Review: The Alarm’s Direct Action
Mike Peters and The Alarm have spent the majority of this decade refining what it means to be "The Alarm". The "redefinition", be it in the form of songs, shenanigans, or new band members has not come at the expense of music. Twice, they have set-out to mine their sound and craft their songs with epic multi-volume sets of tracks for their fans to enjoy before they were pared them down into commercial albums. The first time they did it, in 2003 with the In The Poppy Fields Bond, you could audibly hear the band struggling against the chains of the past. Through 50+ songs, the band broke free of both the history of The Alarm, and the then recent solo material from Mike Peters, to define a sound all their own. The "bond" as it came to be known, helped produce two studio albums , 2004’s In The Poppy Fields and 2006’s Under Attack. In The Poppyfields was more like a "survey" of "The Bond", showcasing the wide variety of the sounds and topics that the band covered over the 5 albums from the series, but without defining any one genre. It was a massive, if unfocused achievement. However, snuck onto that record at the last minute, was a song that Mike Peters originally wrote as a "one-off", a sentimental ditty that played to heartstrings of punk fans everywhere named 45 RPM. In 2004, along with a subversive campaign including a fake band and media blitz, the song reached the #1 slot on the UK rock charts, took-on a had a life of it’s own, and came to define what The Alarm were about in the 21st century: Defiance.
When Mike Peters was struck with cancer for the second time in 2005, the success and energy of "45 RPM" was focused on the Under Attack album. Instead of one track with the energy of 1000 punk bands, Under Attack took fully 1/2 the album do the same thing. Raging stompers like Super Channel, My Town, Zero and Cease Desist co-existed with more contemplative tracks that harkened back to the glory days of the 80’s Alarm (i.e.Be Still, This Is The Way We Are and Rain Down. Under Attack) The album was more successful than its predecessor because of that focus. The results said this: It’s well and good to show people how talented you are (ala In The Poppy Fields), but much better to give than a reason to listen again and again. Under Attack did just that.
With his second fight against cancer still fresh in his mind, Mike Peters (with The Alarm) released the Counter Attack Collective in the summer of 2007, a second multiple-record set of new tracks (and a few re-recordings) meant to form the basis of the next album. Unlike the sprawling In The Poppy Fields Bond, The Counter Attack Collective seemed even more focused than the singular Under Attack album. The same two sides of Under Attack were in full force on the Collective. Punk barnstormers like Three Sevens Clash, Alarm Calling and Not Gonna Take It Anymore existed along-side brilliant rock tracks like Higher Call, Riot Squad, and Plastic Carrier Bags. There were no throwaways on the Counter Attack Collective. Every track was potential single, which made culling a single commercial album pretty difficult.
For 2008’s Guerrilla Tactics album, instead of trying to re-create Under Attack, The Alarm decided to take the album as far to one side as possible. With a couple exceptions (Love Hope Strength, Watching Me, Watching You) the album was wall-to-wall tracks played like it was 1979 all over again. The consistency worked well. The album garnered some great reviews, and remains the single album high-point for The Alarm’s in the "aughties". However, It was only one side of the story. The new album, Direct Action is that other side, and blows the roof off this new decade in a completely different way.
Direct Action does not attempt to recreate Guerrilla Tactics, in the same way that album did not try to recreate Under Attack. Don’t get me wrong, this album still rocks , and rocks hard. However, with no logical place else to go from Guerilla Tactics, it’s good that the band took a step back and looked to other inspirations for this release. However, as the album starts, you’d never know it. The lead track, Direct Action sums up nearly everything everything that was on Guerrilla Tactics in a single song. It’s massive lead-off that harkens all the way back to 45 RPM, and then leads right into the rest of the album. The set-up is too good. Disappointment must follow, right?
Wrong. Release The Pressure comes next. This is a re-write of Economic Pressure from the Counter Attack Collective, with Ranking Roger from The Beat in the line-up. It retains some of the ska-feel from the first version (and with that acts as another bridge out of the Guerilla Tactics era). However, the song has now been "Alarmfied" with soaring backing vocals, crunchy guitar leads, marital drums, and an explosive ending that matches anything they have ever done to date. Honestly, if you are the type that jumps around and sings along with your Alarm songs, you will be exhausted by the the time this track comes to an end.
The good news is, the next track gives you a breather from fist punching (but not from emotional impact). Plastic Carrier Bags was a stand-out from the Counter Attack Collective, and it does not disappoint here. The lyrics are some of the best Mike Peters has ever written, and with our excelerating culture, it holds more weight today than it ever did in the past. To beef this one-up to match the rest of the record, layers of guitars and drums were added, plus some nice guitar leads. None of it really changes the fact that at its core, this is simply a great song.
The song Loaded come next. In many ways this is what the track Devolution Working Man Blues should have been back in 1989. The idea here is to take The Alarm’s ideas of social awareness and marry it with the sound of a band like AC/DC. Not only is it a success, but it acts as a fantastic transition into the next, all new song, Control. With acoustic guitars and drums laid over a thumping bass-line, and "uh-uh-oh" backing vocals, this song is like nothing ever heard on an Alarm album, yet like many different tracks at the same time. Control begs people to "take control" even in light of the "Black Maria" and "CX Gas" (tools used to quell riots). This is probably not literal, but at the same time is not far from the type of sentiments The Alarm have been singing about for 30 years: social change by affecting one person at a time.
