July 17th saw the release of Southend art-rockers Asylums’ highly anticipated third LP, Genetic Cabaret. Recorded in Chicago, Illinois with the legendary Steve Albini behind the desk, the headline on the follow-up to 2018’s Alien Human Emotions essentially reads that it’s everything you would expect, and more.
As with the band’s first two records, the songs on Genetic Cabaret are no major overhaul on a formula that is proven to work, but instead are a further honing of the Brit rock-meets-Sub Pop aesthetic that they’ve made their own over the last five years or so. Essentially, it’s kind of like the best bits of Killer Brain Waves and Alien Human Emotions mixed together, put into a can with a hefty dose of 24-hour rolling news reports and the fallout from a decade of austerity measures, then vigorously shaken before being opened.
As you’d expect from the man who engineered Surfer Rosa and In Utero, the guitars sound huge, the choruses huger, and there’s a lean muscularity running through that only really lets up (briefly) on the sonically tender The Miracle Age. It’s the sound of a band having a blast and beginning to operate at the peak of their powers. That’s not to say that everything is fun though. In fact, pound for pound these twelve tracks are arguably some of the angriest in their discography. Although always lyrically impressive, there’s a sense that frontman Luke Branch has again raised the bar higher here. From the clever subversion of “the kids don’t seem alright” from Catalogue Kids and “there’s a sun that never comes out” from A Perfect Life in a Perfect World through to the state-of-the-nation dispatches of A Town Full of Boarded Up Windows and Who Writes Tomorrows Headlines?, Asylums are a band not content to just sit by and watch from the sidelines. As their Spotify biography states: they’re not just “staring into the abyss, they’re lighting torches. They’re passing them around.”
Musically the band draw from a number of sources. As before, there are echoes of Blur, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana, and Ash (among others) to be found; however, there are also similarities in the more overtly political references that call to mind Generation Terrorists-era Manic Street Preachers. In an age where everything is fleeting and temporary, there aren’t too many bands about that are this prepared to wear their hearts on their sleeves – and while it can get perilously close to being a little full-on at times, you’re never too far from another killer hook to reel you back in. It should also be said that you’d have to work bloody hard to find another LP released this year with a better opening trio of songs than this.
The short of it is that Genetic Cabaret is another bold release that attempts to make sense of what’s happening in the UK right now (and makes a pretty great job of it). Given that the record was recorded for the most part last year, its lyrical content and tightly wound angst is weirdly prescient too. As a statement, the LP continues the trend started by Alien Human Emotions a couple of years ago, in setting a new high watermark for the Essex band. Well, at least until album four arrives anyway… and by the look of things, that could be sooner than you think.
A short conversation with Luke Branch
With a young child in tow, a record label to run, and a ridiculous workrate, Asylums’ frontman Luke Branch is a busy guy. Despite all this, he was kind enough to answer a few questions this week regarding the new record. To begin with, I was interested in finding out a little more about how the band found themselves in Chicago, but I was also keen to ask where the neon artwork came from, and whether the fallout from COVID has hit the band’s own Cool Thing label.
(Note: my questions are in bold, and Luke’s responses in plain text).
• How did recording the new LP in Chicago with Steve Albini come about? As fans of his work, it must have brought a whole set of challenges…
It was fairly straightforward actually, I acquired the budget via a publisher and the PRS Momentum Fund and then made an inquiry. I sent some music to Steve’s studio manager and got a reply several days later saying they were up for it. As the Brexit situation in the UK continued to rage on the pound kept losing value against the dollar so we had to keep an eye on that, then we booked flights and just went for it. We saw it as an adventure and subsequently had a great time.
• I read that you became a father during the making of the record. How do you think that parenthood has changed your writing? I’m actually writing this on my phone – parked up on a trading estate with a drive-thru coffee as he sleeps in the backseat. How have you managed to write, record and run a label with a baby?
I was given some great advice…. Work at your own pace and prioritise.
I stay up late and work/write a lot.
I’ve never slept much.
• How does the writing process typically work in the band? Do you each bring songs to the table, or do they tend to come from you and then develop during rehearsal?
We have a process, we try to stick to it.
I’ll write the songs and initiate the arrangements, then Jazz and Mike develop their parts either from my demos or in person, then Henry personalises the drums and adds backing vocals and we all edit the final arrangement together then record before we over think it.
• The guitar work on the new record is great in particular, and with the lean production it’s come even more into focus. When I heard ‘Catalogue Kids’ and ‘Platitudes’ it just sounded another step forward. I can see similarities to a few people – Coxon, Moore and Mascis spring to mind – but I was wondering who your influences were?
Jazz and I have a great chemistry when it comes to guitars, he loves a diverse array of music as do I and we just try to stay intuitive as to what the songs need. Jazz always works to support the vocal melodies and enhance the emotional weight of the song. I know he loves J Mascis, Beach Fossils, The Byrds, Deftones to name a few.
• When everything started to go crazy and the lockdown measures were introduced, quite a few artists delayed releases that had been planned for the summer. Was there a point where you thought that you would have to temporarily shelve the release?
We don’t think in business terms very often. We just believe that the role of an artist is to provide escapism, entertainment and hold a mirror up to ourselves and the world. So we just stuck to our guns.
• Having seen the pictures on Instagram recently of you and Jazz tentatively working on ideas for the next record, is there already a plan in mind for where you want to go?
Yeah we know what we want to do next. It will be a continuation but not a repeat.
• The artwork for your stuff is always really interesting, and feels as much a part of the record as the music. I was wondering what the idea was behind the ‘Genetic Cabaret’ cover specifically, but also how the concepts for the artwork develop?
I had the visual concept for the front and back cover before we flew to record the album. I crudely mocked it up using a hand made collage approach and gave to my dad.
He then fleshed it out and created the definitive versions and we collaborated on the layout and colours. This is typical of the way we work. Sometimes he will work on stuff in secret and I won’t be involved but for the most part we work the way I’ve described. I love my dad, he is a super talent.
• Finally, what do you think will be the lasting impact on the industry from COVID? As a band with a DIY ethos, you’ve carved out a place in a pretty hostile environment and made it work; however, with the lack of government support venues seem to be closing on a weekly basis. It’s a bit of a meandering non-question, but I was interested in your take on things…
I tend to accept things quite quickly, it is very traumatic however to think of the impact all this is having on people’s livelihoods and I have nothing but empathy for everyone.
The only way I personally know how to deal with this is to be creative, so we are working on new music, working on new videos for the current album and generally pretending that we are on a self imposed live hiatus like The Beatles or REM did… In my opinion both of those bands did some of their best work during the live hiatus, so that’s how I’m trying to think and remain hopeful.
To round up, I just wanted to thank Luke for taking the time to talk with me earlier in the week, and to say that you can find & follow Asylums on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Also it’s worth your time checking out Cool Thing Records.