Who says a leopard never changes its spots? In 2009 Jon-Lee Martin hid himself away behind a pseudonym and a nightmarish translucent mask as he let rip one of the most psychotic albums of the noughties with cult act KONG. That album, ‘Snake Magnet’, remains, for better or for worse, a force of nature, absolutely essential listening to a certain breed of self-flagellating hardcore fan, but it also represents a musical territory almost antipodean to ‘Death Cap at Anglezarke’, the frank debut album from his new project Then Thickens, which may just be one of the most important records of the year.
Then Thickens has its roots in the ugly personal fallout of KONG’s behavioural, alcoholic and chemical excesses, which near-disastrously blurred the lines between Martin and his unhinged on-stage persona Magpie. When a couple of his friends died, the tortured Martin realised that enough was enough, and started writing for Then Thickens by way of an escape route, a solo project at the time which has now expanded to become a full six-piece band, including Rolo Tomassi graduate Joseph Thorpe on bass. With the mask well and truly off, Martin bares himself and his troubles for all to see, creating as mature and atmospheric a collection of heartfelt rock songs as you could hope to find in the process.
Striking a perfect balance between melancholic and uplifting, there is an effortless grandeur running through the album which swings between Foo Fighters drive and Arcade Fire expansiveness like a pendulum moving through the haunting smoke of Martin’s burning diary, but the really special thing is just how accessible it is. Tunes like ‘Mathew’ and ‘Worms’ channel Martin’s impassioned emotion into dynamic verses and memorable choruses that in a fair and just society would be all over the radio, while swung mid-tempo number ‘Any Other Thing’ gently grabs you by the hand on first listen and will have you compulsively replaying the record for days to come. Standout track ‘Tiny Legs’ encapsulates Then Thickens’ compelling ideology that deeply personal music can also be irresistibly listenable, its timeless melodies sitting comfortably within a warm yet sincere song which quickly develops a close relationship with the hairs on the back of your neck.
These four tracks alone could have made one hell of an EP, but there are more strings to the ‘Death Cap at Anglezarke’ bow than this one, with Martin and his band of merry men (and woman, stand up Helen Thorpe, whose backing vocals add so much depth to proceedings) unafraid of kicking out the jams or of taking the tempo and mood down low. Results are mixed when the energy levels rise; the stomping ‘Restart Your Heart’ is fantastic, swaggering with sixth-pint confidence while still maintaining the band’s signature elegance, but the clunky ‘Death Cap’ is the morning after, sounding like an early-noughties Franz Ferdinand B-side.
Thankfully this is the only false move on an album which opens in jaw-dropping style with ‘Heaven Won’t Wait’ – slowly building from atmospheric vocals into a life-affirming maelstrom of sound – and which carries these anthemic sensibilities with it throughout. They emerge most clearly in the outro to the surprisingly vulnerable ‘Run Off’, which elsewhere follows a tenderly understated path dripping in emotion, while perhaps the most haunting cut of all is the stirring, down-tempo ‘Ritalin Love’, which deals candidly with ‘those little white pills’ before breaking into a crashing outro.
Closing track ‘Wasp In Your Mouth’ touches most Then Thickens bases over the course of its five and half minutes, and while not quite reaching the giddy heights achieved elsewhere on the record, is a fitting way to round off an ambitious and profoundly powerful album. ‘Death Cap at Anglezarke’ is an aural account of one man’s self-help and redemption, but its inspiring combination of reflection and tentative hope makes it absolutely essential listening for everyone. With KONG, Martin won the hearts and minds of a devoted minority of the music-listening public; with Then Thickens, he is coming for the world.
Watch 'Tiny Legs'
- Joe PontingDeath Cap At Anglezarke is out now on Hatch Records
Watch 'Tiny Legs'