ILL: We Are ILL – Album Review
We Are ILL
Released 11 May
This album is like a hunt. It’s stalking sound with speed, picking off our prejudices, taking chunks out of the patriarchy and throwing it forward as wonky pop with a raw, resonant edge. Music which makes a point, and makes it in the sharpest, most stunning sense. It brings in rawness, roughed-up riffs, even bits of metal (in the musical and material sense) along with soaring, stricken harmonies. ILL’s debut album ‘We Are ILL’ isn’t just expression, it’s an angry articulation – and in that, a triumph, says Louder Than War’s Emily Oldfield…
ILL turn the sounds that seethe below speech, the start of feelings – into hot, moving tunes; more melodic perhaps than their earlier material, but still just as meaningful. They are an all-woman five-piece group (Harri Shanahan, Whitney Bluzma, Fiona Ledgard, Tamsin Middleton and Sadie Noble) currently based in Manchester, who highlight that quality music does not have to mean an emulation of that which has gone before. This is acidly fresh, it gets under your skin and stings: the type of music which fizzes with energy like a lemon on the surface of tastebuds but does not lose its level of depth.
Spiralling, circling guitar gears up to open, originally played by Sadie Noble, though Tamsin Middleton now takes this role – and all embrace it with a determined, driven passion. This is alongside Fiona Ledgard’s sinister drumming which works up a prowl to pursue us into the first track ‘ILL SONG’.
‘Grabs the listener’s attention – by the throat’
There’s a vocal volley of ‘you’re putting a stress on the NHS’ complete with hysteric harmonics and chaotic keys; immediately underlining that ILL will not hesitate performing, even parodying, social injustice. It’s certainly a strong introduction and refreshing when so much music out there seems to shy into the same old riffs and themes. ‘ILL SONG’ grabs the listener’s attention – by the throat – bringing a throbbing, creative co-ordination of vocals to really enhance the song’s challenging nature. There’s kind of verbal duel between keyboardist Harri Shanahan and bassist Whitney Bluzma ‘no one needs you when you’re ill– no one calls you when you’re well’– which adds to the hot energy, and thanks to added guitar wails and a slow motion mash towards the end; an experience that infects.
To be craving more before the first track has even finished is certainly a good sign.
And the fun continues, though the sound shifts – a bold approach to varying the album which works with the band’s impassioned, experimental aesthetic. ‘Space Dick’ is a sonic trip of almost bloopy brilliant guitar and playful keys – like the start-up of a space rocket. This is a track which takes the issue of ‘mansplaining’ and how so often it happens in Science Fiction (men telling women how to use machines, manuals, equipment, the list goes on…) and turns it into an edgy, emphatic parody. The keyboards like an xylophone emphasize how so many so-called patriarchal ‘norms’ are actually absurd. And what other song could possibly pair ‘NASA’ with ‘sexually harass ya’ and make it work? A series of raucous rhymes build up the track with a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek feel, the likes of ‘on the lunar base/sit on my face’ followed by an excellent wash of guitar solo and lines including ‘girl you look so foxy/when you are running out of oxygen’. Ecstatic cries of ‘space dick’ throughout punctuate the track, give it punch and when topped with a good whack of cowbell… really hit home too. Anthemic yet eccentric – my kind of combination.
‘A companion to the chaos of the modern condition’
Recorded over 18 months in mills around Ancoats, the sound and surroundings of ‘We Are ILL’ smashes together everyday experiences with surreal overlays. As we hear in a resonant track about repetition and inevitability – a single which went down well earlier this year; ‘Stuck on a Loop’. Have a listen here. It begins with gusty, grungy bass and guitar distortion, brought together by a driving drum beat. Shanahan’s vocals are fuelled-up and fast paced, turning over concepts we are so often (usually wrongly) made to accept (often by so-called ‘social superiors’): ‘and the nature of nature is just the nature of nature’. It’s a companion to the chaos of the modern condition, as a blast of guitar and drums plunges us into the chorus: ‘now you can’t get off/somebody make it stop.’
Searing, smashed-together harmonies work very well over the over the grungy guitar wash, the drums proper driving forward, almost slapping and stinging. Yet in this track, ILL show their ability to take assertive control over pacing too, as initial frenzy fades into a kind of interlude: a warped wash of guitar with more prominent vocals – ‘there’s no head and there’s no tail’. Managing such a shift inside a single track emphasizes the band’s ability to turn sound to their significant, politically-punchy advantage.
On the subject of the management of and manipulation of sound; a notable point about the album is that many of the tracks exceed four minutes long – and yet never feel over-tired or needlessly extended; a difficult balance to strike. Masterfully produced and blended by John Tatlock, this ensures every song in sonic treat so very distinct in itself yet part of a cohesive whole.
‘Guitars gear up almost to a kind of growl’
The slow, snaking beginning to ‘Bears’ seems to confirm this; that ILL’s craft doesn’t just entertain, it immerses and pulls you along with its progression. It’s also a different kind of darkness. This track is a builder; ‘moving crossing lines/ two snakes intertwined’ – leading guitar hooks complete with stalking bass and striking solo vocals add to the blend. Then the cry goes up – ‘I’ll feed you to my bears’. The second-person address is evocative, emphasized as the guitars gear up almost to a kind of growl, given edge by Ledgard’s striking hi-hat action. Haunting harmonies seep increasingly into the track, hitting vocal highs whilst drawing on depths as we encounter the ‘bears’ as metaphor for our feelings. ‘My bears they don’t care!’ is spat out as the words wield into washes of guitar, underlining this track’s utter intensity – an experience which furs over my skin. Goosebumps go up on my arms. It’s a stunning, sensuous six minutes.
