Scottish indie rockers Franz Ferdinand took the music world by storm at the start of the century. Their sound owed heavily to that carved out by Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray on David Bowie‘s embryonic 1977 track “Breaking Glass”. This groove-based, guitar-in-the-pocket indie rock style served them admirably for their first two releases, the self-titled debut Franz Ferdinand in 2004 and the stellar sophomore, You Could Have It So Much Better in 2005. After two more releases were met with a generally favourable, yet less spirited response, the band had seemingly acknowledged the need to evolve in order to stay exciting and relevant. The band teamed up with producer Philippe Zdar (Cassius, Phoenix, The Beastie Boys) and recording sessions took place in London and Paris. The resulting sound, described by lead singer Alex Kapranos as “simultaneously futuristic and naturalistic”, represents the boldest move in the band’s 16 year history.
Always Ascending kicks off with the title track and lead single. Even taking into account the band’s desire for change, it seems a genuinely odd choice for lead single, given its drawn-out piano and vocal intro and persistent use of Shepard tone – an auditory illusion produced by programmed sine waves which give the impression of constant rising. This illusion is referenced not only in the title of the song, but on multiple occasions throughout its lyrics; “the shepherd misleads, so you think you’re transcending” and the call-and-response pre-chorus chant “never gonna resolve”. It’s a song so far removed from expectations that it threatens to alienate longtime fans. But many will no doubt find repeat listens unavoidable. And indeed, upon closer inspection, this is an intriguing, infectious and innovative dance-rock track which sets the tone perfectly for the remainder of the album.
“Lazy Boy” delves into X-Files territory at the start, with its use of a unison piano and synth line. The vocal delivery is lazy, as are the lyrics, perhaps appropriately, but the song as a whole feels uncertain as to its direction. This creates an initial impression of lazy songwriting. However, it could be read that the band intended this as another auditory illusion. Scratch the surface, and one finds that the song makes use of constantly shifting time signatures, meaning the length of each bar becomes unpredictable. A peppy electric guitar after the first verse and chorus provides enough to hint that this song, and in turn the album, holds promise.
In a nod to the title track, an ascending motif is used in the opening instrumentation of “Paper Cages”. A descending synth and electric guitar line very nearly prompts one to sing “blue blue, electric blue” from Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” (from the same album as the aforementioned “Breaking Glass”), a song which Franz Ferdinand have previously covered. A chromatically ascending, double tracked electric guitar line in the bridge is perhaps very vaguely reminiscent of Wings. In a move which will please longtime fans and radio alike, the groove is tight and familiar, recalling past hits from early in their career. This contrasts dramatically with “Finally”, a song which feels as though it was written down, cut up and reassembled in random order. While the chord progression is unconventional, its execution is a shave off the mark.
“The Academy Award” is a gentle, acoustic guitar, piano and synthesizer ballad making clever use of an unexpected chord progression in the lead in to the chorus to establish a melancholy transition. Unfortunately the lyrics are not as inspired, as evidenced by lines such as “salt, sugar and fat, there’s heavy traffic”. The band take a sudden and much needed U-turn on “Lois Lane”, a song featuring double tracked vocals and a tight pop drum groove in a coked-up, night out in Berlin style. A Solina string synthesizer line, encroaching on a similar string line used in “Our House” by Madness, takes the listener on a moving sojourn in the chorus. The song descends into a stomping romp in its outro, with the protagonist exclaiming his exasperation – “at the over 30s singles night, it’s bleak…see you next week”.
The pre-choruses of “Huck And Jim” make use of the same jangly guitar style used extensively on previous albums, in particular the Captain Beefheart-influenced You Could Have It So Much Better. After ascending vocal transitions, the straight, crunchy choruses sound like an attempt at post-punk singalong stadium rock – “Going to America, we’re gonna tell them ’bout the DSS”. It’s underscored by a coda which feels unnecessary on a studio album but which would certainly lend itself well to an adoring festival crowd.
“Glimpse of Love” is a steady dance-rock tune with varied influences, but notably featuring a descending “love, love, love” phrase recalling The Beatles, in addition to a guitar line preceding the verses which bares some semblance to “Do I Wanna Know?” by Arctic Monkeys. The next track, “Feel The Love Go” was released as the second single. Serving as the album’s major highlight, it ticks all the right boxes. An analogue synth bass line provides a rock-solid foundation for this certified dance floor filler. An extended saxophone solo is unexpected and nothing short of brilliant. The length of the song, the band’s performance and the mix are all on point and beautifully executed. The album then draws to a close on a rather somber and unremarkable note with “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow” devolving into an abstract sonic landscape rather than serving as another fully-fledged song.
The execution on Always Ascending isn’t always perfect, but Franz Ferdinand should absolutely be applauded for trying something new with their latest release. Longtime fans should not feel disillusioned. The band’s trademark sound is there, buried in the mix, but always seemingly within arm’s reach, with influences on sleeves. Yes, it’s a new direction, but it feels like a natural progression; a necessary reboot and adaptation to the times. Here’s hoping the band continues down this new found path and continues to adapt with future releases.
Always Ascending is released Friday 9th February via Domino Recording Company.