Release Date: Apr 9, 2013
Record label: Double Six
After 2010’s deeply personal Boys Outside, Mason’s second solo album explores the global political climate – perhaps inevitable following his increasingly angry on-stage outbursts about Tony Blair and the past decade’s pointless warfare. An attack on the lack of dissenting voices in popular culture, if this isn’t Mason’s bona fide masterpiece, it’s certainly approaching it. Recorded with Bat For Lashes/Toy producer Dan Carey, Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time is a nine-song album with 11 linking pieces, ranging in length from a handful of seconds to a few minutes (the ska-infused The Last Of Heroes or the bells’n’bass groove of Safe Population to the grinding musique concrète of Behind The Curtains), giving the whole an unmistakably melancholy feel.
Steve Mason is a man who spends much time thinking about the world around him and the effect it has on himself and society at large. Perhaps he is welcoming us into a corner of his mind as Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time -- his third album under his own name -- begins. Seagulls are heard circling above as a boat rocks gently in the waves, the sails feeling the strain of the incoming winds, while a reading from Canto XVII, a section of Dante's Inferno, paints a vivid picture of a world full of despair ("I looked at many thus scorched by the fiery floor, and though I scanned their faces with the utmost heed, there was no one there I recognized").
Fans of the more eclectic, experimental side of Steve Mason might have had reason to be disappointed with the singer’s last album Boys Outside, a solid but rather straightforward collection of songs from the former Beta Band mastermind. There’s no such worries with this however, the second album released under Mason’s own name, a sprawling collection that veers all over the musical map, anchored together by his doleful but uplifting croon and an overwhelming sense of political anger and frustration. The blistering rap dissecting British riots delivered by MC Maestro on ‘More Money, More Fire’ and the gentle swoon of the insanely catchy ‘A Lot Of Love’ might initially seem to come from very different words, but they’re connected by the constant sense of introspection that seeps into all of Mason’s music.
Three years on from Boys Outside, Steve Mason now seems more content. Boys Outside was a strangely paradoxical record. Despite focussing on a period of deep despair – from the mental torment presented in The Letter (“The time’s here for me to write this letter – crush those bones in the back of your brain”) to the post-relationship trauma exhibited in Am I Just A Man (“Am I just a man in love? Or Am I just a man out of touch? I tried to go, I tried to last the distance”) – Richard X’s production helped produce a record that, overall, sounded roundly accessible: from quintessential electropop (for example Stress Position) to typical sounding The Beta Band (Lost And Found, All Come Down).
Steve Mason's 2010 album Boys Outside was relatively straightforward; it was as if, in discarding his various monikers to record under his own name, he also shed a little of his personality. Monkey Minds couldn't be more different: its 20 tracks form a jagged collage of colliding sounds, among them dub and gospel, country and rap, an unsettling clip of Tony Blair talking about Libya, and the screech of tyres in a Formula One race. It seems uneven on the surface, but dig deeper and everything coalesces into an intricately constructed autobiography, covering Mason's political concerns, the roots of his depression, and his hopes for humanity.
Over the course of their 1997-2004 run, The Beta Band were a model of aggressive, unabashed peculiarity: from their psych-folk/hip-hop hybrids and sound-collage pranksterim to video shoots in inhospitable climes and bizarro stage outfits involving electric-lit space suits and/or sombreros. Melodic linearity and lyrical candour were never at the top of their to-do list, so it was a pleasant surprise that former frontman Steve Mason’s 2010 solo debut, Boys Outside, evinced such a warm, welcoming folk-rock accessibility and emotional directness. After struggling through the Beta Bands’ flagging commercial fortunes and his own public battles with depression, the album essentially functioned as a form of therapy: You got the sense that Mason was not only picking up the pieces of his once-ascendant career, but of his life.
Given the perilous condition of the Western world, it's surprising so few modern-era musicians reflect this in their craft. Perhaps the general ennui that's set in since the global economy went into meltdown in 2008 has had something to do with it; after all, who wants to hear hope-bereft protest songs when the world around you actually feels like it's bereft of hope? .
Steve Mason’s second solo effort sees him putting his own tender and reflective stamp on the protest album. It takes in the 2011 police shooting of Mark Duggan on ‘More Money, More Fire’ and a general distrust of Tony Blair on ‘Fight Them Back’. It’s not only the boldness of Mason’s subject matter that makes this a brilliantly disquieting record, but also his ability to make it consistently warm and wholesome.
Ex-Beta Band frontman Steve Mason's second solo outing finds him mining much the same seam he's been working for the past 15 years, the music a familiar mix of mid-tempo trip/hip-hop beats with dub overtones overlaid with his high, plangent vocals. There are many pretty moments – the harmonies on A Lot of Love, the beatific, gospel-tinged choruses of Lonely and Oh My Lord – and as the album warms up and moves from the personal to the politicalit grows teeth, building to MC Mystro's rap about the 2011 riots on More Money, More Fire. The Last of Heroes is the first time I've heard an F1 car used as an instrumental part in a dub track.
In the depths of television history lurks Citizen Smith, a hopeless if impassioned revolutionary in Thatcher’s Britain. He dreamed of Utopia and “power to the people” but, sadly, he turned out to be nothing more than a petty criminal with delusions of socialist grandeur. This is how popular culture has treated idealistic lefties ever since: with a jab in the ribs and a pinch of salt.
A sprawling, beautiful, brain-belch of an album from a never-dull artist. Rich Hanscomb 2013 “People forget that John Lennon was a political animal,” said Alan McGee, selling the politicised zeal behind Steve Mason’s false-dawn comeback as King Biscuit Time in 2006. That album, Black Gold – released on McGee’s Poptones imprint – featured the George Bush-baiting dancehall skank of C I AM 15; but mostly a lot of fine future-folk, the kind that typified Mason’s previous outfit, The Beta Band.
Steve Mason’s voice is a burr. A lovely warm burr. The kind of voice that could read the phone book aloud and make it sound amazing. The kind of voice that could read a Dan Brown novel aloud and make it sound poignant and well written. A burrrrrrr. It’s hard to say exactly why. It doesn’t do ….