[Fiction / Universal; 2011]

The initial release of Kaiser Chiefs’ fourth album, The Future is Medieval, was an interesting experiment. Fans chose ten unknown songs from a list of twenty, made their own artwork from the designs given and downloaded it all for a set price. But the detail that made it fascinating was that once a fan made their own version of the album, they could sell it to others and make money from every sale. For once the listener could make real (and legal) profit from offering others music to download.

And as inventive as this idea was (and is – you can still pick and choose your album from their website), it was only ever going to have a limited appeal and range. While the Leeds band do have a global audience, they don’t have the ability to influence and change the way people will think about music, like Radiohead for instance (cliché I know, but true nonetheless). Had Radiohead, or say, Trent Reznor or Kanye West done this then it would have been hailed as something inspiring and astounding. But there still would have been problems – mainly from cynics. Downloading ten songs you’d heard just a minute of is a risky thing – what if you happened to choose the ten worst ones? And why download someone else’s guesswork when surely your attempt to scrabble ten songs together could be just as good? And what about things like tracks lengths and transitions?

All these are valid and important points that not only cynical music lovers are likely to bring up. At the end of the day, to satisfy their appetite and to create the best “album” possible, people are perfectly capable of finding all twenty songs online and downloading them. I don’t feel especially good about it, but that’s what I did, and to my benefit listening to all twenty songs, or my “album,” is an involving and ever-changing experience.

Working out your own track listing, trying to pace the ten songs correctly and making it all a satisfying listening experience however, is a trickier thing than you’d think. Before going about trying to “make an album” of ten tracks I tried to become familiar with the tracks by listening to them on shuffle so that no listening experience would be the same and I never became accustomed to particular ebb or flow. And this seemed a good place to start; strong songs would stay in mind while others became of passing interest as I started imagining what song might open my album, what mood I wanted it to have and how much energy I wanted to inject into the whole thing (which was always going to be pretty high – this is Kaiser Chiefs we’re dealing with).

Take the track “Starts With Nothing” as an example. Beginning on lightly chugging guitars it opens itself up over the space of five and half minutes before accumulating on the lyrics “Yes that is my final answer” as it goes for an extended outro. It sounds like a born closer and work really very well as one no matter what tracks might have preceded it. But it also makes for an ambitious opening track, setting the mood well for a series of other songs also boasting guitars that aren’t afraid to churn, distort and dabble in different textures. Some of my favourite tracks are those that begin with slinky and careful guitar riffs that also seemed draped in an overcast cloud – the kind of dark sound that you could hear the band wanting to go for on Yours Truly, Angry Mob. “I Dare You” is perhaps the best example of this with a muffled industrial shuffle that helps accentuate the resentment that the lyrics seem to exude as a couple break up on bad terms. The lush strings on “My Place Is Here” have frontman Ricky Wilson sounding both honest (“I know my place is here”) and like a despicable politician (“You can rely on me”) over a stomping guitar melody. “Back In December” has a chilly feel that matches the wintery month in its title and manages to open up and build upon itself verse after verse. Tracks like these are good continuations from the varied tones that cropped up on Off With Their Heads and have the band making another good step forward.

With all these tracks you can make an album that has a dark edge to it which in itself is an unexpected feel for a Kaiser Chiefs album to have. Throw in “Out Of Focus” and “Fly On The Wall,” which also have a darker feel about them albeit to a lesser and less-effective extent, and you’re over half-way to finishing off your album!

But that’s just my preferences showing. Those who want their version of The Future Is Medieval to be full of upbeat and energetic Kaiser Chiefs songs they have plenty to choose from. There’s lead single “Little Shocks” which has plenty of hooks, while “Cousin In The Bronx” is pretty much a prequel to “I Predict a Riot” and offers a chorus just as catchy. There are even songs which condense the formula down into quick jerks of energy, like new versions of “Everything Is Average Nowadays”: the organ and guitar attack of “Dead Or In Serious Trouble,” “Long Way From Celebrating” which sounds like it has trouble keeping up with itself at times and “Problem Solved” which goes for Franz Ferdinand feel with spoken verse lyrics and thick and syrupy synths. At times the old-man cynicism that was spread all over Yours Truly returns with relatively underwhelming effect (“Can’t Mind My Own Business,” “Child Of The Jago”) but it’s considerate of the band to offer something for every kind of fan.

The only thing noticeably lacking amidst these twenty songs are more slower numbers. “If You Will Have Me” is the only acoustic number here (with drummer Nick Hodgeson on vocal duties) which is a touching little song but almost too gooey with sentimentality and overwrought strings. “Coming Up For Air” fares a bit better despite the clunky lyrics as it descends into a textural outro of crashing drums and distorted guitar, while “Saying Something” contrasts it slow verses well with a faster placed chorus (a trick which is also pulled off on a few other tracks). Other than these tracks though there’s not a lot to choose from that will make for break from the energy the other tracks have; which is fine I suppose as fans were probably going to approach this with the intention of having an album with the energy levels preset.

Of course, none of this really matters. A few weeks after rolling out the initial pick-and-choose method, the band released a “proper” version of the album, with thirteen tracks. Many fans who spent their time constructing their own personal masterpieces seemed to have it thrown back in their faces as they found out their version was nothing like the band’s and that they left out many of their favourite tracks. To be fair though, the version the band have made is still a solid, if not rather good, Kaiser Chiefs album. It’s opens with the single (“Little Shocks”) and closes with the quieter numbers (“Coming Up For Air” and “If You Will Have Me”) which are all traits that are found across their previous releases. And between these tracks they offer the completely new listener something interesting (the jangly piano-led and Beatle-esque “When All Is Quiet,” the scattershot-effect party that is “Things Change” and the skewed steel drums on “Heard It Break”). Heck they even put “Starts With Nothing” right in the middle!

So where does that leave the listener? There’ll be fans who’ll most likely stick to their own version as it gives them everything they want while others listen to the CD version. And both of those avenues are completely fine. The main problem now though is that with a “definitive” version available, why would anyone care to pick and choose their album, let alone pick someone else’s selections? The inventive and curious among us still might go for the construction method but personally I’d recommend seeking out all twenty songs and working from there. In fact, despite my best effort to make a perfect album I find the best way to listen to the album is always on shuffle, just starting with whatever song you want. This way listening to album is a constantly dynamic experience that helps you go beyond just listening to your favourites. And should I want to listen to my favourite then i’ll make a playlist of them and have it at hand also. That’s where the score below comes from and how I’ve personally chosen to rate the album (along with a few brownie point for initially stirring up the whole listening experience). How you will rate the album? Well, that’s down to what you decide to pick and choose, that is if you decide to pick and choose at all.

Grade: 71%