James Lavelle’s UNKLE project has long been a powerful staple in UK electronica, its name synonymous with high concept art-dance and sublime trip-hop symphonies. Strange, then, that in the wide span of its existence, UNKLE has really only produced one great album, that being 1998’s Psyence Fiction. Even more suspect is the fact that that particular album was made in collaboration with DJ Shadow, who, up until The Outsider, was responsible for some of hip-hop’s most adventurous and innovative works. In 2007, Lavelle is still flaunting impeccable record artwork, monumental concepts and, of course, hip-hop beats, neatly packaged together on the Iraq War inspired War Stories, one edition of which comes in the form of a negative exposure Joshua Tree printed envelope, the inside containing credits printed on a tri-fold 8 1/2 x 11″ sheet of paper, the back of which depicts a person’s back overlain with an image of a skull. This may be intended to appear like the letter every military spouse fears receiving, or perhaps just a clever way of delivering a promo, in either case, it most likely ties back to the supposed “war” themes therein.
On War Stories, Lavelle has a new partner in crime, Masters of Reality frontman Chris Goss, a Southern California rock veteran who is probably best known for his production work with Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age (and, for those in need of some pop culture trivia, Russell Crowe’s 30 Odd Foot of Grunts). Unsurprisingly, War Stories comes out sounding much more like a rock record than anything previously imprinted with UNKLE’s good name. It almost sounds more like Goss’s baby than Lavelle’s, yet in spite of its heavy rock sound, there’s a highly compressed sheen and electronic sequencing to it all that would be dangerously out of place on a typical stoner rock album.
Where Psyence Fiction paired Lavelle and Josh Davis with mostly hip-hop and Britpop icons, all of the guest musicians on War Stories are veterans (or newcomers in the case of Gavin Clark) of guitar-slinging rock bands, save for Massive Attack’s 3D. Josh Homme lends his husky vocals to the bluesy “Restless,” while The Cult’s Ian Astbury bellows atop the soaring “Burn My Shadow.” Yet neither of these tracks are particularly memorable aside from the vocals. The Duke Spirit fares a bit better on the sleaze rocker “Mayday,” which sounds, not so surprisingly, like an outtake from their album Cuts Across the Land. Likewise, “Persons & Machinery” sounds like an Autolux original, with only the slightest traces of club beats and sample sequencing.
While the opening blast of “Chemistry” is a particularly energetic and powerful track, other rockers like “Morning Rage” and “Price to Pay” get lost in the never-ending shuffle of drop D riffs and electronic effects. While War Stories offers more than a handful of decent tracks, it’s a confusing release, and one that seems a bit deceptive overall. At its core, it’s a desert rock record, only processed well beyond the rawness that one might expect from a band like Masters of Reality or Queens of the Stone Age. And when it sounds less processed, it almost seems as if Lavelle merely recorded Goss and left well enough alone. James Lavelle should be applauded for embracing new styles and techniques, but with such an inconsistent feel throughout, War Stories is a difficult album to take as a whole.
Queens of the Stone Age – Lullabies to Paralyze
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Tricky – Blowback
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.