London five-piece Evans the Death return with Vanilla, their most ambitious and experimental album to date, eschewing the more traditional pop structures and hooks of their first two albums, 2012’s self-titled debut and 2015’s critically acclaimed Expect Delays. While Expect Delays was a step towards something more interesting, more collaborative, experimental and abrasive - a bleak, introspective kind of album that still retained a pop sensibility - Vanilla sees the band veer in an ever more adventurous direction: more aggressive, extroverted and raw.
Named after the undertaker in Dylan Thomas’ radio play, Under Milk Wood, the band was formed by brothers Dan and Olly Moss after meeting singer Katherine Whitaker at a Let’s Wrestle show. After numerous line-ups, the band is now completed by James Burkitt on drums and Daniel Raphael on bass. The new album was recorded at Lightship95 in London with producer Rory Attwell, who worked on both of their previous records. Highly variegated in style and mood, brimming with extreme contrasts, from noisy to funky to melodic, energetic to dejected, full of chaos and restlessness, the album was the result of a carefully planned recording strategy, as Dan Moss explains:
“We deliberately booked very little time in the studio, and we pretty much did everything live, together in the room – there was no trying to fix any mistakes. What you hear is very close to what we did in that moment – so technically, while it isn’t overly polished or slick, it’s a very high fidelity recording – an accurate reproduction of the original source. I think that gives it more of an urgency and honesty than the first two. We decided to limit ourselves to 8 tracks and this meant we were restricted in how much we could alter things after recording, and the amount of overdubs we could do – which is what we wanted.”
With no specific musical reference point, the songs on Vanilla veer wildly in style, lending a real energy and vitality to the flow of the album. There’s the psychedelic snarl of “Haunted Wheelchair” built around dissonant, ominous, jazz-like chords, which build a sense of dread and paranoia but also a strange excitement. Dan explains: “I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Then before recording the song, while on my way to a party I got assaulted out of the blue, and I had to have surgery for a broken jaw. I used that incident to hang the lyrics on, but really it’s about that strange feeling I was already having anyway.”
There’s also the no-wave party vibe of “Suitcase Jimmy”, a semi-improvised portrait of a fictional down-at-heel actor built around a Wilko Johnson-ish guitar part. “Hey! Buddy” is an “unintentionally mean-spirited” askew pop tune from the point of view of a cloying and over-zealous fan of the band. While the wartime dancehall of “Cable St. Blues” is an odd duet between two parts of the psyche, representing “an argument you have with yourself, about depression and extreme self-criticism and self-doubt, struggling to function”, and named after the site of the 1936 riots where the band wrote the album. “I wanted the end to sound like a New Orleans jazz funeral”, says Dan.
Newest member Daniel Raphael’s present to the band, “Hot Sauce” is led by a groovy, capacious bassline, while Olly’s “Armchair Theatre”, the quietest, prettiest song on the record, starts out like a soft rock classic and turns in to a gorgeously mournful song with the lyric “I took you to the park / kickin’ through used Johnnies and dry leaves”. And “Welcome to Usk” drews on Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks and parts of Vivian Kubrick’s score for Full Metal Jacket, with a banging disco section thrown in for good measure. “When we first got this song right I got so excited I threw up my dinner”, says Dan. “It has three different time signatures!”
A dark, howling, ragged storm of an album, impossible to categorise, Vanilla is anything but – a far cry from the bland, unimaginative music that pervades the airwaves. It is a brittle, brilliant new chapter in the story of a band who never fail to surprise.
1. Haunted Wheelchair
2. Suitcase Jimmy
3. No Imitations
4. Hey! Buddy
5. Cable St. Blues
7. Hot Sauce
8. Armchair Theatre
9. Welcome to Usk
10. European Bison