Three years ago I heard the best debut album since Appetite for Destruction. It was called King of Conflict by The Virginmarys. I still remember being transfixed by the artwork as I tore off the cellophane on release day, desperate to jam it into my laptop and found myself listening to it on repeat after another generic day at work.
In the intervening years, a lot of music has come and gone but nothing has stuck like those two albums. There’s a lot of well-justified excitement towards Divides. It’s the follow-up to a mighty debut effort which gained significant recognition from some heavyweight publications and the expectations of fans are subsequently (and rightly so) pretty damn high.
So did the trio manage to beat the curse of the “difficult second album”? They smashed it into a million pieces then blended said pieces into a fine puree.
When we spoke to Ally and Matt last year before their gig in Stoke (shared with some awesome people), they mentioned they didn’t want to make another King of Conflict. Needless to say, they haven’t. There’s a sense of evolution whilst retaining their identity. It’s instantly recognisable as The Virginmarys. There’s a myriad of influences permeating their music to bring us something unique and there’s so many different branches of the rock “tree” you can hear in their songs. It’s always been so. There’s your straightforward rock, blues, punk (one they’re often pidgeon-holed into), psychedelic, grunge, indie, Britpop, the list goes on…
There’s a similar quality to this in the individual songs. Each one is brilliant in its own right to make Divides undoubtedly one of those albums you’ll listen top to bottom without skipping a track. Then there’s the individual makeup of the songs; Ally Dickaty’s vocals, lyrics and guitars, Matt Rose’s thunderous bass lines and Danny Dolan’s ferocious drumming skills.
Through all twelve tracks, not one of these parts is absent. It strengthens the quality of the album but at the same time, I struggle to pick out a stand-out track because they’re all so bloody good. Not to disparage the other parts of the songs but one of the highlights of The Virginmarys’ songs has always been their lyrics: rich and full of imagery yet balanced with thought-provoking and relatable topics. Songs like “Into Dust” deal with the insincere bullshit of modern living and as with any good lyrics, there are so many interpretations that could take. It’s a song infused with the power of your own feelings finally being put into words.
Another thing to consider is, many of these songs, if you’ve seen The Virginmarys in the past couple of years, you’ll have heard them. I remember seeing them in Edinburgh in 2013 and instantly floored by “Kill The Messenger”, the menacing punk-infused riff enrapturing me and the next time I saw the Macclesfield lads; the same thing happened, instantly recognising it. However, in Stoke, I felt the punk side had been peeled back to reveal a bluesier version of it and that would be what we would hear on the album. What we’ve been given instead is a more brooding and darker version of it, loaded with fuzz and wah on the intro and it sounds even better. With much of the songs on Divides, it’s a social commentary (just like the album title) with lines like “We think we think for ourselves”.
One of my favourite things about Divides is how well it’s been mixed. Matt Rose’s bass work has never lingered in the background but at several points it acts like a caged wild beast finally unleashed on the world. It adds a layer of danger especially on a track like “Into Dust”, featuring the gnarliest bass line since Velvet Revolver’s “Slither”. Taking command of production duties is Gil Norton. Look at his CV and tell me it’s not impressive. Many of the bands he’s worked with aren’t to my tastes but it’s undeniable that he’s contributed to some pretty significant albums in his time. Example: he’s one of the reasons The Colour and the Shape sounds the way it does. I’ve never heard The Virginmarys as polished as they do here. It’s no wonder Norton has the reputation he has, the work here speaks for itself.
As a band, they’re an even tighter unit than they were on the previous album which is no mean feat. You can hear in the music Norton has pushed them to their absolute limit. Ally Dickaty’s throaty vocals are loaded with emotion as he sings, hitting the high notes with vicious, guttural screams that make his previous efforts look tame. It’s a voice which is utterly unique and I can’t think of a single singer who sounds remotely like him, also reflected in his guitar work and is a recurring theme with the band. No one plays drums like Danny, no one plays bass like Matt. No band sounds like them, full stop. Danny has always hammered his drums as if his life depends on it but with songs like “Halo in Her Silhouette”, “I Wanna Take You Home” and the goosestep of “For You My Love”, he’s clearly upped his game, bringing in so much extra passion and skill. I’ll reiterate what the band has said in the past: Gil Norton has pushed them to their absolute limits and gotten their best work from them.
Divides has even been brilliantly sequenced. Too many albums have a running order which detracts from the impact it could have. Like the tour a couple of years ago, it opens with the momentum-building “Push the Pedal” before moving onto new pastures, the lead songs of “Into Dust” and “Motherless Land” having been put near to the end (ever noticed how many singles come from the first half-dozen tracks on an album?) and ends with “Living in My Peace”. Starting off acoustically, it builds slowly into a massive climax like an impending maelstrom; the crescendo a fitting parting shot.
For reasons too numerous to mention, I wanted Divides to be good. It’s not good. There isn’t a superlative with enough force to underline how magnificent it is. It’s a statement of a band staying true to their word; it’s not just a carbon copy of the previous album, the identity of the band remains. As so many bands try to find a new niche or fill a vacated spot, The Virginmarys stay true to themselves whilst showing growth. It’s something real.