On “Return to Capital,” the leadoff track on JOHN’s Nocturnal Manoeuvres, the London-based duo offer the brief suggestion of a cinematic experience. The instrumental track seems to float in place while building up a heady and thunderous undercurrent, a gentle display of power and awe that never moves forward but feels as if it could explode at any given moment. It’s graceful, beautiful—oblique yet evocative ambient fanfare crafted with the tools of noise rock.
It’s also a bit of a fake out. “Return to Capital” isn’t intended to deceive the listener, necessarily, but JOHN never repeat that experience, their primary motivations in showing their strength through more overt means. Drummer/vocalist John Newton and guitarist Johnny Headley (you can see how their name might have fallen into their lap pretty naturally) thrive on pummeling rhythms and piercing shards of distorted guitar, which come crashing through at full force on “Sibensko Powerhouse.” The grace with which the band begins the album hasn’t been completely cast aside, but it’s wrapped in a taut, post-hardcore gallop, its anxious and agitated rhythms leaving little room for quiet contemplation.
JOHN are well educated in the school of Amphetamine Reptile and Touch and Go, but there’s a less snarkily misanthropic sensibility about them than the ’80s and ’90s icons of scrape from which they descend. The urgent and tense “A Song for Those Who Speed in Built-Up Areas” is a call for humility with more than a little bit of a chip on its shoulder (“You keep talking—you keep talking in a hollow vacuum of words“), whereas the cryptic “Austere Isle” has an eerie kind of beauty in its stark juxtaposition of shoegaze riffs and punchy rhythms. And the grand, ever-escalating “Power Out for the Kingdom” throws out conventional song structure for a series of verses that grow more intense and booming with each quatrain, climaxing as Newton describes a kind of everyday hypocrisy that plagues the crumbling institutions around us (“In the gestures we crowned/We hide the rot so well“).
It’s not that JOHN never again find that grace they explore so readily on “Return to Capital,” but it often takes the form of something thornier and less conventionally beautiful throughout Nocturnal Manoeuvres. This is heavy, hostile music, but JOHN are never simply bashing away for its own sake. In its strongest moments, there’s a kind of majesty reminiscent of some of the best moments in Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky’s catalog, but played faster, louder, and with a discontented growl. JOHN, like all of us, are looking at the stars, but they thrive when tumbling in the gutter.
Label: Brace Yourself/Pets Care
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.