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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Served loud, and served with intent, - Stiff Little Fingers' tour de force release No Going Back

IN the darkest days of Northern Ireland's Troubles the many attempts by movements such as the Peace People to bring it to an end to the fighting proved futile, but punk rock became a unifying force amongst young people.

And, one band in particular articulated the frustration and anger at a land dominated by bigoted politicians and murderous paramilitaries of all shades - Stiff Little Fingers, with their overtly political lyrics and inflammable music.

But 33 years later, are Stiff Little Fingers still relevant? Is the lyrical anger and musical fury still present?  Yes, and much, much more.

No Going Back, their first new release in more than six years, is an honest punk rampage, delivered with panache that touches raw nerves, deals with the current world economic crises and is a rallying cry for young and old.

While the first movement of punk was quickly hijacked by the fashionistas, the voice of political punk such as SLF has never really been silenced, despite the best attempts to keep it quiet by the mainstream twaddle on TV sets across the world. When we interviewed Jake and Ali before the band's triumphant returned to Belfast they spoke about how punk was more about attitude than a specific packaging. And attitude is delivered here in spades.

Nor have SLF ever been one chord wonders so prevalent in some of the more inane 'punk' acts. As in previous releases the music is rock music.

And, this album is also something very personal. In SLF's previous appearance in the Ulster Hall Jake Burns spoke openly on stage about suffering from depression. The totemic track on No Going Back - My Dark Places Burns tells the story of that time of pain in his life. It is furious musical tour de force, which deals sensitively with the issue of depression. It is a triumph and it is something that anyone who has, or is, suffering from depression can relate to, and hopefully draw strength from.

That song also relates back to the final concluding track 'When We Were Young'. As young men SLF were often told to literally 'wise up' and not bother with a musical career. They defied that, and despite line-up changes since then the ignorance of musical media towards them means that SLF are still proving themselves to doubters. The reprise of one line of 'At The Edge' is a nice coda for the album and a rigid digit pointed at those who ever wished ill on the band.

However, these personal messages are only one fraction of the strength of this album. Contemporary themes are throughout, with the politicians firmly in the sights, as are bankers on 'Full Steam Backwards' and 'I Just Care About Me'.

No Going Back also reflects the mounting musical maturity of SLF. 'Guilty As Sin' is delivered as a traditional Irish tune, its haunting subtlety making the lyrical theme - institutional child abuse at the hands of the church - a more potent thrust at the hearts of those who scoured the innocence from the young in their care.

Jake Burns personal love of Thin Lizzy is reflected on 'Trail of Tears' a song which harkens to the time of the Troubles but looks towards the future.

Production of the album by the band, with engineering and mix at the hands of Jason Donaghy, keeps the spikiness of SLF's sound but also allows breath for Ali's bass to roam, McCallum's rhythm guitar to maintain momentum and Grantley's drums to anchor but not overbear.

While the music still keeps the Stiff Little Fingers sound alive it serves the lyrics well, such as on 'One Man Island', which deals with newspapers and network TV's penchant to find targets to provoke a nation's ire, often without facts. It is a reflection of the band's often used challenge to young and old: "assume nothing, question everything'.

There is no doubt that this is a fantastic album, but as Jake sings at one point of his worry about being a lone voice in the crowd, are such overt challenges against the tides of corruption, greed and feeding the masses a diet of mediocrity a mere tilting at windmills?

The penultimate track 'Since Yesterday Was Here' answers that by assuring protestors and those that refuse to accept the dogma of the norm that their voices are still to be heard and will always be joined by those that are willing to - in the title of another SLF song - to 'Stand Up And Shout'.

This is an album that, perhaps more than others, placed more pressure on Stiff Little Fingers. Jake has reflected on this when he said that the Pledge campaign meant fans were paying for music the band had still to deliver. That pressure has merged with a sheer force of will to produce a masterclass in what punk should be, and what good rock music must be.

Alternative Ulster may be the unofficial national anthem for Northern Ireland;  No Going Back should be the rallying call for all who refuse to toe the line peddled by bankers, politicians, media and those prepared to accept a beige, vanilla, mediocre life. Put it on the national curriculum and see what resonance the music and words will have on the young, and the old, who refuse to accept the so-called 'music' of today.

In short - buy this album. Stiff Little Fingers. As relevant now as they were 33 years ago.

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