Album Review: LICE – WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear

[Settled Law; 2021]

Most bands wouldn’t release a full-blown concept album of experimental short fiction as their debut LP, but Bristol’s LICE are out to make a statement – and they’ve got the dexterity to back it up. Welcome to the Wasteland: a liminal space containing a cast of characters that takes in shapeshifters, time-travellers, supernatural beings hellbent on humanity’s self-destruction… and talking genitalia, because of course. If that sounds outlandish and overwhelming, that’s exactly the point – the quartet of Alistair Shuttleworth (vocals), Silas Dilkes (guitar), Gareth Johnson (bass) and Bruce Bardsley (drums) set out to create a self-referential “satire about satire,” and their long-form comment on “the warm-milk mewlings of love and protest songs,” to quote “Conveyor”, the opening track of WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear.

Formed in 2016, the band were given an early leg-up by Joe Talbot of fellow Bristolians IDLES, who released primer EPs It All Worked Out Great, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 on his label Balley Records in 2018 – brief, thrilling bursts of post-punk that drew on myriad other influences just enough to intrigue the listener as to what the band’s future held. That future, as it has turned out, is a much more eclectic one. WASTELAND: What Ails Our People is Clear speaks to how quickly things have developed from that point; its predecessors were engaging on their own, but, in hindsight, were a mere warm-up. Indeed, the two years since the release of that pair of EPs have been spent crafting its wild, unpredictable follow-up, and what many will see as this band’s true opening salvo.

Sure, LICE largely operate within the post-punk framework of their early material, but those intriguing influences are much more apparent here, with noise rock, industrial, psychedelia and classic prog chief among them. WASTELAND‘s 11 tracks revel in tension and release, with the likes of “Espontáneo” and “Serrata” employing push-pull dynamics and lengthy instrumental sections that serve as musical reprieve between blasts of LICE’s particular brand of sonic chaos. Bardsley is everywhere at once on the album’s explosive lead single “R.D.C.”; his drumming is by turns forceful and focused, moving in tandem with the tongue-twisting lyric. His playing pins down “Persuader” with a steady groove that Dilkes’ guitar and Johnson’s bass latch on to with ease, on what makes an ideal entry-point for listeners unsure where to start with the record from a musical perspective.

Once on board, there’s plenty on offer that suggests this liminal space is worthy of closer examination. “Deluge” is an example of the band at their most intense, serving as both the climax of the musical and conceptual narrative of the album, while “Folla” finds them changing course yet again for an atmospheric three-minute quasi-instrumental that contains several throughlines and callbacks from elsewhere in the story of the Wasteland. Closer “Clear” serves as the album’s title track in all but name, featuring guest vocals from Katy J Pearson and Goat Girl pair Lottie Cream and Holly Hole, bringing things to a close on a suitably impactful note.

There’s enough going on across the 43-minute running time of WASTELAND that the listener shouldn’t go into it expecting to have grasped the whole thing on the first pass; perseverance is greatly rewarded. LICE’s debut album is nothing short of fascinating, and the best part is it offers little in the way of clues as to where they may be headed next. There’s that intrigue again – they thrive on it. Dive in, and see how the Wasteland’s ways work.