Album review: Franz Ferdinand discovers a fresh new sound with 'Always Ascending'
Glasgow's indie darlings make up for their founding guitarist Nick McCarthy's departure with a more electronic-heavy, dance friendly sound.
Back in 2004, it was impossible to go to an indie disco and not come by Franz Ferdinand‘s ubiquitous indie-anthem ‘Take Me Out’. That track, and the self-titled album it came from, redefined the scope and range of British indie pop and turned frontman Alex Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson into one of the UK’s biggest, weirdest and most exciting bands.
In the 15 years since then, the Glaswegian band went on to produce three more stellar bestselling albums, headline some of the biggest music festivals and sell out arenas around the world. Pretty impressive for a band that proclaimed themselves as the "weirdos of the indie scene," who were always content to stay away from the limelight and more than happy with the "niche" tag they got for their dissonant, yet surprisingly groovy sound.
"That was never the desire. To get to that kind of level of playing stadiums and that being your life, you really have to want to do it and I don't [know] if we really have the obsession with that to get there,” frontman Alex Kaparanos confessed in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. Yet in 2018, Franz have found the need to prove themselves all over again, and the effort has definitely paid off.
Two years ago, founding guitarist Nick McCarthy left the band, and like every band that loses a keystone, the three remaining members were faced with the choice of imploding or evolving. Franz Ferdinand did neither for a bit and instead chose to collaborate with American rock-pop band Sparks, dubbing themselves as the supergroup, ‘FFS’.
Eventually, they picked up two new members: Julian Corrie (better known by his stage name "Miaoux Miaoux") on keys and Dino Bardot on guitar. From there they started over with a newfound purpose.
That newfound purpose also came with a newfound sound, immediately discernible on the very first swelling crescendo (which, by the way is Hans Zimmer's single favorite auditory illusion - The Shepard Tone) of the titular opening track of the new album, ‘Always Ascending’.
The lyric goes: "Always and always and always ascending / The Shepard misleads so you think you’re transcending." Clearly a self referential verse and also, a word play on "shepherd" who, like The Shepard tone, as a spiritual leader can trick his herd into believing they are reaching a higher spiritual place by following him. So Kapranos is still staying true to his style, cleverly packing well crafted lines around the limitations of the band’s new found synth hooks.
Leaning more towards the dance-punk genre championed by the likes of LCD Soundsystem, the album is full of self referential, self aware material that keeps blasting at you repeatedly in sync with the the synth heavy blast beats that mark the helter skelter choruses of most of the new songs on the album.
'The Academy Award’ is a track that feels like a modern disco reworking of The Kinks; ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’, as it wryly pokes fun at the world that’s drowned in the age of the selfie (“And the Academy Award for good times goes to you” Kapranos sings mockingly). 'Lois Lane' bursts into a blistering anthem about the darkness of middle age as Kapranos grimly acknowledges how he and the band have outgrown their boyish youth. He even recounts a tale of an "over-thirties-singles-only" night that he crashed while in his 20’s, admitting hopelessly that they have become what they despised in their youth - boring old people!
Kapranos is at his geekiest best on the track ‘Huck and Jim’ as he references Mark Twain (Huck is short for Huckleberry Finn and Jim his friend) and the NHS in evidently the only political track on the album, that talks about the deteriorating health care and welfare system around the world. From there, the band pulls straight back into two love songs, the ABBA styled ‘Glimpse of Love’ and soon to become gig-hit ‘Feel the Love Go’ with plenty of pop hooks and superfluously blending tempo shifts.
The closing track, ’Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow' is as melancholy as the opening track is vivacious, giving the album a full range of emotions to explore and some much needed diversity too. McCarthy’s guitars are missing, but it’s not like the signature Franz Ferdinand guitar sound is entirely gone — it’s just slightly subdued under the overwhelming layers of synthesizers.
The Verdict — Franz Ferdinand was always an act that was comfortable in its own skin, skimming across unconventional styles and embracing them fearlessly. They still very much remain the same in spirt, but love it or hate it, with a much more pop-leaning twist.