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British indie supergroup Mastersystem makes a promising debut

Two sets of sibling rockers from Britain have come together to make music that's nervous and poetic but brimming with exuberance

Mastersystem’s debut album, ‘Dance Music’, released on Friday. Photo: Sally Lockey
Mastersystem’s debut album, ‘Dance Music’, released on Friday. Photo: Sally Lockey

For those of us who fell hopelessly in love with rock music in the 1970s and 1980s, the genre’s supergroups occupied a sweet spot in our adulation. Supergroups were bands that were formed when leading members from other, usually famous, bands got together to play and record. There was a flip side to it too: Ego clashes, friction and tension between these hugely talented geniuses were not uncommon. Unsurprisingly, supergroups could be short-lived, flaming out quickly after soaring sky-high.

Of all such bands that rocked our lives during those decades, my top 3 were the following: the blues rockers, Blind Faith, formed by the members of Cream (Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) and Traffic (Steve Winwood and Ric Grech); the prog-rockers, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, formed by musicians from The Nice (Keith Emerson), King Crimson (Greg Lake) and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Carl Palmer); and the all-star folk-rockers, Travelling Wilburys, comprising veritable giants—Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

There were many, many more supergroups during those heady days of rock but these three always topped the list, at least for me. Fast-forward quickly to the world of present-day indie bands and it is heartening to find that the phenomenon of supergroups is still alive. Among the many notable contemporary ones, a few stand out: folk-rockers Monsters Of Folk, formed by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, and solo artist M. Ward (you can hear one of their songs on the soundtrack of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); genre-hopping indie-rockers Broken Bells, formed by Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and The Shins’ frontman James Mercer; and garage-rockers The Dead Weather, formed by Jack White, The Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, and the Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita.

On 6 April, a new British supergroup released its debut album. Mastersystem has been formed by two sets of siblings—Scottish indie-rock band Frightened Rabbit’s Scott and Grant Hutchison, and Justin and James Lockey, from two English post-punk bands, Editors and Minor Victories. Mastersystem’s new album is called Dance Music, but, first, here’s why they’re worth checking out. It’s because of the parts that make up the whole.

Frightened Rabbit and Editors (and, to some extent, Minor Victories) are not gigantic arena-filling bands but their records and gigs have made them cynosures of the elite cognoscenti among indie music fans and the genre critics. Frightened Rabbit, formed in 2004 in Glasgow’s fertile indie rock scene, have released six studio albums and shot to fame with their second one, 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Fronted by lead singer Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit’s music (not unlike their name) abounds with nervous energy and poetic lyrics.

On The Midnight Organ Fight, the 14 tracks have a theme—love going awry, and the breaking up of a relationship. Dark humour, self-loathing and tense anxiety are combined with exuberance in Frightened Rabbit’s music. They make melancholic music, which is similar to The National’s, yet, incredibly, it sounds up-tempo. Scott’s tenor and his brother Grant’s forceful drumming (he is known to splinter a stick or three during gigs) add life to lyrics that could otherwise seem to be dripping with self-pity. Sample verse from The Midnight Organ Fight’s (the title, incidentally, is a reference to sex) opener, The Modern Leper: Well is that you in front of me?/ Coming back for even more of exactly the same/ You must be a masochist/ To love a modern leper on his last leg, on his last leg. But when you hear the song, those words seem strangely uplifting. All of Frightened Rabbit’s albums are worth checking out, but The Midnight Organ Fight and 2016’s clever and erudite Painting Of A Panic Attack (it’s co-produced by The National’s Aaron Dressner) would be my top picks.

Cut to Editors. Formed in 2003, during the post-punk wave which saw the emergence of bands (in Britain and the US) such as Bloc Party (England), Interpol (US), Editors’ dark, brooding but well-crafted music quickly found a following among the snootier critics and fans. The Back Room, in their first album (and probably also their best), evoked the influence of the legendary 1970s British post-punk rockers, Joy Division, and, like Frightened Rabbit, their music and lyrics were marked by a mood of nervous but anxious passion. Here’s a verse from their debut album’s Blood: This wicked city just drags you down/ You’re with the red lights, your side of town/ Don’t say it’s easy to follow a process/ There’s nothing harder than keeping a promise/ Blood runs through your veins, that’s where our similarity ends/ Blood runs through our veins.

Like Editors and Frightened Rabbit, Minor Victories (on which Stuart Braithwaite, frontman of another accomplished British indie band, Mogwai, also features) make music that is the product of a highly evolved creative effort.

So it didn’t come as a big surprise that the new supergroup, Mastersystem, created ripples. On their debut album, Dance Music, Scott Hutchison’s trademark nervous vulnerability is intact—in the lyrics as well as vocals. But the level of aggression is cranked up by the music. This is serious rock music—fuzzy guitar riffs and heavy bass lines, courtesy the Lockey brothers, and, of course, Grant’s frenzied drumming. Mastersystem’s constituent bands, Frightened Rabbit, Editors and Minor Victories, make music that post-punk era’s connoisseurs love but Mastersystem add to that a rock- anthem-like dimension. On tracks such as Old Team and The Enlightenment, indie’s newest supergroup shows off its potential for netting larger audiences. Who knows? They might even fill those huge arenas soon.

The lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Notes On A Life Not Quite Lived’ by Mastersystem from ‘Dance Music’

2. ‘Old Team’ by Mastersystem from ‘Dance Music’

3. ‘The Modern Leper’ by Frightened Rabbit from ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’

4. ‘Blood’ by Editors from ‘The Back Room’

5. ‘Munich’ by Editors from ‘The Back Room’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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