Who are Stateless? Do they even know?
Just how much can be crammed into a band’s sound? Can anyone try to cover, absorb and assimilate everything in their lives, minds and playlists while still retaining even an iota of their own identity? Is there a fine line between eclecticism and drifting away from solid ground altogether toward something totally intangible? Leeds’ electro/pop/indie/trip-hop/other quartet Stateless, true to their name, are willing to test these limits more than most bands, sucking up anything and everything and spitting out a huge technicolour wave of epic proportions. They can certainly not be faulted on inventiveness and ambition, but can they focus their ideas, and their identity, on this, their second album?
‘Matilda’ is an album of lush pop and danceable, almost R’n’B inflected tunes, but with enough clever programming, strange swooshing sounds and beeps ‘n’ bleeps to keep a foot in the leftfield. There is certainly no paucity of inspiration. On occasion, you feel Stateless are trying to take you on a musical tour of the world, throwing in yiddish fiddle, mariachi guitar, squalling saxophone, intricate string arrangements and Arabian-inflected motifs. You can almost imagine the band ensconced in some corporate-style mind-mapping session in front of a whiteboard bearing the question ‘Just how much can we fit into one album?’.
Singer Chris James has a powerful yet tender voice, capable of soulful crooning and fluttering falsetto. Admittedly, it has a touch of (God forgive me) Chris Martin about it, but this is a lazy comparison as James’ voice is stronger, with far greater pitch and range. He certainly isn’t shy about showing it off, though, regularly working himself into a frenzy of warbling histrionics. His lyrics have a tendency to overload themselves with false portent, implying a depth that doesn’t quite stand up to too much scrutiny, but his singing is a defining feature of both band and album.
There are some instantly identifiable high points. ‘Junior’ has an absolutely gorgeous harmony bridge that sounds like a chain gang heaving itself toward sunrise. Album opener ‘Curtain Call’ starts with an eerie motif that sounds like the backing to the scenes in Hollywood thrillers where they show sunrise over a Middle-Eastern city, and progresses through understated computer-game gothic machinations into a huge, slipping-and-sliding electro riff, topped off with a frenetic saxophone solo outro. Closer ‘I Will Not Complain’ repeats the format, beginning with the same Arabian-style intro, then swirls around opaquely before suddenly breaking out into a gargantuan, filthy, fuzzy low-end riff, thereafter receding again like an outgoing tide.
Initial single ‘Ariel’ starts in fantastic style, with a frenzied latino guitar motif atop a dancehall rhythm and squelching bassline that shape-shifts into a full-on dubstep assault of a chorus, causing you to brace yourself for something even bigger. Unfortunately, the ground gained is swiftly lost as the track floats off into the ether toward a somewhat underwhelming end, which actually made me feel fairly disappointed, as it was very nearly everything it should have been.
Assassinations, the second single, starts intriguingly with tribal drums and toytown keys, dragging you into the track with the promise of glittering treasures to be discovered. However, the song stalls in the fast lane, and there is no build, or at least not one that does justice to the intro. The whole track suddenly takes an abrupt swerve into Muse-esque synth, drum and vocal big rock finale that seems attached to the rest of the song by nothing more than the musical equivalent of sellotape.
‘Matilda’s more ambient tracks can seem so light in substance that they are at risk of drifting away on the breeze into filler country. The track ‘Miles To Go’ is essentially out to prove that the corpse of trip-hop is still warm, and indeed still cool, though ultimately fails to go anywhere at all, and the cringeworthily-titled ‘Song For The Outsider’ serves only as a vehicle for James’ voice until the point where a bizarrely bodged-on gypsy-flavoured outro adds some interest, but far too late.
There are definitely some excellent tunes on ‘Matilda’, though. The ‘Ballad of NGB’ is, at its core, a top-notch pop song, with the nagging refrain of ‘dancing in the kitchen, cooking up a snowstorm’ riding gracefully over propulsive string arrangements and a rhythm that pushes the song ever upward. The Shara Worden-featuring track ‘I’m on Fire’ is another standout, though it most closely resembles her own work as My Brightest Diamond, and she stamps her authority all over it. A slight, acoustic-led song, James doesn’t even get a look in until nearly halfway through, though his complementing of and harmonising with Worden’s voice is utterly sublime. The common ground these two songs share is that they keep it simple, resisting the temptation to explore too many tangents, and are all the better for it.
You sometimes get the impression that Stateless are stylistically stranded somewhere in the street between the best club in town and a trendy coffee bar. They obviously have a finely-tuned pop ear and rhythmic sensibility, but there seems to be a curious pattern throughout the album of some tracks seeming either disjointed or directionless, attaining the requisite atmosphere but either releasing it, ADHD-style, to chase down another musical alley, or keeping it all on the same level and leading it down a cul-de-sac. Stateless are at their finest when they keep things more straightforward and let the beat rule. The strongest tracks on ‘Matilda’ have a relentless pulse that often gives life to something truly stunning. When the band let their creative restlessness get the better of them, however, they seem to forget to build on such strong foundations and veer dangerously close to undermining them instead.
The main impression I gleaned from ‘Matilda’ is that Stateless are still finding their way, standing at a crossroads with a view to where they want to be, but somewhat unsure of how to get there. There is no shortage of ideas, most of them good, but their realisation is ultimately blunted by a lack of self-editing. I found it easy to like parts of songs, but the schizoid genre-hopping within tracks made it harder to enjoy whole tunes. Stateless could easily be a great band, and a very popular one at that, but only once they have a clearer idea of who they really are.
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle