Cats On Fire – All Blackshirts To Me (Soliti Records)
By Neil Kulkarni
“But if you think I look good in a beret/Then I’d be more than happy to be there and get the chance to say/That art just imitates football” – ‘Our Old Centre Back’.
Gawwshucks, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit at my age but I’m in love. I don’t just love this album, or the band who made it. You throw love at products. This isn’t a product, it gives you too much. This is the only true masterpiece I’ve heard in two years and I’m IN love, head over heels, and as with any infatuation all the clichés reveal their truth fresh again, all the pangs of heart and soul become reanimated, you remember how pop can go beyond matching your thoughts and actually start transcribing your pulse, your precarious balance between hope and despair, resignation and aggravation. I thought pop music in this agile, ADHD age would never make me feel like this again, obsessed, living and loving and lurching and lounging in these songs to the exclusion of all else. But All Blackshirts To Me is one of those records that simply won’t become background, is impossible to live with rather than live within, a record you’d be a prick to ignore. And I can’t help but be alternately evangelical & furious because it illuminates truth like holy fire and couldn’t even find a label to release itself on over here. I can’t just be happy I own it and leave it at that and hope you dig it too, I NEED to press this fantastic plastic, this concrete chimerical CLASSIC into your lives right fkn now. Because I give huge fucks about you hearing it, because time is short, and there’s a world to win.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on his youth: “I was an extremist. I was convinced that nothing good could ever come from sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll. For me, the only way forward was Straight edge, Socialism and Zoloft. I guess it goes without saying that I couldn’t really have it my way. And so is the history of Cats On Fire, from my point of view, a history of dealing with second bests, pale shadows, budget solutions and endless, endless frustration. Eight and a half years, for what? I don’t love music more than anything else, which means I haven’t been blinded by the love of music. And I have certainly not been blinded by money. So what remains for me to be blinded by then?”
Must admit, I was worried about All Blackshirts To Me. Cats On Fire’s last LP Our Temperance Movement was such a bolt from the blue, such a pristine and perfect shot of joy to the head I couldn’t see how it could be topped, worried when I heard the band were ‘dissatisfied’ with Temperance and wanted the music to get ‘deeper’. Needn’t have worried – yes the music here has more shade and suggestion than Temperance’s straight-ahead popgasmic bliss, but c’mon, it’s been two years, two years in which the continent’s collapse has got worse, two years in which glimpses of love, feeling the sun on your face, has become even more of a struggle to attain. Cats On Fire aren’t a band that can ignore the world. Their music is intimately connected with what it means to be alive right now, the evil deals and blessed bargains you have to make on a daily basis to retain your sanity. They are that most impossible and rare of things: a guitar band that matters, that doesn’t see pop as either pure escape or agglomeration of borrowed moments of past-meaning. They give pop it’s true due, by refusing to create songs that are just songs, only making music if it touches you on all levels, speaks across the room to you with no dumb-down or posture. That’s why All Blackshirts becomes music you don’t use, but that uses you, music to live with, music to make life feel tangibly different. This is its true revelation and revolution. All Blackshirts isn’t just a collection of great songs. It’s a model of thought and life. It raises your standards as you listen and does it through joy, harmonies and words that resonate with a continental-sized clamour. Music that fkn MATTERS again. And that you can sing along to.
“I’ve been an idiot for years/ Now I speak in a lower voice to blend in/And I try not to dress up queer” – ‘My Sense Of Pride’
All Blackshirts swings with the lightness and finesse of a band looking in on the heat and chaos of auld Europa from a position of glacial remove. Right in the middle of the album is this song, ‘1914 And Beyond’, a song quite unlike any other I’ve heard this year, full of words and melody, all of it astonishing. New member Iiris Viljanen’s keyboards are weighted perfectly ‘tween ballad and nursery rhyme (the addition of female backing vocals has also added exactly what COF needed vocally, harmonies even clearer and crystalline than they were before), Mattias’ words a searing look at everywhere we’ve been and where the drift onward might go, “Greece don’t pay your debts/Don’t bother with the debts/ Iceland, go on and cover us in ashes/Don’t let the parting upset you/Cos we will meet again”. It’s a breathtaking, elegiac, weighty thing for a song to attempt, let alone carry off, the kind of poetic ambition and political bite you thought had been written out of ‘our’ music. Helps as well that COF are finally sounding effortless, natural, whole – not that previous albums didn’t have moments like that, but they became albums with highlights you went for. All Blackshirts is one big highlight. You find yourself clicking the repeat button and living in it for days.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where they’ve been: “The Cosy Den club in Bergsjön, Gothenburg, was the work of a madman. We played in that shared apartment on the first club night in the summer of 2004, and we played there on the last, in November 2005. By then, Mattias Jansson had already realized that in the long run, it wasn’t a good idea to run a club night in your living room and that he had to move. I could’ve told him, because when the second toilet was a funnel with a pipe that went into the first toilet, you simply know. But these nights serve as fine examples: there was no money and no promises of anything bigger. There were anxiety attacks and bad equipment. But in that crammed apartment, there was also football-style sing-a-long, and my heart, melting.”
