The promo blurb around the album describes Jim Davies as “the best-known guitarist you’ve never heard of”, and it’s probably true. For music fans of a certain age, it’s easy to remember just how shocking The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land album was, with tracks like ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ becoming huge hits. A huge part of that was down to the addition of guitars to their dance-oriented base sound, which came from Davies taking a punt and putting the idea to the band. From there, Davies became a key member of Pitchshifter, joining them at the time of www.pitchshifter.com, which was a ground-breaking album in merging dance music and guitars, of which Davies was fundamental. Yet, he never became a house-hold name or huge rock star, despite having a huge influence on the development of UK rock and dance music in the late 90’s. New solo album Headwars is unlikely to change that, but you suspect that Davies is fine with this, and it’s no slight on the album to say that it’s more likely to be an underground concern rather than anything approaching a mainstream success.
From the opening moments of the album right through to the end, it’s hard not to feel that Headwars and the sound Davies helped to pioneer is slightly dated. That fusion of dance music and hard guitars was so popular at a certain time, and its own influence also now feels like part of music history, that it inherently feels like it belongs more to 2000 (or earlier) than to 2020. This is not to say that Davies is treading over old ground again and repeating himself. But it’s the way that over time what was once considered futuristic to become nostalgic in time (or perhaps more aptly, retro-futuristic), and that’s the case here. Along with the inevitable, unavoidable comparisons to Pitchshifter and The Prodigy, Headwars also recalls the likes of Linkin Park, Fear Factory, Atari Teenage Riot, and drum’n’bass band Pendulum – all of whom once sounded like the future, but now recall the past. It is to rock music as synthwave is to electronica – retro-futurism is impossible to avoid, and in many ways is now fundamental to the respective musical styles.
Yet with that initial feeling encountered, accepted, and processed, Headwars reveals itself to be a surprisingly strong album. Davies has been away from the “typical” music scene for a considerable time, working in music and production for TV and film instead, but has now returned with a lot to say, both lyrically and musically. There’s a whole host of guests throughout the album that help him do so, including former Pitchshifter bandmates Mark Clayden and Jason Bowld, vocalist Abbie Aisleen, and electronic musician Tut Tut Child. The tracks featuring Tut Tut Child are among the highlights of Headwars and where the album feels at its most adventurous, blending 90’s experimental electronica with Davies’ guitars, with results that feel like what Squarepusher might come up with if he ever made a metal album. Other highlights include ‘Control + Z’, which has an absolutely huge, cathartic chorus and some gorgeously restrained piano right from the Nine Inch Nails playbook; and the menacingly bleak ‘Shadows’.
It wouldn’t be surprising if an album like Headwars ended up feeling a little disjointed, but Davies has done a good job of keeping all the different aspects of its sound together, structuring the album in a coherent manner, so that the more unusual tracks – such as those with Tut Tut Child, or the R&B-influenced ‘Now You Know’ featuring Milly Rodda – generally feel like natural progressions rather than jarring shifts. Yet even so, it does feel like Headwars is trying to express more ideas than can reasonably be put across in a single, 40-minute album. There’s a lot to take in here, and it takes time to do so. Yet despite this – and a few lyrical missteps, such as a few lines on ‘Zombies’ which stray into “old man shouts at cloud” territory in its criticisms of the modern world and social media – Headwars is a strong, interesting, and enjoyable album.
Whilst Davies is best known for his work with other bands, this album has its own identity, and helps provide proof of just how fundamental Davies was to the best moments of both Pitchshifter and The Prodigy. Even if you don’t have any attachment to those bands though, Headwars is a fine album in its own right, and I hope that it sees Davies recording and releasing music regularly again, as it’s clear that he still has a lot to offer.
Headwars is released 10th April and will be available on iTunes and Spotify.
Words: Stuart Wain.