Kevin McGrath reviews the long-awaited debut album from Silent Forum.
Two years ago, Silent Forum released Sanctuary+, a cassette-only compilation issued through Oddbox, that collected together a handful of the band’s essential singles and EP’s recorded between 2015-2017. For die-hard followers of Cardiff’s indie-noir outfit this was a sign of progress, proof positive that the band had left some sort of imprint on the capital’s music scene. At the same time, however, it felt like the end of an era too – despite his captivating stage presence, frontman Richard Wiggins (think Ian Curtis, Samuel T. Herring and Marcel Marceau all rolled into one) remained the best-kept secret in Welsh pop; the band still hadn’t secured a conventional record deal and they were largely absent from the nation’s radio stations too. And all this at a time when fellow Cardiff combo Boy Azooga, playing to an audience of millions on Later…with Jools Holland, seemed to have hit the pop jackpot on the first spin of the wheel.
The group’s frustration with the Welsh music establishment was evident on “How I Faked The Moon Landing”, a groovy, six-minute epic that railed against the band’s continued underdog status. Indeed, the song’s key line ‘We’re destined to be a local band not on local radio’, while being laugh out loud funny, was a disarmingly honest appraisal of the group’s prospects. There was a delicious irony, then, in events as they unfolded in the summer of 2018 – a song furiously lamenting a lack of radio exposure was suddenly ever-present across the airwaves. Soon enough, DJs, bloggers and music critics were including the track in their ‘best of 2018’ playlists. The frenetic follow-up single “Robot” reinforced the impression that this was a band on the up and an album deal with Libertino was announced before the summer was out.
While it’s entirely predictable that Everything Solved at Once, Silent Forum’s confidently constructed debut album should kick off with the uber-pop of killer single “Robot”, the pair of tracks that follow thrillingly confound expectations*. “Spin” is a hypnotic maelstrom of fractured guitar licks and soaring vocals, while “Safety In Numbers”, an atypical ballad built around interweaving melody lines, overlapping vocals and an intriguing meditation on friendship (the tune drifts to a close with a roll call of band members and a status update as to their well-being), is a stunning track that speaks to the band’s versatility and ambition. Side 1 (the revival of vinyl means that we can write about albums in these terms once again), concludes with “A Great Success”, a number that surges along on a classic indie-noir riff, before climaxing in a stadium-sized chorus, and the curiously-titled “Credit To Mark Sinker” (a music journalist, if you were wondering), which sees Wiggins channelling his inner Robert Lloyd. Despite an intriguing lyric, it’s probably the least effective track on show here.
The title track kicks off a strong second side; “Everything Solved At Once”, a punchy number with a towering chorus, is reminiscent of early-period Editors and has ‘future single’ stamped all over it. “A Pop Act” is a prequel/sequel to “How I Faked The Moon Landing” and offers further surreal commentary on the band’s struggle to punch a hole in the pop stratosphere – ‘Went back to the Swedish furniture company / returned our flat pack songs / I don’t like my music bland… I like it intense and sad’. The album builds to an edgy finish with three outstanding tracks; “Outmoded”, is a brooding, beast of a track built around a mournful base motif and a shrill guitar; “A Kind Of Blue”, a song which has been a staple of the band’s live shows for some time, usually sparks into life in a live setting thanks to Wiggins’ strange exhortations during the tune’s extended instrumental break. There are no visual aids to cue our emotional responses here, of course, but the song is a triumph nonetheless, thanks to the pitch-perfect production skills of Charlie Francis. Importantly, the album benefits from a coherent feel throughout, despite the unexpected presence of a trumpet and even a burst of canned applause at one point, which is testimony to Francis’ guidance but also, to the chemistry that exists between comrades-in-arms Oli Richards (bass) Dario Ordi (guitar) and Elliot Samphier (drums). The album closes with the delirious, dance-punk of “How I Faked the Moon Landing”, the song building to a triumphant close as Wiggins defiantly positions the band as outliers – “Why would we want to be like them?” he insists over and over again as the music exhausts itself.
Everything Solved at Once is a black-comedy concept album about life on the fringes of the Welsh music biz, which is something of a first for my record collection and, quite possibly, yours. While pop music has a history of self-referential songs, from “Hey, We’re the Monkeys” to the 80’s frippery of “Ant Music”, Silent Forum push this self-obsession to its limit, with over half of their debut LP (as well as a couple of recent B-sides) devoted to the internal machinations of the band. This may seem to be a chronic case of navel-gazing and part of me does indeed yearn for a return to the intense, anxiety-driven songwriting that gave birth to early band classics such as “Limbo”, the emotionally pulverising “Who’s Going to Side With Me?” and the traumatic epic “Hosanna”. Wiggins has clearly moved on, though, writing with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a sharp eye for a whip-smart one-liner about his band and, in a curious sub-theme, workplace alienation as experienced by a cluster of ‘data cleansing worker bees’.
Everything Solved at Once catapults Silent Forum straight into the top tier of indie-noir, even as they begin to shift their sound into a more dance-punk oriented direction. In common with other trailblazers of the genre, from The Murder Capital and Fontaines DC to the punkier Shame, Silent Forum make music that thrums with the disquietude of the times. While Indie-noir hasn’t delivered an outright classic album post Joy Division, Everything Solved At Once, a claustrophobic, yet cinematic record, may, in time, rank alongside near misses such as Whipping Boy’s Heartworm (1995) Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights (2002), Editors’ The Back Room (2005) or The National’s High Violet (2010).
*The digital track listing differs from that of the Vinyl release.