The inimitable John Robb returns, with an album as ambitious as it is endlessly fascinating. The follow-up album to 2015’s Dark Matter / Dark Energy signifies a seismic shift in The Membranes‘ sound, with contributions from folk legend Shirley Collins, post-punk singer Kirk Brandon, nature expert Chris Packham and a formidable, twenty strong choir.
Rather than a “too many cooks” approach, though, the collaborations really work. For a sprawling album which takes in themes such as ecological anxiety, societal misrule, desire and our troubled times in general, it has to feel epic to truly impact, and so it does. It flies above incendiary devices, street stabbings, individual panic, illness and fires, presenting a microcosm of where we are just now.
The title track is truly cinematic, drenched in soaring strings, with sweeping call and response vocals. A Murder Of Crows, meanwhile, brings thrashy punk funk to proceedings. Its “caw caw caw” refrain is suggestive of the end of days, of birds returning to reclaim their territory, picking at the flesh of Brexit-voting Little Englanders.
Robb’s voice both placates and unsettles, an eerie whisper or roar. There’s a Krautrock fizz to The Magical And Mysterious Properties of Flowers, a skeletal, dubby dread in the over seven minutes long The Ghosts of Winter Stalk This Land, and a sense of deep foreboding to the shimmering A Murmuration Of Starlings On Blackpool Pier.
But the finest is surely the grand Gothic majesty of A Strange Perfume. Towering percussion and crunchy guitars are juxtaposed with a choir whose voices are throbbing instruments in their own right.
The whole album feels at once timeless and of the zeitgeist: it’s focused, oppositional music for a confused nation.