The Red Album is no red herring..
I remember when From Without came out I wrote about that difficult second album – the original Ferocious Dog self-titled album was a canon of years of built up song-writing, and a lifetime to date of experiences to draw upon for subject matter. Subsequent works are always gonna deal with less life back-history, and with more weight of pressure. But well, I feared in vain – From Without was an undoubted triumph – so I should’ve learned really and not worried about The Red Album, but still, you just can’t help it can you?
I’d heard bits and pieces of live performances, rough cuts and sneaky peeks, but hadn’t heard the final product in earnest ’til Dean popped it on the minibus on the way to The Netherlands last weekend, and even then the excitement of our impending trip (or desperation of Mark’s bladder situation as we blasted into Hull right up against the deadline for the ferry) meant that it probably wasn’t the environment to really sit and take it in. Luckily when I arrived back from the trip it was waiting for me on my doormat so I’ve quickly been familiarising myself with it, and by gosh, they’ve only gone and done it again.
Unlike From Without, which was an expensive endeavour in a swanky studio with recognised producers and masterers, the band have looked closer to home and recorded it at Electric Bear Studios under the watchful eye of Phill Wilbraham. Having seen Phill at work he does more than just record tracks and choose levels, even in the couple of hours I spent in the studio he was making lyrical suggestions and tweaks, and extrapolating the logistics in rendering recordings that would be replicable on a live stage. He’s a clever guy, and the quality of the recording is a real testament to his skills.
The artwork is iconic – a clenched fist breaking chains over a red and cream coloured background with a Ferocious Dog tattoo on the wrist, the title ‘Red’ quite subtle in yellow. Being amongst the first 1,000 pre-orderers it came with a free behind-the-scenes DVD too which has made entertaining viewing. Inside there’s the disc, a picture of Lee Bonsall and a booklet containing lyrics and messages from the band. It’s a well packaged album as well as well-recorded and sits nicely amongst my now burgeoning collection of FD recordings.
It starts with Black Gold, John Leonard kicking things off with some mandolin (I think – I’m not even going to try to keep track of the array of instruments he adds to this collection!) over gentle percussion, it’s a pacey number then with an electric guitar stab the fiddle and pace kicks in with real Ferocious Dog style oomph. The song charts the shame of the slave trade that so much of the British Empire was built on, what stands out here more than previous recordings though are the layered backing vocals which we see more of live now with them all having acquired microphones!
American Dream should be familiar to everyone as it was released as a single last month – drums kick off with some electric guitar joining, then mandolin before the rest of the band kick in along with a soaring fiddle riff, the instrumentation drops out as the vocals kick off, then rejoin. Again we have more backing vocals in here, an instrumental section before it all kicks back in again with gusto. There’s either some clever double-layering of fiddle at the end or possibly an orchestral section snuck in there. The lyrics are disparaging of the American political machinations.
Spin is rapidly becoming one of my favourite live tracks – kicking off with Mairi’s Wedding Part II style drums you’re then treated to a simultaneous fiddle and whistle riff. This is one of the songs Ken was laying vocals down for when I visited, as it was fresh off Dan’s notepad then there were a few ‘in the moment’ edits so it’s nice to hear them all resolved and down now, there’s a lot of words in this bad boy! After the instrumental the rest of the band drop in so reprise the instrumental so there’s no vocals until just shy of the minute mark, it’s an irresistible mosh-fest, with a lovely whistle solo in there for a bit of a rest! A scathing appraisal of the current political climate in the UK.
It’s become a thing to have re-renderings of traditional songs on Ferocious Dog albums, technically there’s two on here – the first is Black Leg Miner. It’s one Ken’s had in his back pocket a while, I don’t recall seeing him play it before but he assures me he did presumably back before I stumbled on them! Black Leg Miner dates from the 19th century, but enjoyed popularity in the 60s and 70s – not least as Steeleye Span recorded it in 1970. The verses are slow paced and accusatory, before kicking into a swirling fiddle-driven mosh-fest, in the rough-cuts Dan had put the fiddle solo from Dirty Davey in there, his rewritten efforts here are ace!
Together We Are Strong latches onto a lyrical hook from Criminal Justice, the lyrics (I think by John A this time) speak of inequality and the isolation that can drive, but there’s a sense of defiance in there too with the battle cry of ‘as we stand together we are strong!’ – it’s a bouncing melody with the band providing backing for the battle-cry part. This is gonna prove to be another favourite in the moshpit. It also manages to reference another song on the album in the lyrics too. As it reaches a hiatus you’ve then got a slow ponderous instrumental bridge before it launches back in at full pace for the final verse.
