Formed in 2003, The Duke Spirit have lurked near unseen or heard at the edges of my own personal music knowledge, a band whose name I recognise but one that, until last week, I could have told anyone very little about. A band whose name I’ve seen in the music press, in other writers’ reviews or in festival listings. It’s often the way. Semi-pro rock scribes such as myself often only really get to hear what’s in front of them, the albums and tracks that arrive in the CD promo parcels and downloads and which inevitably take up what time I put aside for actually writing, overriding other bands and their music simply because their releases went to other writers. I’ve got The Duke Spirit now though, and it’s almost fate that they’ve chosen to reveal themselves to me with what is their best work to date, and also one of the most remarkable albums of this year.
Part of the mid 00s UK wave of New Guitar bands that also gave Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Razorlight to the world, The Duke Spirit almost seem survivors of a now bygone era, of a time when rattling telecasters and London accented sneering filled the new music airwaves, when bands less well remembered today such as the Pigeon Detectives and 22-20s were running TV ad campaigns for their music. Five and more years on from the heights of that particular moment in music history, The Duke Spirit present us with an album that’s both a well crafted tribute of sorts to those times, and an assured and really quite masterfully performed song collection that carries with it an air of actual timelessness.
“Cherry Tree” kicks in with growling bass, biting guitar and the first of what are a remarkable sequence of vocal performances from frontwoman Leila Moss, her voice at one moment brazen and defiant, the next sultry and teasing, a voice that brings as much depth and soulful energy to the bands more subdued moments as it does to the full-on histrionics of “Procession” and the noirish torch ballad that is “Villain”. Some finely measured keyboard brings resonance to The Duke Spirits tightly scored instrumentation, with Luke Ford’s guitar possessing every nuance of the songs. “Don’t Wait” is the one song that, on a first listen, would make anyone hearing the band for the first time take notice. Referencing both BRMC and The Kills in its structure, it’s a melodramatic ballad of near bewildering intensities and Leila Moss’s vocal is very well served by a tempestuous lyric : ‘you drugged my will with a smile/ who gave permission to drive me this wild?’ isn’t exactly a question.
Toby Butler’s driving bass riff propels “Surrender” forward, a near breathtaking display of powerpunk thermodynamics that’s one real highlight on an album that at no point contains anything less than completely inspired songwriting and musicianship. “De Luxe” is a hypnotically sinister lullaby, the phrased delicacy of its verses colliding with its verging on anthemic chorus, building into a staccato fuzzguitar conclusion. ‘Sweet Bitter Sweet’ has a bluesy tone about it, with Leila Moss’s vocal somehow recalling Hope Sandoval and the band turning in an alley cat 12 bar performance worthy of the Bad Seeds, with Olly Betts drumming pushing the song very nearly past its limits. “Everybody’s Under Your Spell” is just mesmeric, guitar grind and clicking percussion that turns into a searing burst of powerhouse garage excess. There’s a sense of occasion, of an impending event of significant magnitude around everything The Duke Spirit do on Bruiser. Only a band as experienced and committed to what they’re playing can really sustain this across a full album, and “Northbound” perhaps is that actual event, a swaying, savage number that flirts with folk rock then dashes itself into raw, fractalised pieces. Finally, “Homecoming” doesn’t quite end Bruiser on the low-key note The Duke Spirit might’ve intended, they’ve far too much adrenaline coursing through their amps to bring matters to a full conclusion, and as the songs final chords reverberate and fade I am, along with anyone else who hears Bruiser and is even half as impressed as I am by it, howling incoherently for more.
I really feel as if I owe The Duke Spirit a very obeisant and prolonged apology. Bruiser, after all, is their third album, and I feel somewhat selfconsciously ignorant about having never properly heard them until now. Perhaps it’s just fate again though, bringing a band such as this to my attentions when they are at the absolute peak of their abilities, and with an album that is a very real, bona fide, unalloyed 240 carat work of rock n roll artistry. Had our paths only crossed sooner …