Asylums – ‘Genetic Cabaret’ reviewed

A swaggering, superb new album – produced by the great Steve Albini.

“It’s rare to find such an unashamed rock band dealing in the minutiae, semiotics and intricacies of interpersonal relationships, but also in the zeitgeist and fallout of Brexit Britain, along with the debilitating effects of the news and media on an individual’s mental health – and, essentially, how we try to survive and cope in an increasingly baffling world.”

When I compiled my Top 50 tracks of the year (so far) for We Are Cult, there seemed to be subconscious geographical and genre patterns emerging. Dreampop, psychedelia, shoegaze, nu-soul and synthpop (in all its various forms) have all clamoured for my attention over the past six months, but there was a dearth of good, old fashioned rock in the mix.

This had been a long-established pattern in my life and throughout the years I’ve seen the zeitgeist turn against this most primal form of music on more occasions than I can probably remember. David Bowie got bored with rock somewhere around the middle of the Ziggy Stardust tour, and though Aladdin Sane is ostensibly ‘rock’, there were enough pointers to suggest that the ‘plastic soul’ of his next album –Young Americans – would not be such a radical musical departure. Following the initial guitar burst energy of punk, a more thoughtful and nuanced New Wave emerged. This was superseded with the New Pop of the early eighties and the movement against ‘rockism’ which aimed to eliminate the excesses of the white boy bluesy guitar-based elements of the genre and (especially) its hoary old poses and attitudes. Similarly, the great Britpop battle of the mid-nineties centred around the guitar rock of Oasis and the more arty approach of Blur. And every so often from then onwards, there have been mini reactions against the more obviously masculine elements of rock in all its various forms.

But rock never goes away. Never dies. And the desire to proclaim one’s love and libido, to celebrate rock and roll or – just occasionally – to change the world with guitars will always be there. Bowie couldn’t keep away. His obsession with Black Francis’s Pixies is well documented and this eventually culminated in the Tin Machine project, a subject which divides Bowie fans like few others.

Similarly, Kurt Cobain’s initial, simple ambition was to form a band which sounded maybe half as good as (the) Pixies.

Asylums: Press Shot by Kana Waiwaiku

Which leads us neatly to Asylums and their third album Genetic Cabaret. My one ‘rock’ track I chose for this half term’s Top 50 was Asylum’s brilliant and blistering Catalogue Kids, the first track of their superb new album produced by the great Steve Albini. Nirvana had wanted to work with Albini because he had produced Pixies’ wonderful Surfa Rosa album, and eventually (it seems) all great rock bands want to work with the former Big Black main man and genius recording engineer (he hates the term ‘producer’).

Asylums are a rock band, but they have been described as sounding like ‘if Blur came from Seattle’ with their art rock stylings and their interest in playing around with unconventional rock structures; and just like the best and most ‘important’ bands, they want to comment on and to help to change the world. Genetic Cabaret is a personalised State of the Nation address coupled with insights into mental health and social conditions and life in 2020, and this why a band who occupy a rare space between 6 Music and the Kerrang! channel are something much more than a conventional rock group.

In the geographical landscape of my Top 50 for the first six months of this year, California, Australia, Canada, Liverpool and London cast long shadows, but it’s Brighton which has exerted the biggest influence over my musical choices over the past six months. If you go a little further east, though, you come to Southend-on-Sea, the home town of Asylums. The band’s first two albums, the more-than-decent Killer Brain Waves and the excellent Alien Human Emotions seem like a preparation for this, their best album by a long way.

Recorded at Abbey Road and with sleeve art which evokes a futuristic/pop art take on Dexys’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, Genetic Cabaret brings to mind so many bands whilst having its own distinctive sound and swagger. There are elements of Muse, the Manics, My Chemical Romance, Sonic Youth, The Stones, James and the should-have-been-contenders My Vitriol in the music of Asylums, and so many of them can be heard in opening track Catalogue Kids.

Singer Luke Branch said that he was binge-watching rolling news coverage and was waiting the birth of his first child when he wrote the lyrics for Genetic Cabaret, and in Catalogue Kids, he tells us that

The kids don’t seem alright

in this new world order and that relationships are floundering through the demands of our mutual needs and wants:

Maybe you’ve conditioned me
Maybe I’ve conditioned you

Lyrically, there are pointers to an (unlikely) influence, The Jam’s 1979 album Setting Sons:

Maybe we’re just in time for something you can’t define;
Tyranny shake my hand reject the modern world,
Renting us a private hell –
Please don’t give us the hard sell.

The song explicitly references two songs from The Jam, but it also brings to mind the Woking band’s Saturdays Kids – here, the apathy of the Catalogue Kids is seen in a world of glue-sniffing and the dismal hope of football teams which never win.

