It’s impossible to mention Snapped Ankles to anyone who’s familiar with them without being told how excellent they are live. For any band that builds their initial reputation as a formidable live act, transferring that energy and intensity to a recorded album is always going to be a challenge. A challenge which can result in a dilemma, between choosing to record an album full of toned-down edits that only come alive as extended jams on stage, or to just go for a different sound entirely on a record rather than try and imitate something that can’t be captured. Personally, I haven’t yet seen Snapped Ankles live – something I plan to rectify as soon as possible – so I can’t speak directly for their gigs. But their debut album, Come Play the Trees, was strikingly entertaining and unusual enough for me to have been excited to check out this new album.
Snapped Ankles follow the same well-thumbed playbook of self-mythology that many bands seeking to create an air of mystique have used in the past. But their execution of the old tricks is impressively committed. They’ve kept their identities secret and obscure their faces (and pretty much their entire bodies) with elaborate leaf-covered masks – trees and foliage play a big part in the band’s visual aesthetic, as well as bleeding over into the lyrics. According to the band’s murky origin story, they “came from the trees…before settling in the fertile sub-tropical climes of East London”, whereupon they set about customising their homemade synths with branches and bits of tree.
But fancy costumes and wacky instruments are nothing if you haven’t got the tunes to back it up. And while Snapped Ankles still sound like themselves and not quite like anyone else, Forest of Your Problems lacks something of the freewheeling creativity and riotous energy of their debut album. The band sound more focused, tighter – the songs don’t sprawl – if anything, they sound…more accessible?
Lead single, ‘Shifting Bassline of the Cornucopians’, is led by a militaristic drum beat and a synthesised marching band, while the lyrics skirt the topics of wealthy inequality and the self-preserving tactics of the super-rich. Following this, ‘Undilated Lovers’ trots along at a similarly high-energy pace – the motorik percussion combined with bubbling synths and angular guitars showing why the band are often described as post-punk. The album builds to a peak with ‘Rhythm is our Business’, which is essentially a no holds barred, pogo-along – driven by urgent drums and hyperactive synths, and is practically impossible to sit still to. If you aren’t moved to start jumping up and down, you’ll at least find your foot has involuntarily started tapping. The track attempts to pull off the band’s two apparent ambitions in one go, taking a punkish swipe at capitalism and the ills of modern society while simultaneously kicking out a glorious danceable racket. And this will get you dancing like someone’s burning the soles of your feet, “Rhythm is our business, and it’s time to get doooooooooown….to business!”.
All of this is great fun but, – and here’s the rub of translating live performances to home listening – for as an album, it lacks something. There’s nothing on Forest of Your Problems like the sprawling eight minute epic, ‘Johnny Guitar Calling Gosta Berlin’ from their debut, or the shoutily manic, ‘I Want my Minutes Back’. The band sound much less otherworldly, and the range of sounds they employ is narrower. Maybe it’s down to a change in equipment, but for whatever reason the guitar is much less in evidence, with synths taking the lead on nearly every track. But the sound wrought from the machines in each case is largely the same kind of acidic squelch – great for injecting dancefloor energy, but over the course of the album it wears a little thin.
Also of note is the fact the vocals take up more of the foreground on Forest of Your Problems than before, where they served as secondary to the band’s frenetic musical cacophony. And whereas before the vocal range may have included anything from high-pitched yelps to ritualistic chanting, here it’s confined to the flat baritone style practically synonymous with post-punk. More emphasis too, seems to be placed on the lyrics themselves. And while they remain largely in the realm of the abstract and surreal, we get a sense of the band’s concerns: inequality, the atomisation of society, the failures of capitalism. This comes to life on ‘Shifting Basslines of the Cornucopians’, which also incorporates the band’s love of plant life, as it announces, “It’s a great time to be alive – if you own your own hedge fund.”
Despite it not packing the punch of a live show, Forest of Your Problems maintains a high energy level throughout, with the band not missing a beat as they transition from post-punk, to wigged out synth jams to the funky, ‘The Prince is Back’. These guys are clearly tight, they play as a well-honed unit and in spite of my complaint that their sound has become less ragged, it does make for a punchy and cohesive record. And there’s no denying that Snapped Ankles are one of the more original bands to bubble to the surface from the underground, if anything their only crime here is sounding a little too much like themselves.