be My Guest explores his disdain for life by way of pulsating, stop-start synth-rock – singing of ‘wet prison piss’ over a thundering, NIN-style industrial backing, while Cook A Coffee sees him set his sights on another target – the frontman smirkingly asking us to ‘tune into the BBC and watch me defecate’ – but just as Cook A Coffee’s urgent electro-rock backing threatens to become stale, the second half of the track bursts out into a racing, synth driven conclusion – driven by Liam Ogburn’s pulsating bass. It’s these changes in direction, and elements of experimentation, that are the most impressive thing about the album, and something that you can’t help but feel would’ve been stifled in the band’s early days – meaning although there’s been a wait for this debut, the results are a much more distilled encapsulation of the Minsky-Sargeant’s vision.

When tracks do lean more towards traditional guitar music, it’s clear that the band can still find a natural groove – the blipping, blooping John Cooper Clarke rides along in a beautifully tight 4/4 structure; its bassline and inter-mingling guitar parts could play out for hours and you wouldn’t get tired of them. It’s also on this track that Minsky-Sargeant seems at his most reflective: his spoken word, almost stream-of-consciousness verses see him trade his anger for acceptance, while its chorus finds him sounding comparatively angelic, as he dreamily sums up that ‘we dance and we smile, we laugh and cry, we play and we fight, we live and we die’. Similarly, Tomorrow finds the band hit a groove again, only this time it’s in the form of some Kraftwerk/Human League hybrid – it’s slow-burning and clinical, yet colourful and poppy at the same time. Lead single, White Rooms And People, is perhaps objectively the best song on the album, and it’s the closest to the likes of The Sunshine Underground and The KBC in that it would absolutely pack out an indie dance floor, but on an album that seems so forward-thinking and explorative, it feels too obvious. Too straight.

For the many that have had an eye on Working Men’s Club, this album will be a delight. The indie-synth beginnings haven’t restricted the songwriting, but have instead laid the foundations for something far more experimental and ambitious. For a songwriter so young, in both his years and in terms of his musical career, he has managed to tease together an amalgam of ideas without the LP losing focus – while tracks flail around wildly, and genres and styles swing in and out, Working Men’s Club steers a course with laser-like precision, and pays respect to electronic music’s heritage without succumbing to trite nostalgia. As the 12-minute-long psych-rock of album-closer, Angel, comes to an end, you feel as though you cannot wait for album number two… or three… or four…  Because by the standards set by this debut, Minsky-Sargeant comes across like he’s got enough creativity and ammunition to record an entire career’s worth of material.

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