Album Review: The Rifles – Big Life

Big Life

Released 19th August 2016

Words: Gary Feeney

the rifles big lifeJust over a year ago, The Rifles commemorated the tenth anniversary of their debut album No Love Lost with two shows at London’s Electric Ballroom venue, and as I sat on the plane down to the first of them (yes, I am that big a fan…), I vividly remember finding it hard to believe that it was over a decade ago since I first saw them in King Tut’s (a joint headline show with Milburn, incidentally…oh, for another one of those!).

Since No Love Lost, The Rifles have developed an distinctive and instantly recognisable sound – whilst there’s a lot of obvious influences to their music and it’d a bit of a stretch to call them a particularly ground-breaking act, the band have carved out their own space and have produced a three more excellent albums which explore every area of their niche, to the extent that the sound and feel of their music is unique to them whilst most of their peers from their early days have fallen by the wayside.

As such, the news that their fifth studio recording Big Life was to be a double album was surprising and intriguing in equal measures: would the trademark  Rifles sound last over 18 songs, or would they take a new approach? And can you really get away with a double album in this day and age of streaming and playlists?

Happily, any doubts over what this wildly under-valued band are capable of producing are quickly assuaged and my main recommendation for fully appreciating Big Life is to treat it as a double album and not to try to listen to it right through in one go: if you have a physical copy, wait a while before you go and switch the CD or the vinyl; if you’re listening to a digital version, go and make a cup of tea (or, indeed, a fresh beer as let’s face it,  The Rifles are a perfect band for accompanying such things) when you reach the end of the first half rather than letting it keep playing. It’s not that running right through it one go will ruin the album, as such; it just helps to appreciate the subtle nuances on offer to take the two discs separately.

Within a few songs of the first half, it becomes clear that Big Life is going to be like No Love Lost and Great Escape in that almost every track could be a single, filled with classic Rifles tunes. Opener Groundhog Day sets the tone and with a rather strange, syncopated rhythm it serves as a fine example of how the band are able to adapt their sound with subtle little twists and musical devices; that said though, with a back catalogue like theirs, one really shouldn’t need any reminders regarding the Rifles’ song-writing capabilities. The likes of Radio Nowhere and Turtle Dove showcase the blend of melody and punch which the band excel in, although the stars of the first half of Big Life are the lead single Wall Around Your Heart and Victoria – the first of these is an out-and-out anthem which promises to be a live hit, whilst the latter is a thing of beauty which fuses the 60’s pop tones of third album Freedom Run with acoustic numbers like Spend a Lifetime. Speaking of acoustic tracks, the last track on the first disc is such a thing: a charming, folky offering backed by a children’s choir, Young For A Day is a fitting closer to prepare you for the second part of the album.

As previously mentioned, it’s helpful to take a short break between the two halves of Big Life, and the reason for this is that the latter section has a subtle but distinctly flavour, something which is more apparent when taken as a separate movement (to borrow the operatic term) – if the first half is classic Rifles, the second is more experimental and vindicates the decision to release a double album.

Opening with a rather quaint and very English string section which sounds like it could be the theme tune from a 70’s BBC drama, Big Big Life is the first indication of the different sounds which appear on the latter section of the album which it gives its name to, although it’s on the following track Motorway where The Rifles start to diversify, with its chorus-laden guitar lines a departure from the sharp, spikey chords which normally characterise lead guitarist Luke Crowther’s playing. From thereon in, there’s a different…vibe, for want of a better word. Take Independent, for example, which is a darkly brooding affair, or the delightfully optimistic pop of Go Do What You Like, both of which are far removed from the pints-in-the-air anthems like Wall Around Your Heart. That’s not to say that the second part of Big Life is devoid of the kind of tracks which have made The Rifles the band they are though, with Misunderstood and Time In Hand providing that fix, but it’s the tracks where the band deviate from that sound which really stand out in the latter section of the album and which make the overall release such an interesting and rewarding experience; as such, it seems appropriate that proceedings come to a close with a quite beautiful stripped-down version of Victoria.

It’s always seemed like a great injustice to me that The Rifles have never gained the commercial success that their music to date has so richly deserved – the likes of Peace & Quiet and Science In Violence are surely deserving of Modern Classic status – but with this bold and ambitious release, they’ve underlined their credentials as one of the finest British bands of recent times. In terms of the simple quality of the songs on offer and in the depth and range on offer over 18 tracks, The Rifles have produced arguably their finest album in Big Life.

Here’s to the next 10 years.

Listen to Big Life here:

One Response to “Album Review: The Rifles – Big Life”
  1. garyfeeney says:

    Reblogged this on General Smuts.


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