Gareth Kent reviews James Dean Bradfield’s new solo record, an anti-establishment concept album inspired by the life of Chilean revolutionary poet and songwriter Victor Jara, Even in Exile.
Manic Street Preachers’ frontman, James Dean Bradfield, requires little introduction to anyone with as much as a minor or cursory interest in the Welsh rock scene. With his second solo album, Even in Exile, however, Bradfield makes a clear example of why the Manic Street Preachers have endured as a veritable rock of Gibraltar to the Welsh music scene while re-instating his claim as a solo artist.
Most artists who attempt to progress beyond their band into a solo career struggle when faced with instrumental limitations, resulting in a more languid and hollow production. Sometimes, artists remain entrapped by the rubric of what’s familiar and opt to appease fans by attempting to re-create a similar sound, yet, falter without the well-practised instrumentation of their bandmates. Other times, musicians have sought a total departure into the unfamiliar territory of an alternative genre, resulting in an album more slap-dash than practised, pleasing few. Fortunately, Even in Exile preserves a sound familiar to fans of Manic Street Preachers, while developing Bradfield’s musical chops further, thanks to the direction of its concept, similar to his 2006 solo, The Great Western, yet, bolder.
Conceptually, Even in Exile is Bradfield’s tribute to the Chilian musician, poet, teacher, and political activist, Víctor Jara, who was brutally murdered by the oppressive regime of Augusto Pinochet. On September 12th 1973, a US-backed military coup d’état saw Jara arrested among thousands of left-wing political activists that were rounded up and imprisoned in the national stadium of Chile. Soon recognised as a prominent left-wing figure, Jara was gruellingly tortured, and even ridiculed to play the guitar after having each of his fingers smashed. Despite bearing such inhumane tortures, however, Jara responded with defiance and humility by singing the Chilean protest song, ‘Venceremos’. Jara was then murdered shortly after by a gunshot that resounded for generations to come.
Of course, a Welsh musician dedicating an album to a figure of Chilian activism might, initially, seem random and oddly specific. Bradfield, however, provides us with an accompanying mini-podcast series, Inspired by Jara, where he, amongst other artists, discuss the wide influence Jara has had on musicians, politics, and the arts. Indeed, with the frightening rise of fascist rhetoric in contemporary politics, Even in Exile is also a far more relevant album than it might appear on the surface.
Sonically, Bradfield mixes his more traditional hard-edged guitar solos with melodic Latin American tenors, brass, and 70’s inspired synths. Fans of the Manic Street Preachers need not be concerned, however, as Bradfield’s trademarked guitar solos continue to dominate each track. For example, while the album begins with the deceptive gentleness of a string melody in ‘Recuerda’, this song rapidly transmutes into an oil-drenched rock ballad. ‘There’ll Come A War’ is one of the album’s quieter numbers, yet, also its most oppressive in the vein of Pink Floyd’s ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ Accompanying the gentle piano chords is a military-like drum-roll with a domineering ambient synth that drowns everything in a despotic haze. ‘Seeking the Room with Three Windows’ is a blistering example of progressive rock that’ll please any fan of Bradfield’s guitar, but also highlights one of the biggest departures in Even in Exile from his previous output – the vocals. While beautifully imagined by Welsh poet and playwright, Patrick Jones, the vocals tend to take a backseat to the instrumentation, perhaps too frequently. Ultimately, it’s clear that, with Even in Exile, Bradfield has sought a more instrumental and melodic approach, and this pays off in dividends in the hauntingly nostalgic ‘Under the Mimosa Tree’. Whenever the vocals do surface, however, Bradfield’s distinctive yowls takes precedence, and remain as solid as ever, such as in the fantastic protest anthem, ‘Thirty Thousand Milk Bottles’.
‘La Partida’ is a bolstering rendition of Jara’s original song of the same name, and is one of the album’s definite highlights. The track features vibrant Latin American melodic tones, a splatter of synth, and deep guitars riffs, woven tightly together in a stirring dirge steeped in an atmosphere of rebellion. The instrumentation, however, is itself compressed by a vocal accompaniment that takes precedence and functions as an instrument itself, produced as if the ghosts of the past were chanting their fiery protest. ‘La Partida’ is a spectre for all killed and maimed by oppressive regimes; it is the people who continue to shoulder the weight of history, who chant in a peaceful, yet, defiant reminder, a warning, and elegy.
Overall, Bradfield’s Even in Exile is everything we love about Manic Street Preachers, and, in many ways, more. Like previous Manic albums, it is politically conscious, engages with themes of history, conflict, and art with supreme inventiveness. What sets Even in Exile apart, however, is how carefully the album is directed by its concept. Ultimately, Even in Exile looks to the past with a conscious mind, one which aims to situate the spirit of Jara at the forefront of the present, and succeeds.
Even In Exile by James Dean Bradfield is available now from MontyRay.
Gareth Kent is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.