ALBUM REVIEW: King of the Slums – ‘Encrypted Contemporary Narratives’: the life we live now as we may not wish to see it

MANCHESTER: that great north-west city with, in the words of an idol very much on an unfortunate downward curve these days, so much to answer for.

It’s given us some of the most amazing acts and subcultures of the popular music age. But I’ll advance a theory here, if I may; there’s very much two Manchesters within Manchester – and that’s while for now not referencing the fact that on its western side it wraps itself around an entire other city, Salford, like a vanishing twin poised at the point of being reabsorbed in the womb.

Travel from the southern edges of the conurbation to the hilly north, and note how on your journey the accent drops from the nose to the back of the throat, a signifier still of different migratory absorptions.

And I propound that musically there’s at the very least two cities in Manchester in terms of musical tradition. Probably three.

There’s the learned, bookish, emotional city of 10CC, of James, of The Smiths. There’s the hedonistic, dance-yourself-away away, groove-embracing city of the Stone Roses, of 808 State, of A Certain Ratio and Grand Central.

And then there’s the twilight town. The rubble-strewn cobbled lane that truncates in grass, a literal road to nowhere. Old men picking sour blackberries down the back of the scrappies. The crumbling boozer with a huge vat of pease pudding where the landlord downs the lights because ‘he looks better in the dark’. The weatherbeaten shops selling shrink-wrapped, mint-condition goods from the 1970s not as a retro-lifestyle accoutrement, but because they still have them in stock.

Now Shaun Ryder, at his biting best, he had a foot in camps two and three. RIP Mark E Smith, who charted this world through “Fiery Jack” and “Paranoia Man In Cheap Sh*t Room” and so many other warped and occult diary entries.

And on and off through the past 30-plus years we’ve had the unblinking eye and precise ear of King of the Slums’ Charley Keigher, who’s led us by the hand through a world of vicious British boyfriends, of psycho motorbike rides, dirty little artdogs. Yep, not the world we escape into, nor the land we’d like to think we live in as our very best selves; the world we pass through and live amongst, the curtains wrenched back to let the unforgiving light in.

After too many years away following that excellent early run of long players, the Barbarous English Fayre compilation, Dandelions and Blowzy Weirdos fractured in a series of fallings out – with management, with the record company, with each other – and a brief surfacing as Slum Cathedral User ten years ago – Charley’s been back incanting in our heads for three years now – and on such a rich run of form. There’s been two new albums, Manco Diablo and Artgod Dogs; a 12”, and only weeks ago, a digital compilation, Our Favourite Trainers, which we reviewed and wholly approved of.

The muse is perched on his shoulder, whispering new truths to him with the fragrance of an afternoon on the Joseph Holt’s mild. We spoke to Charley just around the release of the compilation; he told us then (and it’s a cracking read, here) that he’d “ … got two more albums written during lockdown. Just hope we can get it all recorded.”

Well here’s their third studio album in four years, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Charley been out seeing how the town’s doing, pricking its finger and taking a drop of the crimson stuff. Come ‘head pal. In here.

Barbarous English fayre: King of the Slums’ Clarissa Trees (violinist) and vocalist and lyricist Charley Keigher.

“Faux Faux Le Bardot” – the audio embedded below, dive in – she’s actually the second character we meet. Firstly, our narrator, fancying a night on the prowl, notes that his “skin breaks / Scab starts / Get dressed / In rude health”. He’s off to a burlesque club as the drums roll like a storm out over Cheshire and guitar chords chop. Just listen to the way Charley rolls and enunciates Faux Faux Le Bardot – the beauty of the sound in his mouth, the accent wringing the poetry from the name. He pulls, goes back to her, they chat; “I’m not so healthy these days / Think that cat was … cursed,” he comments. Like all the best folk tales, we don’t know. It could be an STD, some mental affliction real or imagined. Bad city juju. It’s like “Lola” as if painted by Edward Burra.

Which is a good mindset to be in as the camera pulls back, pans in again on “Posh Town Witchcult” – menopausal meltdown, an attempted rebuilding of the self to escape some implicit crisis, “On a fancy development / On the edge of the greenbelt / Understated topiary / Zero graffiti / This is the place where Julia went peculiar”. Clarissa’s out-folk violin lament huddles tight with fuzz guitar to evoke thunderheads gathering over the finery of Worsley or somesuch.

“Fridgehead Canoe” has the pitbull-at-the-circumference-of-its-chain urgency and hallucinatory quality of classic Play Hard-era KOTS. You feel the malevolence, the shade, of a world where  a couple run “a flower shop down a ginnel” that no one ever enters. What’s the story there? No time to enquire. Until: “I went by their shop the other day / But police tape barred my way / Two florists had been arrested / They found a head in the fridge.” Dickensian, frightening. And, y’know, this stuff happens.

