For any band who’ve undergone as whiplash-inducing a rise as Slaves, breaking new ground on the third album in as many years was always going to be a challenge – something which hasn’t escaped guitarist Laurie Vincent: “People are always into a band’s first album and to get people to listen fresh on your third record without already going ‘I know Slaves. They just sound like that’, you’ve got to put out a pretty big statement to win over new people. So I think we’ve both had that in mind to make something special.”
They’ve certainly delivered. A densely-packed, 29-minute explosion of energy, Acts of Fear and Love holds up an impressively complete and unflinching mirror to today’s middle England. Musically too, they’ve broadened their repertoire, blending their trademark blistering punk with forays into a softer, more vulnerable sound.
“To get people to listen fresh on your third record without already going ‘I know Slaves. They just sound like that’, you’ve got to put out a pretty big statement.”
The album opens with exactly the kind of raucous, punchy sound they’ve come to be known for, with lead singer and stand-up drummer Isaac Holman launching into a scathing, sarcasm-laden attack on Instagram-driven materialism in a style reminiscent of Ian Dury. Without pausing for breath, they dive seamlessly into the fantastically catchy, Britpop-soaked earworm Cut and Run, before racing into the furious punkish antipolitik of Bugs. This is the song which will most please the hardcore fans: the duo launch an uncompromisingly fast and unabashedly angry attack on the political class on behalf of “another let-down generation”, with screams of “too late, fuck you, we’re not having that” topping Vincent’s unrelentingly fast and decisive guitar.
Their blistering social commentary tracks fears of automation in Artificial Intelligence, while Magnolia exceptionally satirises the blandness and conformity of suburban life (a theme which draws comparison with IDLES’ Heel / Heal), dryly informing us that “65% of UK homes contain at least one magnolia wall” and imploring us to “call the number on the side of the bus for a chance to be attractive and carefree”.
Chokehold — a fairly standard rock song about heartbreak — marks a turning point for a band who have generally shied away from the personal. The eponymous Acts of Fear and Love, meanwhile, binds the album together, with restrained instrumentation providing a backdrop for spoken verses which soar into powerful choruses.
There are, however, two songs which really stand out, and showcase Slaves’ newfound range. Daddy — a delicate, melodic guitar piece not even two minutes long — completely changes the dynamic of the track. With backing vocals from Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell, Holman croons his way through an emotionally raw and unexpectedly touching portrait of a man going through a midlife crisis. With the tenderness of his singing, and the poignant sadness of the lyrics “wasted again on these late nights with strange men, spending like it’s nothing ‘cause he don’t know how to make friends, but he’s trying so hard”, I felt myself tearing up a little — it’s a universe away from their early work, such as the absurdist rock of Feed The Mantaray.
Similarly, Photo Opportunity starts with a gentle guitar intro, softly illustrating the frustration of not being able to go about your day without being recognised, before swelling into a bold anthemic chorus. It’s a natural direction for them to take, as they explain: “When you go from playing basements to arenas, your sound naturally evolves. Sonically, the fast-paced, intense riff-songs reverberate badly through a bigger room. So you find yourself wanting to write these big anthemic tunes with big choruses”.
Slaves make no secret of their ambition. “I don’t necessarily want to be the biggest band in the world,” says Vincent, “but I want to headline festivals… It’s not about having number ones. It’s about being onstage when everyone’s at their peak. It’s that last slot at Reading and Leeds. And having people refer to it for years to come… I see this album as a means of getting there.” It’s big talk for a band who released their first album 3 years ago, but ultimately, listening to Holman on The Lives They Wish They Had it’s hard not to believe him when he spits out the lines “now watch this space, by the time I’m finished the whole damn world will know this fucking face”.