Whilst there’s undoubted progression of style and influences, the first five tracks are unmistakably Ferocious Dog, when you get to A&B you get a bit of a Mairi’s Wedding Part III moment – a change in pace, a change in lead vocalist. It’s Dan who takes the mic here, with backing from John Leonard for a beautiful yet harrowing song inspired by visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. I’ve always known Dan could sing, since a video of him singing a newly written Lyla surfaced back in 2011, but this is both simultaneously lovely and saddening with just a drum, finger-picked guitar and soulful fiddle refrains leading into a full orchestral string section at the end. Great to see him take centre stage – and the live performances have got better every time I’ve seen them.
The Enemy Within kicks in with military sounding drumming, eventually joined by a fiddle and whistle instrumental that sounds almost like it could be something that would see Sharpe leading his South Essex regiment off to see off some French battalion. It then kicks in in earnest back to a full on mosh-fest, with lyrics spitted over charting a potted history of the mining industry, obviously a subject close to Ken’s heart, Dan’s fiddle overlays remind me a bit of those in the instrumental for Too Late. A gentle middle-eight finish with an accusatory declaration of emnity for folk who might dare to believe the media and government portrayal of the miners strikes in the 1980s.
Another surprise up next, Les takes centre stage for A Place I Want to Be. As someone who missed Carter USM back in the day (sorry) he’s always just been Les to me (although thanks to getting to know him I do love Abdoujaparov too!) – and his song is superb. Gentle vocals over guitar picks (there’s no backing for the ‘Yes!’ like on stage!) and gentle violin. In lyrics and delivery Les always reminds me of a Southern Jarvis Cocker (to me this is a HUGE compliment!), but that’s not the full story here – because the song properly kicks in on verse 3 for a full on shouty Ferocious Dog-like section, before returning to serenity for the end. The song documents a relationship breakdown, you can almost feel the cathartic nature of it by some kind of osmosis. It’s a proper belter live too.
Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya is the other traditional song – it will sound familiar, it was the basis of The Clash’s (and covered by Levellers) English Civil War (or ‘The animals go in two by two’, or – for Forest fans of a certain age – ‘When Derby go down again, again, we’ll sing!’). Dropkick Murphys also recorded a version of this, much to Ken’s chargrin I understand – this is another one they’ve sat on for a while. Ferocious Dog kick it off gently with fiddle and whistle, but once the acoustic guitar kicks in then the rest of the band it undergoes a full on turbo-charge. Irresistibly danceable and fast. I love it.
Small Town Hero I think is the only track I’d not heard live or at least a snippet of – it’s nice to get a proper surprise, and this is probably one of my favourites. It kicks right in with a wall of sound before a catchy fiddle riff leads into almost chanted lyrics from Ken interspersed with ‘Heys’ from the rest of the band, unfeasibly catchy and bouncy charting the all too common problem people face with a lack of opportunities or motivation, a dystopian instrumental leads into the final verse – really looking forward to hearing this one live – nice work, Mr Alexander!
Which brings us to the end, Class War has an immediate chilled out dub reggae vibe with the percussion and chugging bass line, eventually overlaid with an instrumental on (possibly a) bouzouki, then a violin overlay. It could give way to the longest ever surf attempt at a Ferocious Dog gig, the vocals kick in at a relaxed pace after more than a minute – unsurprisingly documenting the class divisions still prevalent in English society, a pause makes you expect a fast bit, but it drops back in at the same melancholy pace, not so for verse three – a full on swirling fast pace kicks in just to give everyone a dance.
I do like the change of pace – and it will probably work better at gigs for it – but part of me can’t help but wish it had kept its chilled pace throughout, but it does finish off with a nice chilled out instrumental with more intricate fiddle overlays before a final chorus. I know for a fact there’s an amazing version of this one lurking on Phill’s hard drive somewhere with some extra vocal additions from Alex Dye which I really hope leaks onto some kind of public platform in due course!
In summary? I know I’m probably considered biased as fuck, but this is another masterpiece – it demonstrates the band are comfortable in their own skin, the sound for much of this album is unmistakably them but with solid marks of progression too and a welcome infusion of songwriting from other band members to add to the overall mix. Phill’s work with the knob-twiddling (and beyond) shouldn’t be underestimated here either in bringing it all together – his intimate knowledge of what works live for the band shines through on this recording, and all packaged up with some great artwork created by Matt.
You don’t have to take my word for it either – just take a scroll through the Ferocious Dog Facebook Group as albums started landing on people’s doormats. It’s been a real team effort and labour of love by team FD – I know it was late in coming, but by gosh it was worth the wait! If you’ve not got on board with The Red Album yet then you can order it from the Ferocious Dog website or it will be appearing on Digital music outlets over the next few days.