On “Cockroach Frequency” Clarissa’s violin is on top urban siren form, a little punctuating trill of pure tone, a muezzin call off the top of one of the orange towers in the precinct. Cockroaches ruining the domestic set-up, crawling and frickin’ itching around the renter’s psyche. Another burrowing, breeding worry in a life brimming with them.

“Snake Pass Luggage” – an evocative three words. Packing for the break east over the A57, winding up over the edges of Saddleworth. An escape, a fleeing? It comes in on almost Afro break, all loose limbs, back-alley tins; guitars howl and rise wrapped like catherine wheels flown loose and wild. It is, I fear, as bad we conjectured: “Why you shaking?” asks the Charley-character. Where are we being taken? We’re down by Ladybower, the huge reservoir with drowned villages; we’re a long bloody way from what we know. What have you found out there? A bag: “It’s an off-the-scale car boot sale! / You’ve got guns, knives, drugs … My friend, you’ve acquired some game changing luggage!”. The melody of the verse dances on the razorblade edge of discord, the violin drawing rich red blood. It trills to a close on a krautrocky repeating motif. What’s up for the taking will be taken. Finders keepers; let that be the whole of the law.

“Codewriter” perfectly illustrates the tension between the life we tell ourselves we live and the life that that little nagging voice tells us we actually might be. It’s got more space than some of the throttlingly close numbers elsewhere on Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, instruments packed close like brick terraces; it presents as a conversation between a couple, one a dreamer, writing himself an upbeat life of protection: 

“Go and fix the car mate, I’ve appointments to keep

      Are you going to the dentist, fix yer wonky teeth?

It’s none o’ yer business, I’ve a few errands to run…

       Soz, can’t get the parts till Monday, I’ve had too much on.

You know you’re a waste of space, and this place is tiny.

        I can’t shrink, and I do try and keep it tidy

I could get a fancy job

Writing code and earn a lot

I could work from a yacht, somewhere hot, get a dog…

You never show any faith…

       Well fix the car and I’ll drive us to a church.

Look…I’ve enrolled on a codewriting course at a tech hub

       No you’ve enrolled on a fag-rolling course at a clown hub!”

“104 Words”  steps onto its front step on a stabbing piano. Cars. Cars broken, cars as a means of possible abduction, cars as a Ballardian nihilist rush. In the modern city, in an encrypted contemporary narrative, you need wheels. The singer of “104 Words” reveals “we drove dead fast with the lights switched off” and “there are many things to die for, but nothing to kill for,”. It’s shaping up as a bleak urban death-wish confessional ballad until, about a minute and a half in, it furies into a flaying skirl of violin, neo-metal cyclical, Charley whipping it on: “Hey! Hey!”.

“Odd Sock Drawer” is a kitchen sink romance – inasmuch as in it Charley and Clarissa duet in a world based on the odd sock drawer. One day, there’ll be a world of matching socks; until then “Quiet despair gets you nowhere … by the power invested in us /  You never know, we can change some stuff”. In the gutter, looking at the socks. Of all the songs on here “Odd Sock Drawer” almost approaches a C86 fuzzpop melodicism; think Shop Assistants at a lock-in, maybe.

“The Mercy Clown” sounds like a terrifying Mancunian folk-horror being; the sort that sidles up to you on the night bus, body held awkwardly as if only recently inhabited, asking to come home with you in a tinny fluting. “Show, show, show me mercy,” Charley and Clarissa again duet, a little cool jazz offbeat framing the acid guitar bite; “Brought the wrong kids back from the nursery”.

It shares that theatricality of KOTS at their best with the closer, “Sugar Rush”, a pin-sharp and delirious chapter in a quotidian pisswet evening. The guitars are doomy; “I’m out on my pushbike / Been the late shop / Forgot stuff / Block of cheese / Gummy bears / Essentials … Could get lucky.” There’s always hope. Always … hope. Against hope. As humans we have to hope, even if that hope is a temporary sugar high, matched smalls. An escape into faux magic, badly typeset spellbooks from that stall on the market. Driving with the lights off in case it all actually fuckin’ ends.

This is the world Charley sees. He reports back, Clarissa rents the air with a sweet cut of a violin. Go out your front door now, and look through your window. Tell me: what life do you see? And how’s that looking?

King of the Slums’ Encrypted Contemporary Narratives will be released on digital and CD formats on September 25th; you can ensure yours by pre-ordering over at the KOTS Bandcamp page, here.

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