Is this the loneliest day of the year? is the opening line of the equally ferocious Platitudes, another paean to the futility of life and hope in an oppressive world, with lyrics inspired by Ballard and Cronenberg, but never was such almost relentless near-nihilism brought to realisation with such a catchy chorus. It’s easy to see Asylums at one of the bigger stages at Glastonbury next year. They’ve already supported Iggy Pop and were certainly ready to make the jump from respected to big time before this year’s awful events.

The opening to the rather brilliant single A Perfect Life in a Perfect World calls to mind Boston’s More Than a Feeling (another Nirvana inspiration) and the aforementioned My Vitriol. It’s another almost existential desire for love and company in a godless universe and its juxtaposition of love amongst the ruins brings to mind that other Jam song, Wasteland.

Branch’s sad lyrics evoke the pointlessness of life and there seems a direct link to The Smiths’ alleged miserabilism in:

Watch the clock ticking backwards
There’s a sun that never comes out

And the singer finds himself

Devoid of soul
Devoid of reason

And in the silence, he tells his lover:

We say nothing out loud
Why don’t you stay with me –
Just stay with me?

Luke Branch has said that the lyrics of A Perfect Life took on a new meaning after Lockdown, and he dreamed of a gentler, more civilised world, but external events and their disorienting nightly news transmission made him feel that “In the court of mass opinion, we preach a prologue instead”; in a world of lyrical Babel, its difficult to hear properly or simply to be heard.

The melancholy A Town With Boarded Up Windows seems to be reflecting on the perilous state of Branch’s home town and its alienated populace where the disenfranchised

Throw petrol on the fire – in a prison cell with a sea window

and spend their time “drinking to remember”.

Who Writes Tomorrow’s Headlines? is another song which examines how we perceive the world and how it’s presented to us:

Who writes tomorrow’s headlines –
Our draft of history?
Trapped inside monoculture,
Broken reality.

The song looks at the alienating, frightening and mental-health destabilising effects of news overload, negative image and message bombardment and the scary, heavily-mediated narratives of modern times, and urges the listener to ‘shut the door’ to inure themselves to their coruscating effects.

Things slow down with the lovely, reflective The Miracle Age. In a vaguely pastoral Stairway feel, the singer dreams of a better life amongst the terrors of the present, and although the songs were written before the ravages of COVID-19, there’s always a sense of a world gone wrong and a call for sleepers to awake:

Tear the country apart while we’re sleeping here
In a broken time, can you feel its scourge?
Do you sympathise with the worst?
Both walls – keep yourself in the dark;
In the miracle world
See a tunnel of light –
As you’re choking.

Elsewhere, (pure) Adrenaline Culturekeeps you up at night”, the “hippies dressed in Savile Row” are gentrifying the town in Yuppie Germs before “we’re drowning in the Genetic Cabaret” of life in the album’s title track, and like all great rock bands, the desire for a second, plaintive Stairwayesque final track is just too much, and Luke finally finds his inner and outer peace amongst the maelstrom of psychic disturbance with the gifts of love and companionship and tranquillity in Dull Days:

What do you do on a dull day
The letters left unread –
There’s nothing here I won’t see with you
The silence is heaven sent

Genetic Cabaret is a tremendous album, and it’s such a pity that its natural habitat – the British summer festival circuit – has all been denied it as summer is postponed while we wait for the second wave.

It’s rare to find such an unashamed rock band dealing in the minutiae, semiotics and intricacies of interpersonal relationships, but also in the zeitgeist and fallout of Brexit Britain, along with the debilitating effects of the news and media on an individual’s mental health – and, essentially, how we try to survive and cope in an increasingly baffling world.

The near genius of this band is that for the majority of the time such difficult and often unpopular themes are offset by the thrilling and often joyous nature of the music. Occasionally the album falls into the trap of being too preachy, too agitprop, too po-faced and just too damn JJ72-y (remember them?) for its own good, but given the nature of the message, then such aberrations are understandable.

Quite simply, Genetic Cabaret is a great album from a great band.

P.S.: Click HERE to check out the semi-acoustic versions of A Perfect Life, Platitudes and Dull Days on this NME session for further evidence of just how great they are!

Asylums – “Genetic Cabaret” released July 17th 2020 on Cool Thing Records. Social: | | | #anothercoolthing

Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at the Liverpool Sound City festival at the end of September.

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  1. Hate to be a pedant but “Young Americans” followed “Diamond Dogs” not “Aladdin Sane”. Great review otherwise, will definitely check out this album.

    • Cheers, Andrew – not pedantry at all.
      Shame on me! A massive Freudian error, but no excuse!


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