Just as Enter Shikari have appropriated the sinuous synthesizers, booming bass and destructive drops of certain genres of electronic dance music into their brand of hard-nosed hardcore punk, so too have their indignant political rants been wound in a world of science and technology. In depicting the collapse of society as a system meltdown, the political cure for the privatisation of the National Health Service as an anaesthetic, and the plight for sociopolitical progress as a refusal to loosen one’s grip on the microscope, science has become as ingrained in the political purpose of the group as are the electronics in their intense post-hardcore sound. Indeed, for the St Albans-born four-piece, advancements in the realm of science and technology go hand-in-hand with the positive development of society and politics, as opposed to the more dystopian outlook on the future in the low life and high tech world of cyberpunk. In this sense, the broader concept found in the band’s stylistic and thematic underpinnings throughout their discography crystallised on their previous record, The Mindsweep, with topics of class, climate change and the global financial crisis being presented within the neon jungles of science-fiction, whilst the album artwork’s depiction of the inside of a human head, coiled with lambent axons and fluorescent synapses, acts as an appropriate reflection of the record’s state of science-based political consciousness. Stylistically, too, The Mindsweep marked the apex of Enter Shikari’s stylistic evolution up until that point in their career, with the group one-upping even the sonic diversity of the album’s predecessor, A Flash Flood Of Colour, as the political aggression of punk and post-hardcore collided with the sparkling synths and pounding percussion of techno, rave and drum and bass in a kaleidoscope of coruscating colours. The group’s taste for persistent growth continues on their latest album, The Spark, wherein their world of politically-charged sci-fi is tinted with a pervasive pop sensibility. Indeed, compared to the abrasive overtones of much of their past material, Enter Shikari’s newest record is comprised of much lighter textures. The synths shimmer and shine, the guitars glisten and glide, and the deliveries of frontman Rou Reynolds see the singer seldom even raise his voice. Once again, the cover art for The Spark is indicative of this change of pace, with the depiction of a sort of synthesizer/radar hybrid representing just how entrenched the effervescent electronics of synth-pop are in the band’s usual science-infused aesthetic. With this album being the band’s first since the political unrest that has succeeded the EU referendum and the United States’ election of Donald Trump, it should come as no surprise that The Spark shows an Enter Shikari who are firm and unfaltering in their fierce philosophy for the progression of society. In this sense, although The Mindsweep may remain the group’s most important album in terms of how representative it is of their themes and style, The Spark may just be the band’s most potent album in its relation to the political context in which it was released. Once again, despite the record drawing stylistic influences from all over the musical map, Enter Shikari prove themselves more than capable of achieving a rigid degree of consistency, even amidst the dramatic twists and turns taken to convey the full extent of the sonic and emotional expanse of The Spark.
With themes of both political and technological advancement being so firmly rooted in Enter Shikari’s lyrical undertakings, it only makes sense that each full-length release from the band since their decade-old debut, Take To The Skies, has marked a significant stylistic step forward for the band, and The Spark is no different in this regard. Yet, compared to the progress that the group has made thus far throughout their career, the jump between The Mindsweep and The Spark stands as arguably their biggest and boldest leap to date, and in typical Enter Shikari fashion, they waste no time beating around the bush. Following a 50-second-long, opening title track of twinkling, spacey synthesizer ambience to set the mood, The Spark is not afraid to burst forth into the two poppiest tracks on the record and likely of the group’s career, both with stadium-sized choruses and rich vocal harmonies to boot. In fact, the vocal performances of the first of these two cuts, The Sights, are particularly forthright in their pop leanings, with the pre-chorus brandishing a call-and-response between Reynolds’ vocals and the mocking ‘oh’s of the band. Likewise, the frontman’s lyricism seems to put a scientific twist on pop platitudes, as the cliché of wanting to see the stars is applied to a story of interstellar exploration, reinforced by references to French naval officer and explorer Jacques Cousteau. With Reynolds having alluded to explorers before in his lyrics, such as his namedrop of Antarctic adventurer Ernest Shackleton when warning against the melting of the ice caps in Arguing With Thermometers, the singer’s scientific slant on such a pop trope stamps the group’s first foray into full-blown synth-pop with their signature hallmark in an incredibly effective fashion, assuring listeners by the album’s first full-length song that The Spark is still very much an Enter Shikari