This kind of social change has recently hit the headlines and maligned under the name "social justice": a sometimes faith-based movement that holds the lessons of the Bible about poverty and the poor as much more important than those that are misconstrued as support for intolerance , violence and profiteering. The Alarm were never too far from the "social justice" train, even back in the day. Very early on The Alarm were calling on the sounds of Woodie Guthrie, maybe the 20th century’s spiritual leader in "social justice", but there was always a twist. The Alarm’s version of social justice was both a cry for fairness, and a call to action. Songs like Marching On and Absolute Reality didn’t just point out that things were "wrong", they asked people to do something about it. From this perspective Direct Action harkens back to these original Alarm songs in a very concrete way, with the song Control sitting squarely at the center.
After the blunt shock of Control a cover of Willie Nile’s One Guitar comes next, and boy is this one brilliant in light of the rest of the album. One Guitar is like a latter day Rockin In The Free World, except this time the cover is not a straight as The Alarm pulled-off for that Neil Young song on Raw. Here it sounds like a lost track from Declaration, still strumming those acoustic 12-strings of social change, but with other elements layered in to make it sound like Alarm songs of old. The Alarm always show their best side when interpreting songs, and One Guitar is no different. The fact that Mike Peters adds some familiar lines from Woodie Guthrie at the beginning only adds to the ambiance of this wonderful song.
In light of the social themes on this album, it’s interesting to hear the end of the Change trilogy on the next track. Change III finishes off the trilogy from Change album (Change II) and Raw b-side (Change I) with a crushing blow. It’s fitting, because while the world has "changed" in the 20 years since the Change album was released, in many ways (especially the struggles chronicled in the songs on this album) it has not changed much at all. This aspect of the album is solidified with Milk And Opportunity, a song that echoes those great b-sides from Declaration era like Reason 41 and Second Generation.
If there was a "side two" to an album these days, it would start with Come Alive. This track is an older brother to the some of the material from Mike Peter’s finest solo album Rise. However, with the acoustic guitars playing the major role in sound (along with some very Pete Townsend-esque guitar leads), the stage is set for a spectacular second half, while fitting in perfectly with the rest of the album. The slow burn of Come Alive leads into Badge Of Honor, which picks up the pace a bit, while stripping away the layers to find the album’s emotional core. It’s a nice shot of personal honestly that is allowed to settle in just before the album launches wildy into the stratosphere.
That launch would be the one signified by Higher Call, possibly one of the finest rock songs The Alarm has ever put together. This track takes the lessons learned on older tracks like Spirit Of ’76, The Drunk And Disorderly and The Innocent Party, and strips them down to the bare essentials to build it all back up again (a theme of The Alarm since the beginning). Soaring choruses match with crashing guitars and layers of acoustics. Sonically, the The Who is referenced again, but so is The Alarm from their 80’s and 21st century heights. Lyrically, if Badge Of Honor is the emotional core of the album then this song is the spiritual one. The feeling of this song marks a return to "something" that many Alarm fans have been hoping for, but have never been fully able to articulate. No need now, the band has done it for them.
Badge Of Honor Part II comes next, sounding like a another lost b-side from the Declaration era. The acoustic guitar and voice punctuated with guitar effects and a bit off drumming leads directly into the second biggest highlight of "side two", Freedom. The song is thumping mid-tempo rocker with an explosive chorus and lyrics that need to be both heard and listened-to to be understood. It’s a bit like the subversiveness of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, but rocks a heck of lot more, and solidifies the sociopolitical outlook of the album. Freedom takes the calls to action from the rest of the record and puts a big, glowing, red exclamation mark on them.
The digital download of the album includes a bonus track ([What About] The Man On The Street) at this point which sounds great and echoes much of sound and sentiment of Guerilla Tactics and (again) helps bridge the gap between the two albums. However, it’s the power of the final track, After The Rock And Roll Is Gone that really gets to you. This is Mike Peters singing about the ultimate future. He’s hoping that it’s all been worth it, that he has made his mark, not only the on people around him, but on himself. This final track is relatable in ways that few Alarm songs have been in the past, and punctuates an exponential growth in songwriting that appears on these tracks.
On the technical side, The Alarm in the 21st Century have never sounded better. The production is crisp and, and the songs, while "stripped" down as far as instrumentation, are layered in a way that we have not heard for many many albums. Harmonicas, backing vocals, acoustic layers, martial drums, and other intangibles all converge and add to a feeling of both familiarity and innovation. The album sounds like a single piece of music, that begs to be listened to. However, if a solid, focused sound was all it had, Direct Action would merely be necessary. Instead Direct Action marries those elements with a timely and pointed social outlook. The result is a piece of music that is not only necessary, but essential listening for this new decade.
-Steve Futlon April, 2010