Ancient & Modern

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Label: Sin Records/Bloodshot Records

Several decades into their careers, many artists have settled into a contented, fattened mediocrity, churning out depressingly feeble imitations of their halcyon days’ best and occasionally lucking their way into a record that slightly reminds us of their former greatness. That’s usually the point at which plenty of us tend to effusively praise said artist all over again and cite a “comeback” or “reinvention,” maybe because our expectations have been so dramatically lowered by a steady output of uninspired slop. Perhaps because none of their various lineups ever broke into the mainstream the way some of their punk-era contemporaries did, or because they’ve remained so doggedly determined to make whatever music they damn well please, Mekons have managed to stave off this decline better than most.

This positive trend continues on Ancient & Modern, the group’s 26th album and one that’s being released via their reborn Sin Records imprint, which previously ran from only 1985-1988. Like many of the band’s previous albums, Ancient is strongly rooted in history’s inexorable tide and terrible consequences; its subtitle, 1911 – 2011, clearly wasn’t thrown in as an afterthought and the specter of two World Wars hangs over its songs. References to violence dominate the record. The idyllic environment and sedate acoustic guitar and strings of opener “Warm Summer Sun” – sleeping on soft, green grass, warm home fires and cricket matches – soon give way to horrific visions of corpses and “unimaginable hell” as its instrumentation takes on far darker tones. It’s a visceral, powerful song, and much of what follows invokes similar themes and almost always hits with the same emotional force. The title song offers a panoramic view of a desolated city – perhaps London after the blitz – coupled with soldiers “crawling up the muddy hill/ Dropping like flies,” and “Calling All Demons” traverses a landscape that runs from India to Irish slums and offers one particularly gothic image of that most famous of beheaded baptizers.

Jon Langford’s voice has grown ragged and weathered, a trait that lends it a sense of authenticity and one that suits the arrangements well throughout. The band follows suit: in “I Fall Asleep,” the vocals are as grizzled as the song is desperate; a slow piano ballad underscored by strings, its lyrics blend memories of the past with deep religious doubts. The album’s style is diverse: “Space In Your Face” and “Honey Bear” are both buffed and polished electric rock songs; Sally Timms’ cooed vocals and a bouncy piano on “Geeshie” give it a nightclub-jazz feel; Timms’ vocals are reverential on the somber on “Ugly Bethesda,” which plays like an elegy for a suffering mining town (“Mama’s lying down/ Daddy’s underground“).

Throughout Ancient & Modern the band is able to reflect on the past without resorting to the type of sloganeering or overwrought emotional conceits that plagued many of its peers (or dissenters, as it were). It’s a mature work by a mature band that hasn’t lost its fire and isn’t just mailing it in – which is more than what can be said about some bands as tenured as Mekons.

by Eric Dennis

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