If ever a collection of songs turned up at an apt time then it’s Humanist, the debut self-titled alter-ego outing from former Exit Calm guitarist Rob Marshall. In a year that is strange, indeed unique, among its predecessors; when the UK sought to become an island nation once more only to find a virus creeping across the Channel like a post-Brexit trojan horse, 2020 has perhaps already found its soundtrack. Humanist is a compelling investigation into the condition of our species; from tentative beginnings to blaze-of-glory departure and every quirk and trait in between.
Marshall has collaborated on Mark Lanegan’s albums Gargoyle and Somebody’s Knocking; their relationship forged prior to these releases when Marshall courted the Screaming Trees founder for involvement on a track he was developing. That track became Kingdom and was the origin of Marshall’s Humanist project that has taken nearly five years to finally see the light of day. It is worth every moment’s wait. Marshall’s presence is a firm hand on the tiller throughout, while a coterie of hand-picked guest-vocalists step aboard and bring the very best of their talents.
“Kingdom is the first indicator of a dense and intense voyage. Lanegan’s domineering vocal gravel hauls a steady shapeshifting groove along the tracks, as the instrumentation builds to a climax.”
An intro serves as an atmospheric scene setter, a signpost to a journey. There is a sense of anticipation, like the feeling of being slowly harnessed into a rickety rollercoaster. Kingdom is the first indicator of a dense and intense voyage. Lanegan’s domineering vocal gravel hauls a steady shapeshifting groove along the tracks, as the instrumentation builds to a climax; saxophone crashing in unexpectedly. Lanegan keeps a stranglehold on proceedings on Beast of the Nation, a song infused with the ill-effects of post-expert opinion and populist political culture. Something to brood on in self-isolation.
With a relentless sense of purpose, Dave Gahan arrives with Shock Collar. The Depeche Mode legend often appears more comfortable these days where, much like his collaboration with Soulsavers, the legacy of his band feels less of a millstone. Pulled into the project through his friendship with Lanegan, Gahan has always been as much actor and interpreter as singer, so his theatrical turn is both instinctive and welcome. The man is going to have you believing every word he is telling you.
“Lie Down sees Marshall on a quest for meaning amongst the emptiness and insignificance, above skyscraping post-punk guitars.”
For all Marshall is willing to let his guests hog the limelight, it is one of his own vocal performances that casts starlight on the album. Perhaps the most overt of the songs to delve into the darker shadows of existentialism, Lie Down sees Marshall on a quest for meaning amongst the emptiness and insignificance, above skyscraping post-punk guitars. “All the stars, lie down!” he demands defiantly but to little avail. On When the Lights Go Out, Mark Gardener provides the vocal for the kind of soaring shoegaze chorus that you wish Ride would provide him with more often. Much like the Lanegan and Gahan tracks, the mood fits him like a glove.
Carl Hancock Rux contributes on Ring of Truth and Mortal Eyes; the former a slow river-drift while the latter prickles with apocalyptic urgency; two halves of delirium evocative of a Heart of Darkness apocalyptic mood. Elsewhere, Lanegan returns for Skull while John Robb throws in a sinister turn on English Ghosts, a sprawling nine-minute-long one-chord stream of consciousness which sounds for all the world like a bad-trip take on Spacemen 3’s Revolution.
Each of these tracks sees Marshall playing to his undoubted strengths, however the diversions from the brooding intensity are equally if not more arresting. Ilse Maria is the lone female lead on the album; the wistful waltz of Truly Too Late seeps with cleansing melancholia. Prior to this, Marshall’s sparse reverb-laden guitar is the perfect foil for the sweetness of Ron Sexsmith’s folksy and nostalgic How’re You Holding Up? It’s a breathtaking respite from the songs before it; genuinely surprising in its uniqueness from the rest of album and also in the timing of its arrival in the sequence. It’s a ray of sunshine through the storm at just the time it’s needed; separating the clouds just long enough for us to steel ourselves for the final salvo to come.
[“Gospel‘s] drawn-out coda is pure catharsis, Lanegan’s bellows gradually submerging into the music until barely his fingertips can be made out above the morass.”
Sure enough, Jim Jones is venomous in his growling rendition of Shoot Kill, before fittingly it is left to Mark Lanegan to bookend the opening Kingdom with the closing Gospel. Marshall’s bluesy lead guitar first takes turns to swoop with Lanegan’s vocal, the spaces in the music saying as much as the words. The drawn-out coda that follows is pure catharsis, Lanegan’s bellows gradually submerging into the music until barely his fingertips can be made out above the morass.
The most striking observation about Humanist is how well all the various bit-part players assimilate into the piece. It could have been forgiven if the album had been little more than a patchwork quilt of separate ideas or moods, however the contributions feel more like those of a cast in a film, under Marshall’s direction. That Humanist is not in the strictest sense a concept album, makes that achievement all the more remarkable.
If the album itself was not sufficiently compelling, Marshall has answered any question as to how such a project could be realised in the live setting by recruiting no less than elusive former Puressence frontman James Mudrizcki to bring to bear his own interpretation of Marshall’s vision later in the year.
Art rarely creates this level of excitement in its conception and execution. This album is nothing short of an instant classic.