Following their recent packed-out appearance at Bloodstock, Ward XVI have been receiving high praise from all corners including the Bloodstock team here at The Moshville Times. It is their distinct imagery and, most of all, their theatrical live show not seen outside of an Alice Cooper performance, that has caught most people’s attention and quite rightly so. I for one welcome the nightmare that is Ward XVI onto the live scene. There’s a limit to how many bands you can watch that just stand there, shake their heads and play music isn’t there? Goddamnit I want to be entertained.
The band visually look like they are the real live models of A Nightmare Before Christmas but with fewer cute dogs and more guns… and chainsaws… and fake blood covering the black and white stripes of our screen heroes. What Ward XVI portray so well in their imagery is that line between theatre and madness. We all know that it is just a show, but have the sneaky suspicion that maybe Ward XVI don’t. It’s 80’s horror in the real – you know it’s ridiculous but you still jump when the hand comes out of the cellar.
So, what about the history of the band? The name itself derives from an asylum (now closed) in Preston. Everywhere has these stories – normally they are not brought to life so vividly. So, what we have with The Art of Manipulation is a concept album about a patient who uses manipulation to get someone to kill for her and we relive the story through her eyes. But forget the imagery and the stage theatrics, forget the back story. If you want to be compared to the likes of the great Alice Cooper you have to have the music to back it up. Can we listen to this at home and enjoy it just as much and reviewing this album I want to simply ask the question: do Ward XVI actually rock or should we lock them back up in the asylum?
For me the strength of Ward XVI lies in the versatility of the songwriting, not only being able to convey a story via words but using a variety of styles to create the theatrics musically as well. It was actually a track that was included on The Moshville Times’ playlist that first brought my attention to Ward XVI. I had interviewed them pre-Bloodstock, but it was “Toy Box” that became my ear worm. It is instantly different to everything else that you have heard recently. It starts with an incredible accordion-led, spooky introduction before falling rapidly into a ska groove. It was different, it had your attention for all the right reasons. It is probably the one track that you could almost imagine would represent Ward XVI, it is off kilter. You knew there was something not quite right in Ward XVI’s world but they seem so innocent, don’t they? It’s a cracking track, that when you think you have the measure of actually steps up another gear and is completely engulfing.
When writing this review I think what is perhaps being overlooked a little is the strength of the actual music, songwriting and inventiveness of the band as a whole. This is an extremely talented band that are able to take you on a journey and create those moods song by song. This is the hidden secret to Ward XVI and the reason why the theatre, the image and their stories are allowed to breathe so well. It’s simple, really – Ward XVI are a damn fine band in their own right.
I am avoiding the story of the album and allowing you to enjoy that yourself when you go out and get your copy of The Art of Manipulation. I wanted to highlight some of the songs on the album that really stood out for me as stand-alone tracks in addition to “Toy Box”. Firstly, there is “Run For Your Lives”, a crucial song in terms of the timeline of the album but also addictive in its own sense. It also starts with the accordion sound but as soon as the drums kick in you know this is going to be a high adrenaline song. Lyrically it is great and the lyrics go at a pace that is exciting but means you can still hear the story. Song-wise though, it works so well as you feel that you are on the twists and turns with the killer as they go. This is partly due to the twists and turns the music makes. One moment the bass takes over, the next the guitar; all this adds to the tension of the song. The death growl backing vocals only add to the intensity and fun of the track. It works because this is a novella all of its own.
I have always been a sucker for the ballads on any album and this is no exception. “Hold Me” is probably one of my favourite tracks. Right from the piano opening, played slowly and mournfully this song does not put a foot wrong. It also demonstrates to me how much more Ward XVI have yet to give. Vocally our lead protagonist may be a little unhinged but “Hold Me” allows you into her world and to see her for who she really is. What is outstanding is the lead guitar, at first used sparingly but when it’s really allowed free towards the end, it turns the song into a classic epic. I would love to hear more of this in the future.
“Inner Demon” starts with a classic guitar riff which is pretty catchy and then crashes in with a punctuated guitar and vocal style that hits into runs of a bridge that hints at more. The dual “Inner Demon duet” is an interesting play here as well. As a track, this is more straight forward rock but like all Ward XVI it is just slightly off kilter but a killer track nevertheless.
When I say that the versatility of Ward XVI is one of the reasons it works so well, then tracks like “The Flight” spring instantly to mind. More Enter Shakari than Alice Cooper, this is an electronic dance track yet somehow they manage to pull this off and still sound like Ward XVI. If you want to ignore the journey and just go mad to a track on the dance floor then this has everything: high energy, catchy licks and vocals and just enough aggression to let loose. If Ward XVI can be this inventive so early in their career then I look forward to seeing what they will do next.
We love the fact that Ward XVI want to entertain us and tell us their story so vividly but if the band want to be seen beyond the one story and truly to be allowed out on day release, there needs to be more to the artillery than killing your guitarist on a regular basis. What Ward XVI demonstrate on The Art of Manipulation is that they are extremely talented musicians and songwriters and that they have the individual songs to back it up.
These guys rock and hopefully we will get more stories from the asylum soon. For now, the pass has been granted but not on Tuesdays; that’s group therapy day and apparently it can get quite intense, especially when your vocalist is intent on reliving her glory slaughter moments on a regular basis.
The Art of Manipulation is out now, and available from their Bandcamp page