After two celebrated albums through Rise Above Records, London-based space proggers Litmus return to self-releasing with their fourth full-length, Slaughterbahn. The album finds the unit no less Hawkwindian than ever, heavy doses of mellotron bringing out a King Crimson-esque feel on songs like “Kommissar” and “Satellites” while other songs – and indeed, other parts of those songs – delve into heavier rock, punk, new wave and more modern, Porcupine Tree-style riffing. Foremost, it is super-British. Way British. All three members who were in the band when Slaughterbahn was recorded at Foel Studios – Simon (guitar, synth), Martin (bass, mellotron, synth) and Marek (drums, synth) – contribute vocals, and the songs vary widely across the album’s 12 tracks/47 minutes, the opening three cuts, “Deeper,” “Spark” and “Breakout” setting the tone for much the expanse that follows by bridging a gap between classic space jamming and synth-laden punk insistence, all the while keeping a mind toward riffy hooks. For example, as it’s presented on Slaughterbahn, the central riff of “Deeper” is surrounding by a swirling wash, but its fuzzy start-stop guitar line in the verse isn’t so far off from Queens of the Stone Age at their peak, and that Litmus take the progression to an impressive run of guitar soloing and bass fills rounded out by mellotron and keyboard layering only speaks to the cohesiveness of the trio’s vision. With a clean, smooth production, “Deeper” announces no dip in Litmus’ level of songwriting – the chorus is memorable and conveyed without stepping away from the necessary sense of prog indulgence – and, as the more straightforward “Spark” takes hold, it becomes increasingly apparent that Litmus have expanded their breadth, not contracted it. The mellotron melody underscoring the final chorus of “Deeper” cuts to silence, a quick “yep” begins “Spark” and immediately the song takes off, Marek’s snare double-timing while Martin’s bass runs circles around it, Simon’s guitar tossing in lead lines as the build mounts to the tracks’ finish with an encompassing synth swirl. Mellotron also rings through the background of “Breakout,” but the pacing is even faster, Litmus seeming to strip the sound further down to its roots with each passing track.
The thing to keep in mind at this point is that these songs are all pretty short, so it’s happening fast. “Deeper” is 3:53, “Spark” is 2:59 and “Breakout” is 1:44, so Slaughterbahn isn’t yet 10 minutes on before it firmly establishes both that indeed there is no speed limit and that the road before the trio is both skyward and winding. As though by necessity, “Static” begins with a sampled explosion. How could it not? Litmus certainly sounds ready to blow by the end of “Breakout” – which barely had time for its own chorus but remained catchy nonetheless – so at 5:17, it’s up to “Static” to hit the brakes a bit and still manage to keep the flow consistent, which, fortunately, it does. At 2:50, a thicker, fuzzier guitar is introduced and the effect both darkens the atmosphere – mellotron and synth continue to intertwine behind – and begins an instrumental build that plays out over the remainder of the track, Marek’s drums layering in quick hits even as the kit itself fades to silence in anticipation of the coming rush of “Streamers,” which has a kind of classic jangle in its guitar tone and poppy hook of a chorus, taking a cue from late ‘60s British psychedelia and modernizing the cadence even as colors are sounded out in semi-harmonized layers of vocals. Just when it seems they’ve wandered too far from their purpose, they pull back to the chorus to finish, leaving it to the highlight cut “Satellites” to revive the space rock vibing. The guitar seems to count down to the song’s eventual liftoff, dual vocals and synth coming on to top and fill out the verse while the chorus is less of a hook but still memorable overall, Martin rounding it out with some of Slaughterbahn’s best bass while Marek keeps the beat straightforward and the guitars gradually reemerge. It comes to a head after the second chorus – the lines “Take the heavens, give me the stars/Give me the future/Blind obsession left in the past,” standing out like the new paganism of science – and then the quick “1×1” (actually 1:20) affirms Litmus’ ascent with a quick linear run that devolves into sci-fi boops and beeps.
So far as I know, there isn’t a vinyl release of Slaughterbahn, but if one was to look at the tracklisting as split between sides A and B, then “1×1” might be meant to serve as the introduction for the back half of the album, on which the songs are generally longer – “Lights Out” in an exception at 1:06 – and leaning more toward the heavier end of space and prog. “Last Man Standing” doesn’t lose its chorus-based sensibility for being so heavily indebted to Hawkwind, and the central riff begins with a kind of mid-‘70s motor-rock vibe that it manages to keep despite all the anti-gravity effects around it. Simon’s guitar solo – matched by Martin almost the whole way through and eventually layered in on both channels – underscores that classic vibe, and Marek follows with an effects-laden drum solo, Litmus once more going as far out as they can before returning to the ground their chorus has already laid out. The faster “Sleepless” (6:14) reintroduces some of the punkish burst of “Breakout,” but recontextualizes it into something spacier with an instrumental second half that seems to spend its last two minutes ending the song. Not something to begrudge the band – it wouldn’t be prog if it wasn’t grandiose at some point, and the chorus preceding is both skillfully arranged and similar to “Streamers” in its hurried feel. A long fade brings a smooth transition into “Lights Out,” a sample of crowd noise resting under a simple, sweet rising melody that takes full hold before the 30-second mark. It’s probably faster, Marek’s snare tapping out a march behind the mellotron, but the vocal melodies follow a Beatlesian path, either the Beatles directly or someone influenced by them and it’s a soothing setup to the contrast that the 3:18 “Kommissar” is soon to provide with a fleet, crisp Steven Wilson-style guitar line, call and response vocal and more intense chorus. There’s almost a sense of panic, but it works as the song breaks following its second cycle through and the synth and mellotron come to prominence in the mix in the last push. “Kommissar” is no less a highlight than was “Satellites” or “Last Man Standing,” and its thicker thrust works to setup the airier jam in the closing title-track, “Slaughterbahn” also being the longest song on the album at 7:54.
It’s mostly instrumental, but they work a few verses into the midsection, almost sidestepping the jam to do so, before continuing onward, as though they just popped in to check on a structure before leaving off again in search of – you guessed it – space. Martin’s bass propels the rhythm forward under lead lines from Simon in the second half, and atop the consistent foundation that Marek’s drums have provided since the track began, they bring it around to the repetition of the lines, “Always changing/Always the same,” which serve as the final lyrical statement of Slaughterbahn (they’re also printed on the side of the tray card behind the CD, so as to be part of the cover art, and the last minute is devoted to maximizing the swirl in that run before ending cold. Earlier in the album, they exploded after such a climax, but the more subdued vocals at the end of “Slaughterbahn” would make another boom out of place. It’s a fitting end, though, and all the more so because “Slaughterbahn” in itself is about as long as the first three tracks put together. Litmus’ latest will appeal to a special kind of prog fan, one more tied to the melodies of older King Crimson than the current technically-minded offspring or the ambient metallers calling themselves progressive, but the album has both heavy riffs enough to appeal to a harder-rocking audience and several landmark choruses that show not only songwriting acumen but a learned ability to structure an album as a whole to make the most dynamic listen possible. Slaughterbahn Is a far cry from a lot of the heavy psychedelia coming out of the European mainland these days, but it shares a lot of the same influences, and for that, the band’s long-running crossover appeal shouldn’t be at all diminished from what it was either on 2009’s Aurora (review here) or 2007’s Planetfall. The band have been through some lineup changes since that time, and indeed since Slaughterbahn was recorded, adding keyboardist James to the fold, but their music remains consistent and engaging here and hopefully will continue to do so as Litmus journey further into the cosmos.
Tags: Litmus, Litmus Music, Litmus Slaughterbahn, London, Prog, UK