Album: Nocturnal Manoeuvres
Label/Vertrieb: Brace Yourself Records / Pets Care / Rough Trade
Four arms, four legs, two heads, wood, metal and plastic. JOHN. It’s a cryptic and unsearchable band name but it serves an important manifesto. Not only is it logical – with the duo being comprised of John Newton (drums/lead vocals) and Johnny Healey (guitar/backing vocals) – but it’s deliberately mundane, a response to the sensationalism that was often promoted through rock music when JOHN began playing together in 2013. “It’s a bit like shooting yourself in the foot,” explains Newton, “but it helps remind you that the creative drive is what’s central to the project. The sensational collateral is just cladding that can easily become a hindrance to your intentions.”
Drawing inspiration from the DIY approach of independent enterprises such as Dischord Records, the pair formed in London’s East End opting to self-manage, self-release and self-distribute, adopting an ethos that’s served as an antidote to the reality of the day jobs required to exist in an ever-inflating city. Having released early EPs after beginning to play live, the band released their debut LP God Speed in the National Limit on their own imprint Pets Care Records in 2017. Critical praise swiftly followed and led to invites to support likeminded peers including IDLES, Mclusky and METZ.
2019 saw the arrival of a second album, Out Here on the Fringes, which catapulted the band into the Top 40 of the UK Independent Vinyl Chart as well as being featured as an Album of the Day on BBC 6Music with three successive playlisted singles. Having established an international presence with a blistering KEXP live session and a month-long journey through Europe in support of the record, JOHN return in 2021 with their third full-length, Nocturnal Manoeuvres: a collaborative released between Pets Care and Brace Yourself Records, a new collection of tracks that finds them expanding upon their celebrated idiosyncrasies once more.
It sees the pair returning to their trusted producer Wayne Adams (who was behind the boards for both of their previous albums) knowing his success in capturing their presence as a live band. Having realised the expansive quality of the resulting recordings, they then enlisted mastering engineer Sarah Register (Protomartyr, Future Islands, Chastity Belt) in order to deliver the sense of space that the varied track-list deserved. The result is a towering, titanic body of work – one that moves easily between cinematic post-rock, elastic post-hardcore and pummelling noise rock.
A listener could be forgiven for focusing on the sheer power of its instrumentation, but JOHN are always quick to note that artistic and literary influences are just as important as audible ones. These statements come to light through the subtly poetic inflections of Newton’s lyrics, their meter accented by the limitations offered by his position as a drumming vocalist. Shifting focus from form to content, the band have little interest in making blanketed or direct statements, always believing that significance seeps in the undercurrent of our daily experiences. Lead single ‘A Song for Those Who Speed in Built-Up Areas’ is evidence of this approach, gesturing towards the stranglehold of individualism currently engrained in our present.
“Having operated in a metropolitan city for the last decade, we found ourselves often discussing the demands of labour and work that we have to operate within, and how culture and technology has forced a 24-hour lifestyle that is never switched off,” Newton offers, expanding on the loose themes that appear on the record. “There’s certainly a negotiation of these relatively newfound traditions throughout the tracklisting.”
“We were looking for a title that would be emblematic of these discussions and Nocturnal Manoeuvres seemed to suggest this in a perfectly subtle manner. We liked that it could be read in multiple ways: human, non-human, mechanical… The subject is not designated in the statement,” he says. “We’re not in the game of trying to write songs or albums that function in a didactic manner, although there are always associative motifs that we want to appear through the wander of an album.”
With its writing having been split virtually in two by the nature of how 2020 panned out for the world, Nocturnal Manoeuvres is a record that inherently presents different outlooks and styles. “It was a logistical challenge, but it helped us take stock of where we were at and which directions we might like to explore further,” as Newton puts it. “Volume is volume. It’s how you harness the techniques and the ideas of a song that is most important,” Healey shrewdly adds.
Opening with the one-two hit of the gently enveloping introductory salvo ‘Return to Capital’ into the wiry yet meditative future single ‘Šibensko Powerhouse’ (which features a guest turn from IDLES’ Adam Devonshire on backing vocals), it’s clear from the outset that these ten songs are no one-trick pony. Whether it be the pulsating, blossoming noise of ‘Austere Isle’ with its rebuke of calamitous governmental decision-making, the driving ‘Jargoncutter’ which picks apart the conventions of language and jargonistic corporate culture via a misremembering of a childhood tongue-twister (“she sells seashells on the seashore”), or expansive closer ‘Nonessential Hymn’ which makes an emphatic case for art as a necessity and not a luxurious commodity, Nocturnal Manoeuvres stands as a monument to just what those four arms, four legs, two heads and a smattering of wood, metal and plastic can achieve – a celebration of the primal intensity of the guitar-drums duo as a format.
“The simplicity of the line-up and the maximal energy of the performance tends to create an interesting contrast, focusing on how our limitations create something truly idiosyncratic,” Newton observes. “Throughout our journey as a duo, we’ve gradually recognised the limits of our bodies, but have – of course – pushed to see how we can develop within these valuable restrictions. This album is a real testament to that approach.”