record, regardless of its new stylistic direction. Sonically, too, both of these first two full-length songs are laced with poppy and vibrant synth tones that work well to bring out the brightest in the lighter timbre of these tracks, whether it be through the subtle squelch to the shimmering, staccato synths that form the foundation of The Sights or the slight buzz to the sawtooth tones on Live Outside. Especially when paired with the crystal clear, uber-melodic guitars across these cuts, the synths contribute to some of Enter Shikari’s most vividly textured songs to date, with the latter track even filling out the sparser verse sections with a fat, dirty sub-bass sound that balances the brighter tones with hints of the band’s usual abrasiveness. Enter Shikari have a tendency to include one song on each album of theirs that is introduced rather inconspicuously, with the tracklisting’s most subdued and muted performance, before gradually crescendoing to the point of a rousing and uplifting climax, as is the case with Dear Future Historians… from The Mindsweep or Constellations from A Flash Flood Of Colour, and The Spark is no different with its inclusion of the song Airfield. However, whereas the former two tracks were positioned as the penultimate and final cuts on the standard versions of their respective records, as is often to be expected whenever any modern punk and post-hardcore band opts to include a softer song in the tracklisting, the fact that Airfield appears as the fifth cut on The Spark seems to be a testament to Enter Shikari’s embrace of their newfangled partiality to poppier sensibilities. With an opening that is almost evocative of Snow Patrol at their most tender, as Reynolds’ frail falsetto is surrounded by a lo-fi ambience and accompanied only by the gentle plinking of a dampened piano, Airfield stands as one of the starker and more endearing of Enter Shikari’s more pastel tracks. As usual for the group, the soft swells in the instrumentation are positioned perfectly in the song, just after Reynolds breaks out into his infectious and impassioned refrain, as to yield the most satisfying and successful emotional pay-off possible from the piece, with the abrupt ascension into the cut’s instrumental acme arriving in an exceptionally forceful fashion. The pervasiveness of the pop underpinnings of The Spark is true even to the extent that, in the midst of the politically-charged fury and punk-propelled percussion of Take My Country Back, the group comes through with another one of the album’s most anthemic, singalong choruses, just as the track’s bridge boasts the soulful, elongated vocal harmonies of a band like alt-J. Undoubtedly, Enter Shikari’s transition towards a more pop-orientated sound on The Spark is largely successful in terms of how smoothly these inclinations are integrated into the group’s usual stylings, although the track Undercover Agents could be said to be the outlier in this regard. Despite being structured with a heavy emphasis on the gradual expanse on the instrumentation, Undercover Agents is lacking the same resonant textures of songs such as The Sights and Live Outside, even when at its instrumental peak, whilst it’s also somewhat deficient in the strong melodic tones that could truly make the track’s linear structure pay off. Outside of this, however, Enter Shikari go above and beyond expectations with their endeavours into electropop, with the group assimilating the genre into their usual stylings with much more fluidity than one would have expected from a post-hardcore band.
The group’s newfound propensity for pop is not their only point of artistic progress on The Spark, however, with many of the cuts in the tracklisting that could be considered more typical of Enter Shikari only seeming as such as a result of the extent to which they begin to delve deeper into the worlds of drum and bass, progressive rock and the bevy of other eclectic influences from which the band has continually taken cues in recent times. Compared to the rigid 32-bar forms of songs such as The Sights and Live Outside, for instance, the likes of Shinrin-yoku, The Revolt Of The Atoms and An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces are dense with the experimental compositional structures and stylistic versatility of much of Enter Shikari’s past material. Both sonically and lyrically, Shinrin-yoku stays true to its title, which translates from Japanese into English as ‘forest bathing’, a leisurely practice and form of therapy involving taking a stroll through some luscious, verdant woods. Much of the composition is laced with rich atmospheric textures that seem to draw inspiration from the emphasis on nature of an ambient musician like GAS, as airy ambiance, the muted jingling of a piano and gently quivering synthesizers are entwined amidst what sounds like the rustling of leaves and sand and the soft splashing of water towards the beginning of the cut. Even upon the introduction of a dulcet trumpet melody, the song’s groove is comprised of some pattering percussion and a plopping bass line that manage to retain the meditative tone of the track. In fact, the ethereal resonance of Shinrin-yoku is composed so strongly that even the sudden outburst of a djent-style breakdown during the very last 10 seconds of the cut feels wound within the same radiant ambiance of the