Telegram first collided with our consciousness in 2013. The delay in hearing this debut LP must have sat poorly with a band that sounds as if it operates at light speed. Obstacles in the path however have only racheted up the urgency that motors their songs. The eleven we get here are luminescent, rooted in solid grooves but anti-gravitational in your mind’s eye.
‘Operator’ – out February 5th (Gram Gram) – is a series of frenzied meditations on Time and Speed, steeped in the sensitivity and strangeness of Kurt Vonnegut and approached through the erstwhile themes of love and intoxication. Utterly fried on Eno and Bolan, they’re also kicking a corpus of guitar music back to life. Garage rock and psych-punk heads trade the first 7” ‘Follow’ like an illicit mineral and fans of Flaming Lips, Super Furries, and Strokes go ballistic for them. Because, despite a scattering of able practitioners, widely-loveable but against-the-grain guitar music surrendered. The silent amnesty went especially far in the UK. Back on the table: a band whose tangling structures go to town on your intellect, even as your skull is bashing its contents to nothing against those of fellow dancers.
Understandably, they fast became festival favourites and toured with The Horrors, Temples, PalmaViolets and The Wytches – securing a broad base of infatuation that runs the length of the UK. Japan loves them too, receiving them for dual stints at Japanjam and Summer Sonic in 2014, andSXSW beckons them to Texas in March 2016.
They had formed almost spontaneously. Matt Saunders (vocals, guitar), Oli Paget-Moon (bass) and Matt Wood (lead guitar), were repeatedly drifting together in kitchens, living rooms and makeshift studios. With whichever party it was reaching a certain depth and pressure, they decided to cut against the drift and commit their shared time to history in musical form. Wunderkind drummer Jordan Cook was recruited and, with a blistering run of shows, the band became extraordinarily tight. Moreover, they were made sensitive to the subtleties and extravagances of good performance.
There were also marathon hang-ups. Telegram write things big – no doubt partly influenced by their tastes for Roxy Music and Television. Humming with the optimism and opulence of the nascent ’70s rock industry, they were a large-scale band arriving at a time of vanished foundations and contorted business models, to antiseptic ambitions and negative budgets. It’s plain that they’d function best given the outlandish excesses of yesteryear – and in fiscally thirsty situations there are always disruptive outliers assuring that they can do things differently. Promised something suitably absurd and kept on the line for a number of frustrating months, the funds ended up sliding down some quite depressingly over-familiar channels.
The band were instead taken under the wings of those who knew the music was too good to be locked on the other side of contract wrangling - most notably, songwriter-producer Dan Carey. Having seen the band live, he demanded he record ‘Follow’, released by the band on their ownGram Gram label, and took them back into the studio for ‘Inside Outside,’ released on his SpeedyWundergound imprint in March 2015.
Changing tack, with assistance from PRS’ Momentum Fund, Help Musicians UK and an internet whip-round, they escaped label-geddon and, over the Summer of 2015, decamped to a large red lighthouse boat, moored at Trinity Bouy Wharf in East India Quays. The temporary home of RoryAtwell (probably the most significant producer of London DIY bands for a decade), inside it is kitted-out with an enviable studio. Fittingly for a group preoccupied with time-bending extremities, you can see about twenty years both before and beyond the present moment on the banks outside. The post-industrial gloom of the docks hangs in the air, the residue of the old chemical plants is in the soil and vacant luxury tower blocks shoot up above. Brightly coloured temporary-build marketing suites are dotted about, to help buyers navigate the spatiotemporal dislocation. A supermarket is promised soon but the band and Atwell, isolated from the usual amenities and distractions, were left to rely on speed, Bell’s and the possibilities of the boat.
The results of that mix are intense and revelatory. To ears that have come across Telegram and stayed attuned, singles ‘Follow’ and ‘Aeons,’ astound a second time, licked in a fresh coat of blinding enamel, alongside live favourites ‘Folly’ and ‘Regatta’. Rerecorded, they’ve been elevated through work on the minute details; the felicitous meeting of minds in working with Atwell evident throughout the production.
‘Have it your Way,’ ‘Telegramme’ and ‘We’ve Got a Friend (Who Knows)’ are the newest songs here and they show the band taking a more circuitous approach to structure, building more gradually from a slower tempo and throwing a listener down unexpected routes. Perhaps unconsciously reflecting the convoluted and frustrating circumstances they were written under, they are noticeably angrier than the early material.
The album’s totemic standout is ‘Taffy Come Home,’ the lead single. The biggest pop song on the record, it is also – quixotically – the most personal, and the best demonstration of Saunders’supremely lyrical style, a kind of 21st Century reinvention of Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas. His lyrics share their despair, as well as their radical optimism and their pugnacious approach to the world’s harshness. As with the rest of the words on ‘Operator’ – the glammed-out space odyssey-meets-paranoiac’s techno-espionage phantasm ‘Inside Outside’ comes to mind – there is work to be done, for which there is a rich, slow-burning payoff. The promise of satisfying repeat-plays loops over and beyond the immediate rush with which each track grabs you.
Best of all, they have surpassed the expectations that have built up, and rewarded those who, sharing the band’s frustration, have been waiting around to hear a larger exposition. They haven’t skimped on anything. ‘Operator’ sounds enormous, but without the over-glossing that can happen when a band of this calibre is discovered early by the media and majors. They have achieved the writ-large orbital grandeur and explosive force that a skywriting budget can do for you, for the cost of some stolen school exercise books. It’s a rare kind of band that can pull off this unlikely feat and ride out such a situation with a basic disregard for probability and proportion, collapsing the inertia and trepidation that surrounds us under the weight of their fearless designs.