War Against Sleep – Invitation to the Feast

War Against Sleep
Invitation to the Feast

I’ve never been to Bristol, but I can only imagine that it’s a dark, dreary place filled with questionable characters and the troubled fever daydreams of young men and women drunk on their own ennui. What else could explain the shadowy leanings of the so-called “Bristol Sound,” that tragically hip scene that became defined by Tricky’s apocalyptic ramblings and Beth Gibbon’s softly sinister lullabies? I distinctly remember smelling smoke whenever I spun Maxinquaye and Dummy, imagining the albums as a soundtrack to the aftermath of our eschatological endgames.

Of course, I’m probably wrong. For all I know, Bristol could be perpetually sunny and filled with elated people stuck in a state of eternal joy. But then I hear a band like War Against Sleep, and I begin to wonder if there could be any truth to my original assumptions. While Duncan Fleming and company don’t share many stylistic similarities to Bristol’s trip-hop luminaries, they do share many thematic qualities; every song is swathed in paranoia, sorrow, and violent promises, evoking both hazy dreamscapes and lucid nightmares.

Ostensibly, War Against Sleep playw pop music, hammered together from a variety of sources – some obvious, some not. There are hints of Tim Buckley-inspired folk, subtle suggestions of off-kilter jazz in the vein of Nick Cave’s more subdued work, and some bits that sound suspiciously like Elton John, all covered in a thick veil owing heavily to 60s psychedelia. But there’s more to the songs than a simple game of “Spot the Influences” – there’s a pervasive sense of obsession and anxiety spread throughout the album, infusing each song with a strange, Lynchian atmosphere that is both unsettling and slightly discomfiting. This is dark pop music that manages to be theatric even in its quieter moments, full of swagger and elegant pomp; imagine the Doors with a tad more restraint, or Jefferson Airplane with a more dynamic songwriting sensibility.

The album itself is an interesting study of stylistic contrasts, taking cues from a varied (and often disparate) range of artists. The first half of the album seems to focus almost exclusively on styles borrowed from the 60s; songs like “Star/Borderline Personality” and “Damaged Woman” easily conjures the Kinks, while others (such as the opening “Changing of the Seasons” and the disarmingly named “Puppies and Kittens”) bring to mind a morbid version of the Fairport Convention and like-minded groups. However, the latter half seems to draw heavily from the more experimental songwriters of the 70s, such as John Cale, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits. And while Fleming’s smooth baritone bares no resemblance to Waits’ gravelly whiskey howls, tracks like “Teletext Nights,” “Song of Songs,” and the outstanding “Bedminster Parade” inevitably evoke the same quietly menacing and darkly urban mood; strutting along on jazzy piano lines, vaguely threatening horns, and softly yearning string lines, one can’t help but imagine that the songs could easily serve as the soundtrack to the same cast of misfits and outsiders that Waits’ made a career out of.

Invitation to the Feast is an inspired album, if a bit oppressive and a tad bleak; apparently, the boys in War Against Sleep inhabit a world that knows neither contentment nor happiness. But that’s okay, too. The world is rarely all sunshine and roses. Ultimately, this is a pop album for the people left after the end of the world, for the survivors huddled in the skeletal frameworks of shattered buildings and scrambling along blasted landscapes. And you know what? The apocalypse never seemed so appealing.