rest of the song. In a very different fashion, The Revolt Of The Atoms carries the contagious, accented swing of a song such as Marilyn Manson’s notorious cover of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love. The track bears a bluesy jig that is made to sound demonic when paired with the eerie, nocturnal melodies coming from the gurgling synths and fuzzed-out guitars, whilst the chorus is rife with well-worked counterpoint, with the punctuated crotchet stabs of the guitar being encompassed by arpeggiating electronics and brief cascades of synth strings, injecting the cut with some well-textured swagger that makes for one of the stickiest songs in the tracklisting. The following cut, An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces, is similarly well-textured, but in a very different manner, standing as one of Enter Shikari’s most symphonic songs to date. The group has been no stranger to incorporating strings in their music before, but the way in which they are incorporated on An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces, as they gracefully intertwine with Reynolds’ vocals, clearly strives for a semblance of symphonic depth that has not featured on an Enter Shikari track previously. This is especially true as much of the rest of the composition floods with uplifting horn melodies, bubbling synth arpeggios and liquid guitar tones, whilst never reaching the point of overflowing, as the rises and falls of the track’s timbre feel carefully planned and elegantly executed. Meanwhile, Reynolds’ vocal performance stands as one of his most dynamic and striking on the album, with his delivery ranging from the heartfelt yells of the piece’s midsection to the baritone quality of his sung passages, which are reminiscent of Morrissey both in tone and wit, with the line, “I miss them like the majority of modern mainstream music misses an original metaphor for missing someone” paralleling similarly meta quips made towards popular music by the iconic singer. This bitterness towards the plasticity of certain strands of popular music carries onto the opening bars of Rabble Rouser, which is easily the most hard-bitten and aggressive track from The Spark, despite being more concerned with relaying the ups and downs of a career in music than the political ailments of the modern day. Whilst also being the most obviously drum and bass-inspired song in the tracklisting, the constant building up of suspense towards a drop that plummets the listener straight into a blackhole of sparse percussion and the sinister tone of a single synthesizer is evocative of the way in which a DJ like Cashmere Cat will tease towards a climax that never fully materialises. Although a difficult technique to pull off without disappointing the listener, when used properly, it can be used to great effect to string along a looming sense of tension for an entire song, leaving the listener helplessly attentive throughout its entire duration. In the case of Rabble Rouser, Enter Shikari certainly execute this song structure with more finesse than most would, with there definitely being a tangible tension present throughout much of the track, although this suspense is sometimes left to fizzle out at the end of some sections, to the point that it seems as if a definitive pinnacle in the song’s overall instrumental expanse would have benefitted it significantly. Even still, Enter Shikari enter The Spark with as much an appetite for artistic evolution as ever, pushing their stylings out in all directions. Yet, the album remains impressively well-rounded and balanced, even in spite of the fact that, throughout the tracklisting, the band juggles what is perhaps their most diverse pool of stylistic influences thus far.
Enter Shikari’s progression across their career has been pronounced in some respects and subtle in others. Each record in their back-catalogue retains a distinct sound that isolates it from all the others in their discography, yet the group’s salient stylistic underpinnings have remained largely the same throughout their existence, with post-hardcore, electronica and experimental rock having endured as the pillars of their artistry. Therefore, with The Spark being so upfront in its appropriation of pop sensibilities into the group’s usual stylings, it could certainly be seen as their most ambitious album to date, but Enter Shikari feel no less at home in this musical environment, with these pop leanings being balanced with their growth in other stylistic directions. As such, The Spark feels not like a detour down a path less trodden for post-hardcore bands, but as yet another logical step in Enter Shikari’s growth as a group, albeit a somewhat larger and more daring one. Nonetheless, the band rises to this challenge and tackles it head on, with the end product, although not entirely shy of slight growing pains, striking a similar semblance of tonal consistency to that which made The Mindsweep such a marvel of the group’s efforts up until that point in their career. Ultimately, Enter Shikari may wander into the great unknown, but the band does not falter at this daunting challenge of quest and discovery, instead returning with the treasure that is The Spark, a trophy of their victorious venture into yet more eclectic and experimental territory.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10