Throughout, All Blackshirts is a reminder of exactly what a band can do with pop, exactly how pop is the form that can be the most revolutionary music in your life, can do things politically and melodically and lyrically and sonically – SIMULTANEOUSLY. There’s an extra layer of suggestion going on in COF’s sound now, a fuller sense of space and silence that makes the moments when the band fully flowers truly heart stopping, skin-puckering. Always contact-high addictive-licks from Ville Hopponen but where previously his precision had sounded almost TOO perfect to be true, here his playing’s allowed to live and breathe, the machinery allowed to hum and frazzle a little, a tactile sense of space and atmosphere immediately THERE as soon as each song starts. My highlight, ‘Rise & Fall’ is just exquisite, barely there, a tiny fold of a song which opens up the vastness of the vistas within us all, a heroic song, a thoughtful walk in the rain and wind captured, the ache and glow of our defeats and convictions evoked with chest-thrumming delicacy – last time around COF wouldn’t have known how to end it, here they end it in a beaming girder of Talk Talk-style noise that works beautifully. A band finally moved by songs, not the other way around. You’ll feel proud to even know this record exists. You’ll get the same evangelical bug I have, the feel that people need arming with this, the faint disbelief that people can cope with life without it.
“From what I gather you are still in his command/This is what I try to understand/I remember last march when you were in Madrid/I admit I left no stone unturned” – ‘The Sea Within You’
And crucially, pop stompers throughout. MODERN pop stompers. They’ve made a record that performs that ace trick of sounding like it couldn’t have come from any time but right now, but with songs that touch you, that become part of you in a way you didn’t think your modern agility could countenance anymore. Sources are there if you wanna spoil the show but you realise the irrelevance as you list them, realise how much more than the sum of parts All The Blackshirts is, realise how massively more than music is going on (e.g ‘After The Fact’, if you’re looking, is the sound of Postcard, the sound of ‘Nite Flites’, the sound of ‘Sulk’, the sound of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ AND of course, the sound of none of those things. It’s a Cats On Fire song). Bjorkas’ voice is crucial – first time I heard it I nearly (god, it scares me now to think of it) ditched ‘em cos it sounded like Morrissey. That was just my arsehole prejudice though: Bjorkas’ voice does things Moz couldn’t dream of, carries his accent clearly, tightropes between yearning and indolence, somehow remains utterly bereft of affectation but wobbles and breaks in ways that skewer your heart more than any showier theatrics could ever manage. And he’s written the best songs he’s ever writ for that voice – in the lazy discipline, in the way COF have pulled together to make this, by the time you’re through to the supra-spectral psaltery of ‘Finnish Lace’ that new focus they seem to have starts feeling heroic, unique, entirely at odds with COF’s status as obscure Finnish ‘indie-rock’ band.
Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where he is now: “So, keep up? Wind down? Soldier on, push through? Give in? Slide along? Or go under, happy ever after?”
So far Cats On Fire’s audience has been the proudly schmindie, the shuffling, the twee. Utterly fkn wrong. Time for us normal stars to claim them as our own. No band on earth is being as clear, as suggestive, as nip-stiffeningly righteous in sound and word and vision right now.
S’too short, this existence malarkey. We should only be letting music in that makes it different, better, fresher, new. Music that says, onwards, that feels like company, consolation for life. European album of the year. Get it, live it, love it.