It’s a good place to be, being in Firegarden at the moment – the last three years have been a helter-skelter of triumph and tribulation for Sheffield’s ever-ebullient prog n’ rollers. Things have settled into a nice groove. The band welcomed Adele Smith to the fold late last year to share lead vocals with guitarist Jake Mann.
This most amiable of bands rode out the storm seamlessly and came out the other end more focussed and determined than ever. If early indications are anything to go by Smith has conquered Firegarden with gusto – she is supremely charismatic, which has served her well in a band that has needed that quality from time to time. The real test, however, comes in the form of new album, ‘Voyage to Crab Mountain’. As well as being something of a litmus test for Smith as an individual, it is a sink-or-swim moment for a band that have risen like a lift from a coal-pit and appeared to have come out fighting.
The album begins with the mischievously-titled ‘Crabs’, a galloping, malevolent classic metal number. Mann takes lead vocal, embracing the more pantomimic elements of classic rock and delivering Halloween lyrics such as ‘the children will not sleep well tonight’ with a demonic medieval snarl.
Adele Smith provides backing vocals that at times develop into a sacred-sounding falsetto, providing a nice sprinkle of subversion. ‘Crabs’ allows Firegarden to go utterly balls-to-the-wall as musicians and songwriters – a 6 minute rock-opera with a frantic sense of urgency, tearing between sections with merciless suddenness.
‘Magic’ is next, diverting your attention with the opening chord from ‘Paranoid’ before launching itself into funk-injected Kravitz-esque stomper featuring more excellent guitar and bass interplay from Mann and bassist Chris Heald. Adele Smith takes lead vocals on this for the first time and approaches the track with a good amount of charisma, but her performance is ten-a-penny. It’s the kind of vocal you could hear from any female vocalist in this type of band; soulful and with decent range but no truly unique qualities.
Lyrically there are a couple of problems too, with wretched ROCK clichés pushing over the line of acceptability – ‘I journey through the gates of hell, where scorpions and the lions dwell’. That’s David Brent level parody that, and it isn’t intended.
Throughout the album there’s a disparity. The songs where Jake Mann takes the lead, be it through his vocals or his guitars, reverberate with energy and impishness. Smith’s lead vocals by comparison feel by-the-numbers and lethargic at times, actively dragging the songs down. ‘Ghost Ship’ thunders along with titanic authority and is again deliriously structured. ‘Mountain’ effervesces with almighty guitar work. ‘Crushed by Falling Rocks’ in parts recalls Pearl Jam with its stadium-obliterating chorus and richly distorted guitars.
These though, are songs in which either the musicians take the lead or Mann takes the bulk of the lead vocal.
When Smith does take the lead it inadvertently exposes what a comparatively bland component of Firegarden she is, as you just want to get her vocal out of the way so you can hear the musicians play. Technically good as she is, Smith sounds weak at times, as though she is feeling hesitant. Smith is, incidentally, an excellent harmoniser, offering something much realer and less generic when she is out of the spotlight of the lead, sharing the vocals with Jake Mann, so that could be where her future lies in this unit.
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‘Shoot for the Moon’, is perhaps the most acute example of Smith’s toils. A pub plodder at best, it’s still a showcase of the intricate musicianship upon which the vocalist struggles to impose herself. Her performance is a workmanlike rock holler, nothing more. This song is one of the rare moments Smith is allowed to step fully into the spotlight, and it falls flat because the vocal performance just does the bare minimum. This is admittedly the only truly bad song on this album, not least because the chorus is almost a note-for-note rip-off of Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’, so it is made all the harder for Smith to do something decent when her biggest chance to shine so far is on something so uncharacteristically ill thought-out.
‘Pigeons’ is the glorious centrepiece of ‘Voyage to Crab Mountain’. An 8 minute voyage through genres and influences, an absolute behemoth of a song that recalls bands as diverse as Metallica, The Smiths, Black Sabbath, Faith No More, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Mike Oldfield, and so many, many more. It’s a journey into the very souls of its creators, with musicianship the quality of which you rarely hear at this level outside of Gilmore Trail.
The interplay between the guitar and bass is an exhausting, beautiful spectacle. The drums from Ashley Tuck are the song’s ferocious beating heart. ‘Pigeons’ is a monster that is genuinely up there with ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, a comparison I make because it is – you guessed it – an instrumental. So while it is extraordinary it’s still symptomatic of the weaknesses plaguing this album – the vocal work pales in comparison in to the musicianship. However you slice it, it cannot be a good thing that your sheer level of musical ability so often and so brutally exposes the weaknesses of your lead vocalist.
Smith’s potential is only properly highlighted in ‘Lileth’. Here, we finally hear some exciting flourishes of creativity in the performance. When she reaches for the higher notes she sounds authoritative, confident, and cool. In the middle 8 when she employs the sinister eastern moan that builds beautifully into a heart-stopping falsetto, she sounds utterly captivating.
This is what she should have been doing all along – taking more risks and being more subversive. ‘Lileth’ is a fleeting glimpse into what could have been.
All in all ‘Voyage to Crab Mountain’ is a fantastic rock album brimming with magnificent musicianship. The main problem is the vocals. It isn’t that Smith’s vocals are technically bad, far from it; they’re just so… average. The creativity and electricity of the music serves to highlight the weaknesses of what is for the most part an inhibited, generic, middle-of-the-road rock vocal, which I’m only highlighting so much because it noticeably detracts from the energy of the songs.
If Smith takes more risks and just sings with the reckless abandon that her band-mates play with then she will be a formidable addition to the line-up. She is possessed of a raucous, unbridled charisma, but at the moment it is her vocal alone that makes this album such a mixed bag.