Gary Raymond reviews the eighth studio album from Newport hard rock outfit, Smile by Skindred.
Music is not a competition, even though the charts have been pitting artist against artist since the fifties. It used to be a very serious business, and history has even given us a fair share of cultural moments as the sport of sales has brought with it legendary drama – Englebert Humperdinck pipping the Beatles to #1 in 1967, or Oasis versus Blur, for instance fighting for the top spot with their weakest ever singles in “Roll with It” and “Country House”. In the last week or so, in the Newport area at least, tension has been high, as my hometown’s metal legends Skindred, formed in 1998 when frontman Benji Webbe left Dub War, have found themselves in the unexpected position of vying for their first number one album of their 25-year history. For a while, midweek, they were top of the tree, but didn’t quite manage to sustain it to the all-important Sunday night rundown, but it doesn’t matter. Skindred have had the publicity push they have so long deserved, and they have had for their best album to date, their eighth, Smile.
Smile is the only thing a great Skindred album can be: colossal. In the past, when Webbe and the boys have tried to pull us in and treat us to some intimacy, it hasn’t quite worked – moments on Babylon (2018) and Union Black (2011), for instance, felt like forced textural patterns, something most metal and punk bands couldn’t give two power chords about. Plug in and let it rip, that’s Skindred at their best. And this is whereSmile works without fault. This is an album that has only Skindred’s strengths. Anthemic, political, energetic, cathartic, and that effortless meshing of hard rock and ragga – you can see immediately why the response to it has been so euphoric. Webbe is finally getting the credit in the UK he has long commanded on the metal circuit in Europe and beyond. He without doubt one of Wales’s most important musical figures. And Smile will have longevity. Skindred have recorded some superb records (2007’s Roots Rock Riot hit Number 7 in Wales Arts Review’s 100 Greatest Welsh Albums of All Time in 2021), but this is arguably the pinnacle. “Gimme that Boom” has the punch to blow over anything as flimsy as a parliamentary building, “Set Fazers” has the edges to strip the skin off you from a thousand yards, “If I Could” is a classic of radio rock, “Black Stars” is going to lift many a festival crowd into the stratosphere in the coming years. Webbe has never sounded so good and the band has never sounded so settled in that sweet spot between commercial sheen and raw integrity (they’ve had a habit in the past of slipping too far one way or the other).
And it wouldn’t be Skindred without that permeating dedication to having a good time. It is propulsive, unadorned, positive, progressive, joyous – love is what the people want. Indeed. Smile is an album full of good time vibes. A band using the power of rock to explode from the consistent drag of life in the 2020s. A glowing review of Smile in The Daily Express, (yes, that Daily Express), bemoans the drawback of the anti-government sentiment on the album, to which I say, either get on board or get out of the way. Twenty-five years in and Smile sounds like Skindred are just getting started.
Smile by Skindred is available now from Napalm Records.