It’s not often that an album manages to take you by surprise not just once, but twice. Earlier this year, I was sent Live At Leeds, a collection of largely instrumental ambient songs, including a soaring 12-minute guitar-based introduction harking back to the likes of Cluster or Tangerine Dream. It was only as Malcolm Middleton’s dulcet tones chimed in to accompany the music that it clicked that the creator of this music was indeed the ex-Arab Strap man. This concert, recorded back in December 2011 featured songs from Middleton’s latest project Human Don’t Be Angry, but an official release of these tracks in April of this year demonstrated that more surprises were in store.
Recorded at Glasgow’s Chem 19 Studios with Paul Savage – former Delgados drummer – on production duties, it soon became clear that Human Don’t Be Angry has metamorphosed into something brighter and more upbeat than what we’ve previously heard from the artist, a true departure from Middleton’s often plaintive songwriting style. But Middleton has always seemed mindful of the need to re-invent himself, so perhaps we should expect the unexpected former Arab Strap guitarist and singer-songwriter as he re-emerges from his recent self-imposed sabbatical.
“I wanted to have a break from my usual lyrics-based stuff and have some fun making melodies with guitar,” he explains of the creation of Human Don’t be Angry. “And I’m really pleased with the way it turned out. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done, I’m quite proud of it.”
Middleton had the idea of making an album of ambient music when he headed into the studios with Savage last November. The original ideas for the project are those heard on what has now become the official live recording, Live At Leeds, which were released late last year along with a clearing-the-deck album of earlier solo rarities, A Quarter Past Shite. Such releases seem to hint at a gesture of ‘out with the old in with the new’. “The Live at Leeds album… that was how I had the Human Don’t Be Angry album envisioned in my head,” Malcolm responds. “It was going to be this sprawl of tunes that are all mashed into each other and come out like waves, so to speak.”
It’s a seemingly experimental ambition, with the name chosen for the project being a quirky German translation of the name of board game ‘Frustration’ (‘Mensch ärgere Dich nicht’). The moniker and the sabbatical were designed to put some creative distance between his latest effort and his previous solo material, a period and experiment which would prove to take a number of interesting twists and turns along the way.
To start with, lyrics were added to three of the previously instrumental songs, placing them on more familiar musical territory, but by applying the Caledonian burr sparingly and reigning back the sound, there’s a polished jewel effect that place these songs among his finest. “They’re quite similar to the older material because of the vocal style and subject matter of the lyrics. I wasn’t actually sure whether to include them because I thought it might be nice to have a completely instrumental record. It’s a kind of bridging point between the old stuff and the new stuff. I think it’s good to have a couple of lyrics in there.”
Middleton’s intense self-reflection often spilling over into criticism is quite legendary, but he explains it in terms of a ‘cycle’ he goes through every time he writes new material. “I enjoy writing the songs. I must think they’re good to a certain degree before I go and record them, then I’m happy with the finished product when they get recorded. But give it about 2, 3 or 4 weeks and it starts going into the past for me, and there’s nothing I can do to touch it without criticizing myself and thinking I can do it much better. That’s the cycle that happens, and a cycle that I tend to repeat it again and again.”
The lyrics to the song ‘First Person Singular, Present Tense’, a verbal loop of sorts (where Middleton sings “I’m looking for the person, looking for the person, looking …” over and over), reflect this philosophy of keeping things in the present. They’re also part of the clever programmed repetition Savage has brought to the album:
“I do enjoy creating things myself but then I’ll get stuck in a hole. Then someone will come along and I’ll suddenly realize I’m so much better having somebody else’s input. For the current album, if Paul Savage hadn’t produced it, it probably would sound more ambient like the Live At Leeds concert. That would have been fine because at the time that’s what I was looking for, but letting him have input in the recording process completely changed it and made it a nice surprise for me and a record I’m happy with. With Paul, I got into the whole programming thing and we eventually used lots of drum beats and pop elements in the recordings.”
Album opener ‘The Missing Plutonium’, one of Middleton’s favourites, is a good example of this. Feeling unable to capture what he wanted from the song, Savage then added a faster drumbeat and tinkered with the song’s basic sound. The finished version comes across as carefully structured, with bright keyboards and crisp-morning beats, a track unlike anything Middleton’s produced before. The title track follows a similar step into the unknown, with robotic vocals and a marching beat. These songs, along with track ’1985′ with its criss-crossing echo effects, carve out a new musical territory for the artist, and give the album an uplifting, energetic feel.
Human Don’t Be Angry may have started out as a solo project, but the work with Savage quickly made Middleton re-think the project in terms of touring, leading to the eventual creation of a band. He’s currently preparing for a series of shows in September and October throughout Europe, but there will also be some warm-up gigs more locally, like the brilliantly titled Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival at the end of August. “The live shows will include a lot of guitars and drums and programming. The ambient stuff is still something I want to do, and when I play live, I do incorporate elements of that, and play with several guitarists noodling and stuff. We’re not really a festival band and we’re scheduled to play at odd times, sometimes opening the day other times headlining. Sort of different ends of the spectrum.”
With his special ear for ambient sounds and his distinct interest in the creative process, one would suspect a possible role as producer as well as musician for Middleton. He still enjoys playing live and co-Arab Strap member Aidan Moffat guests on some of the Human Don’t Be Angry recordings. However, although the pair are still good friends, Middleton suggests that there’s little possibility of an Arab Strap reunion. “The more time that grows between the past and now, the fonder my memories are, actually. I’m proud of what myself and Aidan did. We did a one-off acoustic gig last year in a pub in Glasgow, actually at somebody’s birthday party! We both enjoyed it, it was easy to do. But I’m trying to think of a reunion that I’ve seen that worked, and not many of them do. Some things are best left there in the past as nostalgia.”
When he describes his guitar playing jokingly as “heavy metal power chords played on acoustic guitar” and compares his love of 80s heavy metal (can anybody else hear Def Leppard on the title track?) as well as artists like John Martyn, Davey Graham and Jackson C. Frank, it’s clear that Malcolm Middleton is in musical place where he feels free and comfortable, and on Human Don’t Be Angry, he’s produced an album that he was both happy to make and listen to.
Rather than being a radical departure (as some reviews have suggested), Human Don’t Be Angry is more another piece in the creative jigsaw that is Malcolm Middleton. Arab Strap often underscored Aidan Moffat’s dark rantings in decadent post-Thatcher Britain with ambient moods and textures, and Middleton’s solo affairs of the heart always seemed characterised by the need to shift a gear creatively. His latest project fits neatly into this pattern, yet represents a brightening of the musical oeuvre… Actually, having just listened to ‘Monologue: River’ again, I’ll probably have to revise that last statement! But although Human Don’t Be Angry may not have turned out entirely as Malcolm had planned, this record is certainly one of the year’s pleasant surprises.
14 Sep – Incubate Festival, Tilburg, NETHERLANDS
15 Sep – Fleche D’or, Paris, FRANCE
16 Sep – Botanique, Brussels, BELGIUM
17 Sep – Boat Club, Le Mans, FRANCE
19 Sep – Monarch, Berlin, GERMANY
20 Sep – Südstadt, Munich, GERMANY
21 Sep – Theatre Palace, St Gallen, SWITZERLAND
22 Sep – El Lokal, Zurich, SWITZERLAND
23 Sep – Santeria, Milan, ITALY (free show)
25 Sep – Park, Zagreb, CROATIA
26 Sep – Chelsea, Vienna, AUSTRIA
25 Oct – Paisley Arts Centre, SCOTLAND