Then it’s a case of going from bears to bus shelters – highlighting how ILL mess with the mundane as well as the metaphorical; making it so much more. This is a band who take on lived experience and highlight its highs and pitfalls. ‘Bus Shelter’ itself opens with plunging bass and driving beats dipping into the reflection of ‘Where are they going to.’ Sadie Noble’s emphatic vocals over sensuously sashaying drums add to the effect of overheard Manchester bus conversation – not a far cry from the infamous 142 ‘Magic Bus’ experience. There’s a wicked refrain of ‘hit the north’ in there too, perhaps a timely tribute to Mark E. Smith of The Fall, who died earlier this year. And like the build-up of a bus journey, the track gets more packed, so to speak, as a creative chaos of vocal cries and warped distortion waves in. The line of ‘the world is coming to an end’ is amplified with an almost siren-like sonic power, showing what the collective voice and surprising vocal blend of ILL is capable of.
In turn, ILL not only manage the difficult balance of bringing vocals just as valuable as the instruments, but manage to mould together wackiness with weight. Content can be tongue-in-cheek, whilst also being socially significant.
‘Think an industrial mincer put to the music’
And then there are tracks like ‘I am The Meat’ which show how the sound takes another direction – it goes straight for the balls. Hard. ‘I am the Meat’ is after all a dark, deliberate drive – not just taking the piss out of patriarchy but confronting it – women taking being treated like ‘meat’ and turning it on its head. Pure guitar force almost blares in its boldness – testament to Noble and Middleton’s signature skill which means that the strings seem to speak. Powerful drums pound before the bass grinds in – think an industrial mincer put to the music, there’s a metal layer here. ‘This is just for starters/I am the meat’, there’s a sense of possession through a sonic force which is deliciously dramatic (‘give me all your gravy’), the vocals almost petrifying at points. A sinister, splintering, high-intensity tune that spares no one. Got an objectifying idiot in your life? Scream this at them. They’ll shit themselves.
‘Slithering Lizards’ follows and is one of my favourites on the album, opening with that signature spiralling guitar which already had me infected at ‘ILL SONG’. There’s sinister bass and forbidding, thickening drums too– giving a weight to this track like the warning cry of an animal dragged out from its lungs. It seems to confirm that this is an album that is well and truly alive – and one of the most striking elements throughout is the vocals. Having been a long-time listener to ILL (who formed back in 2012), their earlier material could be considered as characterised more by a kind of fuzziness to the voice, whilst ‘We Are ILL’ explodes into full-on, rich, even yodel-like harmonies which hold hot gravitas. In ‘Slithering Lizards’, opening cries are coupled with lyrics of a whispering intensity – ‘hey, sister, they’re coming for you’. The progression is paced and powerful, before the emphatic imploration ‘get your head down down down’. This followed with a determined jam with keys which cavort between the kaleidoscopic and the tuneful, tales of being ‘busy’ but also ‘pretty’ – ironic half-rhyme adding to the emphasis of felt female injustice and political anger. Nearly ten minutes flies by in a burst of intensity.
Another thing highlighted across the album is ILL’s ability to build up songs to an ever-accelerating speeds and then sashay and break them down; leading to distinct quality of sound which keeps the listener constantly hooked. To witness this live is another experience altogether, as the band displayed to resonant effect when supporting British Sea Power back on their 2017 tour and now you can catch ILL on the 11 May at the Seabright Arms in London for their album launch and also 16 June at Manchester’s Deaf Institute. More dates can be seen online.
The final two tracks underline their relevance and resonance – as they delve into concepts society so often doles out and determines on an unfair basis – ‘Power’ and ‘Hysteria’. The first begins with Bluzma’s satisfying, dwelling bass and then the rhythmic, assured drumming. Xylophone-like keys add a sense of pent-up energy to the refection of ‘what am I supposed to with all this power’ – lifting the grungy gutsy pulse of the track to a tale about society’s system of determining authority.
‘Ripping into the abdomen of expectation’
‘Hysteria’ then hones in for the final stab against social allocation of gender responsibility. Through highly resonant, raw subject matter, this track takes on the assumption that a woman’s sole responsibility is to rear children, Bluzma’s fantastically thick vocals build the warning behind ‘you have a duty’; lyrics significantly inspired by her own Latvian heritage and a reflection of the impact of the Soviet-era there, including its ideals imposed upon women.
Politically punchy then, ‘Hysteria’ rises through a series of pulses before the drums push forward the verses. ‘Mother hero/duty to procreation’ the words work in, taking the piss out of ‘this is what god wants/this is your purpose’. It’s a vocal duel again, as heard in the earlier ILL SONG – and I’ll take a duel over a duet when it comes to music like this. It adds to the energy, the anger of this track, but without being overbearing. The frothy, frenetic drumbeat sets a powerful rhythm, which when combined with the haunting cries of ‘push push push’ – highlights the brutality of the expectation of women as birth-objects. As I said, this album is a hunt and here it is ripping into the abdomen of expectation. I’m not just infected, I’m affected.
In 9 tracks I have managed to despair, dance and develop – all through an animal of album that proves the power of alive, angry sonic significance. You’ll be changed for listening to it. Get ILL. In short, this is what I’m in music for.
Order the album here: https://boxrecordsshop.bandcamp.com/album/we-are-ill
ILL are also on Facebook, Twitter and have a website.
Photo credit: Photo 1 with thanks to Megan Powell, photos 2 +3 with thanks to Nigel Maitland
Words by Emily Oldfield – who is also on Twitter here.