Since beating down the door to the mainstream two years ago with a passionate performance on Later with Jools Holland, guitar-and-half-drum-kit duo Slaves have been the dictionary definition of “breath of fresh air” and/or “back to basics” within the music industry. This year found the nu-punk band produce a swift follow-up to their 2015 debut “Are You Satisfied” with “Take Control”. Their rise to prominence is such that last year’s Portland Arms appearance was surpassed upon their recent return to Cambridge by a capacity crowd at the Corn Exchange.
The night was opened by proto-Joy Division prodigies Shame, who were – hyperbole aside – one of the best opening acts I’ve ever seen, followed by the smart, sophisticated Life. These five and four-piece bands respectively gave strong sets ahead of the main event, but how could Slaves – two guys without a full drum kit (see new song “Fuck the Hi Hat”) – possibly compete? I had to then check myself, because this is Slaves we’re talking about.
The anarchic showmanship of drummer-vocalist Isaac and guitarist Laurie was made crystal clear on “Hey”, the Jools Holland career-making track, which gave the impression that you were watching at least twice as many band members on stage. The trick to Isaac’s evocative wordplay is a simple formula of Tonbridge-Wells dialect turned up to 11, with the screaming power of two Linkin Park Chester Benningtons. He can switch from calmly intense with a piercing gaze to Hulk-like anger within seconds. Laurie’s lo-fi melodic riffs repeat underneath Isaac’s quasi-beat poetry, yet are and inventive and powerful enough to ensure that rhythm guitarists need not apply.
Standout tracks from the night include the tribally furious “Play Dead”, early favourite “Where’s Your Car, Debbie” and “Fuck the Hi Hat”. “Fuck the Hi Hat” is the band’s new “Girl Fight” within their comical-short-song category, a reminiscent response to how they would struggle to be taken seriously without a bassist, rhythm guitarist, or indeed a full drum kit in their early days. “No one was bothered”, opined Laurie. Bet those flakes are kicking themselves now! The fact that Laurie could reminisce so openly about their early days shows how far they have developed, something that cannot be said of a lot of punk bands striving for longevity.
I was skeptical as to whether Slaves could develop artistically so soon after their 2015 debut. However, the new material performed throughout the night did just that. Expanding their instrumentation and stylistic influences made for a more engaging performance than even die-hard fans would have expected. Laurie transferred his lo-fi melodic riffs to a grungy synthesizer on “STD’s/PHD’s”, whilst “Angelica” saw Isaac switch to bass and vocals for this most Britpop of ballads over a drum machine.
We know from punk’s first generation and subsequent resurgences that career longevity is a slim prospect, particularly if a band’s DIY principles lose steam after their debut. However, recording and touring their second album has given Slaves the opportunity to expand their horizons, which has had a positive impact on both their music and live shows. Unfortunately, their show has expanded to such an extent that live-favourite “Feed the Mantaray”, featuring a bloke actually dressed as said sea creature, did not appear!
The evening concluded with “White Knuckle Ride” and new single “Spit it Out”, two tour-de-force tracks of blistering lyrics and feedbacked guitar that made me feel like I could tear a door off of its hinges on the way out. I didn’t on this occasion, but let’s see how their music progresses next year…
Words from James Proctor
Images from Rich Etteridge