It’s a curious thing, reviewing an album by a longstanding group with a rabid cult following and seeing almost no press from the usual online outlets. Why is this? Maybe it’s because New Model Army leader Justin Sullivan has never pandered to anyone, or seemed to care about popular trends, or being a flavor of the month. He just writes from his heart, long impassioned tone poems with often pounding accompaniment, sometimes tribal and at other times, dialing it back to folk with political overtones.
His remarkable, overlooked 2003 solo album Navigating By the Stars is a blueprint for the work that followed, including the band’s great new album Winter. And what an album it is, one of the band’s best in a long, storied career dating back to 1980; one with multiple lineup changes but maintaining a consistently high quality all throughout. Winter is the band’s first studio album since 2013’s Between Dog and Wolf, and I think it’s consistently better with a mix of the classic NMA sound and the newer sounds they explored on their last record. Sullivan says, “ I think Winter has a really strong identity. It is very much the sound of people in difficult places – something that so many of us can relate to at the moment, on a lot of different levels. It is a much more of a band album than Between Dog and Wolf and we made a deliberate choice in mixing it to sound more aggressive and a little less polished”.
So here we have Winter, released on the cusp of autumn, but so clearly underscoring issues of the day, as in the acoustic driven title track that details global warming and the harm humans have done to our planet, being the worst shepherds possible. It is a solemn, beautifully written song, building to a cinematic climax, buoyed up by occasional moments of joy but clearly underscoring Sullivan’s grave concern for our island home. Sullivan also weaves in anti-war sentiments, all done so skillfully that it never bangs you over the head.
“Beginning” is an apt album opener, with crunchy bass and guitar, and its slower cadence reminds me of the tunes on Navigating By the Stars, albeit with amped up energy. “Burn the Castle” is an instant sing along classic with a great melody that will have fans pumping fists and dancing. It seems to mix ancient and modern motifs in a single song, and at some level, it’s about the mess our political states are in.
“Part the Waters” is mysterious and has a strong melodic structure. I like the way it starts in a quiet place and slowly builds the energy. It’s another one I find myself humming along with as I create this review. “Eyes Get Used to the Darkness” is another catchy tune, and in some respect, the “hits” just keep on coming on this record. I love the guitar sound here, and imagine this would be fabulous in a live setting. “Die Trying” is another favorite, dealing with the refugee crisis and quietly understated with acoustic guitar. The melodic spareness underscores Sullivan’s message all the more.
“Strogoula” (the highest waterfall in Greece) is an intense folk tune, with eerie keyboards woven through the mix. “Echo November” starts off with lead bass drawing you in with bursts of percussion and what could be violin. It is captivating, slightly spacey, and short at three minutes. “Weak and Strong” is another cool tune with a great bass/drum intro, and the whole group chimes in at just under a minute. All the musicians here are very accomplished, and despite Sullivan’s words that the recording has rough edges, it is pristine in a very good way. Finally, “After Something” ends Winter on a very high note, replete with Sullivan’s thoughtful lyrics and an interesting mix of textures and a multifaceted instrumental backdrop.
Some naysayers will say this album is too serious and heavy handed, but I say it’s just fine with me. I may be new to the party, so to speak, but I have enjoyed NMA’s body of work, and Winter is a fine addition to the mix. Go forth and partake of a really good album from this long running band. May they have many more years ahead of them!