Like the familiar line about making music purely for yourself – and the addendum that if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus – claiming to be entirely sui generis has long been an interview cliche. It’s a cliche recycled in the title of Melt Yourself Down’s fourth studio album, but that’s forgivable. For once, the band saying it might have a point.
They’re nominally linked to London’s jazz scene: saxophonist and de facto leader Pete Wareham formerly played with BBC jazz award winners Acoustic Ladyland; Shabaka Hutchings and Tom Skinner have passed through their ranks en route to the justly acclaimed Sons of Kemet. It’s hard not to feel that the current vibrancy of said scene and the high profile of artists such as Hutchings and Nubya Garcia might account for Melt Yourself Down’s major-label deal: there’s something fairly improbable about a band named after an obscure track by the confrontational no wave saxophonist James Chance sharing a roster with Ronan Keating, Alfie Boe and Michael Ball and amiable Aussie bar band the Teskey Brothers; furthermore, a band whose main concession to commerciality has involved their Mauritian vocalist Kushal Gaya shifting to singing in English, rather than a hybrid of French, Creole and a language of his own creation.
For all their pedigree, Melt Yourself Down don’t really deal in jazz. It’s certainly in their DNA. Although the sax on Pray for Me frequently feels as though it’s filling the space occupied in rock by rhythm guitar by churning out monumental riffs, there’s no mistaking the lineage of the sharply pointed interjections on Sunset Flip, or the atonal solo-in-miniature that erupts during Balance. In reality, they’ve spent 10 years attempting to carve out a space in uncharted territory bordered by punk, Afrobeat, funk and traditional Egyptian and Sudanese music.
It’s a bold and fascinating idea. So bold, in fact, that their previous music sometimes made you wonder if was possible to put into practice. It feels wrong to criticise a band for being too eclectic, but there was something ungainly and jarring about the way 2020’s 100% Yes jumped from style to style: one minute its fusion of hammering drums and honking sax recalled X-Ray Spex, the next it was chucking out rhythms inspired by two-step garage or techno. There were exciting moments, but also a sense of fusion that didn’t quite fuse.
That’s a problem that Melt Yourself Down seem to have fixed. Pray for Me charges purposefully at the listener. Even the ballads, if you can apply that term to the slower-paced All We Have and Ghost on the Run, are focused by metallic synths and ominous, time-stretched noise. It sounds purposeful not merely because of its intensity – everything is distorted, as if the recording equipment can’t cope with the volume at which the band are playing – but because its myriad influences have coalesced into a coherent, broiling sound that carries through the stylistic leaps on display. Boots of Leather starts out with a slippery Afrobeat rhythm. Midway through, handclaps arrive, shifting its emphasis: it suddenly sounds like a glam-y stomp. It shouldn’t work, but, held together by growling bass and massed vocals, it does, to thrilling effect. For all their sonic ferocity, the songs on Pray for Me have strong melodies and hooks in abundance.
It’s music that feels entirely of the moment, and not merely because the lyrics frequently deal in what-next? confusion: “My best friend said I’m not Black enough / My neighbour said I’m not woke enough,” the title track complains, while on All We Have, the question “Can we cope?” hangs in the air unanswered. The music is writhing and funky – the band’s two drummer/percussionists even manage to inject a certain dancefloor swing into the Neu!-inspired rhythm of Sunset Flip, an impressive feat – but its power isn’t euphoric or hypnotic so much as cathartic. Pray for Me frequently feels as though something pent up being released.
Of the moment or not, there’s an unmistakable note of uncertainty and pleading in the album’s title. You can understand it: the American writer Ted Gioia recently caused consternation with an angry Substack bemoaning the dominance of algorithms (“anything that genuinely breaks the mould is excluded from consideration almost as a rule”) and claiming “nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music”.
While you hesitate to apply quite such a feverish term to the contents of Pray for Me, they’re certainly different. You wonder if it will find the audience it should in a climate predicated on labelling, on gathering music together in themed playlists. Fingers crossed.
This week Alexis listened to
Electribe 101 – Space Oasis
Dug up decades after its release was cancelled, the second Electribe 101 album emerges sounding bizarrely fresh: Space Oasis is a soaring dancefloor killer that could have been recorded yesterday.