Release Date: Jun 3, 2014
Record label: 429 Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
After they reunited in the mid-'90s, Echo & the Bunnymen cranked out album after album of decent-to-good material, spotlighting Ian McCulloch's ageless vocals and the band's sure way with a dramatic hook. For 2014's Meteorites, the duo of McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant turned to legendary producer Youth to help guide the album, and came up with a record that compares favorably to the best work of their original run in the '80s. Where their previous effort, Fountain, was a big-sounding, very clean modern rock album that reduced the band to its essential core, this one aspires to more epic heights.
Since returning from a seven-year break in 1997, Echo & The Bunnymen have put out an impressive string of albums. And while none of them quite captured the band’s early magic, no one expected them to. Vocalist-guitarist Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant are the only two remaining original members (drummer Pete de Freitas died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, and bassist Les Pattinson left after 1997’s comeback album Evergreen), and they do a good job of giving their latest, Meteorites, a familiar feel without simply aping themselves.
Echo and the Bunnymen have never been the most dynamic of bands. There's no standout feature that makes them particularly remarkable, aside from their consistency. They've stayed modestly relevant in the decades since their post-punk heyday without straying too far from the atmospheric proto-indie foundation they built in the '80s. This makes Meteorites an interesting step in their long career.
In the Eighties, Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch battled the Cure's Robert Smith for goth-doll dominance. But nobody could touch the Buns for glowering guitar grandeur. On their 12th LP, trademark psychedelic swirls and red-sunset strings sound like they're soundtracking a Western about a gunslinger in a Joy Division T-shirt, as McCulloch moans about doomed romance, decadence ("Grapes Upon the Vine") and emotional dissolution (the Phil Spector-steeped "Is This a Breakdown?").
For a band formerly as bombastic as Echo And The Bunnymen, it’s sad that their 12th album, and first in five years, begins with a whimper. The title track opener takes a few minutes to reach its Verve-esque chorus, and even when it does, Ian McCulloch’s normally peerless voice is drowned by strings, guitars and backing vocals. It’s not all bad, though: ‘Lovers On The Run’ is vintage Bunnymen, with Big Mac crooning semi-cryptically about “rising tides” and “baying suns” over a riff borrowed from ‘The Killing Moon’.
McCulloch and Sergeant. They may not quite have the iconic status of other songwriting partnerships like Lennon & McCartney and Jagger & Richards, but since 1980 they’ve created a pretty sparkling legacy. Because, for a certain group of people, the ’80s weren’t about Madonna, Stock/Aitken/Waterman, day-glo colours and deedlyboppers. Instead, it was about dry ice, sardonic lead singers who always wore shades inside and dark, swirling melodies – and, for most people at least, Echo & The Bunnymen were at the forefront of this movement.
Ian McCulloch is only 55 years old, but from a quick read of the lyrics on Meteorites, you could be forgiven for thinking he was a lot closer to death. The whole album has its eyes pointed over its shoulder or upward at a deity that may or may not be there, taking stock and setting the table for a possible next life in turn. These aren’t really new themes for an Echo & the Bunnymen album, but they’ve never quite felt like this on one of their records before.
Since founding members and principal songwriters Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant reteamed as Echo & the Bunnymen with 1997’s Evergreen, they’ve released a steady flow of albums that do no harm to the group’s canon, but don’t do it any favors, either. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with an artist hitting a plateau; some groups, like Aerosmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have been harvesting economically vital though creatively stagnant crops from their plateaus for decades. It’s just that when acts like Echo & the Bunnymen, once noteworthy and influential but never chart toppers, hit their comfort zone and then return years later with a similar sound, we tend to dismiss them.
Ah, the Bunnymen. One of the great bands of the ‘80s and one of the best-named ever. But never quite as omnipotent and consistently brilliant as lead singer Ian McCulloch regularly used to claim. Which is why, when “Mac” is now declaring this album a “return to form”, we should be taking it with a large dose of salt.
Meteorites is the Bunnymen's first album in five years. According to the band, Ian McCulloch intended to work on another solo record to follow 2012's Pro Patria Mori, but all that changed when he invited guitarist Will Sergeant to join in — which is just a roundabout way of them saying "We didn't tell the bassist. " For much of Meteorites, strings attempt to fill in the hole that was the band's characteristically dynamic, propulsive low-end, to mixed results.
The hubris surrounding their critically acclaimed 1997 comeback Evergreen demonstrated just how long a shadow Echo & The Bunnymen still cast a decade after the band’s classic line-up called it a day. The inspirational Scousers’ second coming, however, faltered when that initial fanfare died away. The post-Y2K years have since yielded fair-to-middling LPs conceived with downsized budgets, while even 2005’s largely decent Siberia (which reunited the group with Heaven Up Here producer Hugh Jones) failed to set the charts alight.
Meteorites is the comeback album Echo & the Bunnymen fans had been patiently holding out for since the band first reunited in the mid ‘90s. The previous attempts included a few good songs – even a handful of great ones – mixed in with some mediocre fare, but it wasn’t until the release of Meteorites, that we were reunited with the real genius of Ian McCullouch and co-founder Will Sergeant. The band manages to make their sound as big as possible here, with swirling guitars and plenty of strings added liberally to the 10 songs, quickly bringing to mind some of their earlier works like Heaven Up Here and Ocean Rain.
Anybody who’s seen Echo and The Bunnymen any time recently will know that Ian McCulloch’s reaching of middle-age has done little to temper his appetite for self-aggrandisement. He continues to introduce “The Killing Moon” as “the greatest song ever written”, and sometimes prefaces that track, “The Cutter” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” by describing as them as the ‘holy trinity’. Given the continued, presumably drink-fuelled erraticism of his onstage conduct, the uninitiated are likely to either be completely sold on his claims or astonished at his delusion; on a good night, his cigarette-scarred voice still soars, but on a bad one, he might ramble incoherently about Gary Neville, or dole out anatomically-unfathomable threats to unimpressed audience members.
Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant know that whatever else, they've got a hell of a legacy – and that may, still, be an unavoidable issue. It's a situation not unique to Echo And The Bunnymen by any means, but their white-hot 1980s heyday retreats further into the past, and even now they're as far away from the 1997 reunion album Evergreen as Evergreen was from Crocodiles. After Les Pattinson's post-Evergreen departure it's been McCulloch, Sergeant and a mix of rotating and regular sidemen since, and there's been plenty of albums on top of solo projects; a steady flow of work.
The ’80s peak of Echo & the Bunnymen is long gone — and what to make of them now? “Meteorites,” the fifth album by singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant as a duo, adds to the confusion. It started as a solo record by McCulloch, with Sergeant jumping in later on. He may wish he hadn’t, because this mostly amounts to a depressing diary by McCulloch with some music stitched around it.