The world has changed, and I LIKE TRAINS have changed with it, as they have been wont to do. This time, however, the changes took a little longer to come into effect; last time out, on 2012’s The Shallows, the Leeds-based quintet embraced burbling synths and mournful electronica on a treatise concerning the impact of technology. Since then, they haven’t exactly been short of material, with the seeds for what would become its follow-up planted as far back as 2013.
In the seven years which followed, the quintet took their time. Having released a documentary and accompanying soundtrack entitled A Divorce Before Marriage (named after one of the highlights on 2010’s He Who Saw the Deep) in late 2016 that served as the calm before the storm, they’ve finally managed to get their fourth full-length over the line.
KOMPROMAT offers a clean break from their established sound. There are traces of past work in its DNA – right back to 2006’s mini-album Progress • Reform – but the album offers a fresh start, shaking things up after the band’s extended absence.
David Martin’s baritone voice is immediately recognisable, of course, but what’s new is his spoken-word delivery and a more free-form approach to writing lyrics. Dark disco gem “The Truth” – which was a shock to the system as the album’s lead single and is here re-purposed as its scorched-earth penultimate track – was pieced together as events warranted, concerned with the shifting nature of what’s defined as true, particularly in political discourse. Per the scene-setting opening track “A Steady Hand” (“I am a stranger in my own country”), the album’s overt contemporary political bent sees the band entering new territory – previously they’ve been known to reframe historical events for modern audiences and cast uneasy eyes over the future, but KOMPROMAT feels particularly of the now.
It finds the band branching out into unexpected musical territory, too; it’s got more of a post-punk bite to it than previous efforts. “Dig In” is propelled by the interplay between Simon Fogal’s forceful drumming and Alistair Bowis’s incisive bass lines, augmented by searing guitars and synths – a fine display of white-knuckle intensity whose effects linger throughout the rest of the record, even when at its most restrained. “PRISM” makes an instant impact, built on the foundations of motorik drums and startling pop hooks.
Lyrically, the record is full of suspicion and intrigue; the title KOMPROMAT refers to a Russian term for ‘compromising material’, and here shady backroom deals (“brown paper packages wrapped up in string”) and second-guessing are the order of the day. “I have eyes on everyone you’d consider leaning on,” Martin warns on “New Geography”, a song that rumbles through a verse-and-chorus structure before shooting skyward for an instrumental coda, a surprisingly uplifting moment on an album that deals in murkiness and secrecy.
The album is brought to a close with the grandiose “Eyes to the Left”, which opens with an unsettling spoken word piece from Anika of Exploded View. From there, it gradually swells to an explosive finale as the band cut loose, expelling the tension built up over the course of the preceding 40-odd minutes and allowing KOMPROMAT to go out with a bang, looping back to the juddering synth intro of “A Steady Hand” in its dying seconds to bring things full circle. Taken as a whole, it’s the sound of a band reinvented, shrouded in autumnal atmosphere and containing depths that reveal themselves on repeat listens – whatever the truth may be, on their long-awaited fourth album, I LIKE TRAINS remain true to themselves.