Honesty is the best policy, so here’s some honesty: I don’t know all that much about Manic Street Preachers. Obviously I know the stories about guitarist Richey Edwards disappearance, the band’s subsequent success and critical acclaim, and their place as Wales’ preeminent rock band, with all due respect to Stereophonics and Super Furry Animals.
But The Manics and their heyday were before my time, and while groups like The Stone Roses and The Charlatans made their way into my purview, The Manics never ranked among them. Despite being paid to know a lot about all music, and rock music specifically, I am admittedly ignorant when it comes to the band.
But today I’m turning that shameful bit of self-acknowledgement into positivity because it means that I get to listen to Manic Street Preachers’ brand new album The Ultra Vivid Lament with no preconceived notions and no biases. It also means that I have to listen to it without any previous context or idea with how it ranks with their other thirteen albums, but that’s just how it goes.
I can, however, tell you that The Ultra Vivid Lament is an expansive piece of alternative rock that seems purposefully made to be belted throughout the largest of venues. Stadium rock can vary in quality: it can be wonderful when it’s Queen, but it can be dour when it’s Coldplay. The Manics never let their broad scope compromise their experimental qualities, and their sharp lyrical focus keeps them from staying into nebulous and mindless arena chants.
The Ultra Vivid Lament is positively apocalyptic, from its appropriately named second track ‘Orwellian’ to the stunted development metaphors in ‘Diapause’. Images of false idols, mirages, and destruction abound, but never at the expense of a certain sense of optimism and sentimentality. If the actual apocalypse ends up being this uplifting, perhaps it won’t be so bad after all.
The music itself is in top form, featuring an eclectic mix of heavy guitars, keyboards, soundscapes, harmonies, and driving drums. The Manics play with tempo and traditional song structures in ways that are engaging but never distracting. Catchiness doesn’t feel like a forced element of the songs, but a byproduct of a band who have found their signature sound and are supremely confident in their ability to play it better than anyone else in the world.
There probably isn’t a lot of room for jumping on Manic Street Preachers’ bandwagon at this point. They’re a firmly established band with three decades of history and fandom already behind them, and their diehards have been diehards for longer than I have been alive. Still, it’s never too late to realise what you’ve been missing, and I believe that I need to take a dive into the band’s extensive discography.
I have no idea what The Ultra Vivid Lament will sound like to Manic fans, or even to casual listeners aware of their sound, but I’m living proof that the band are still making records good enough to convert new devotees.