EP REview: The Bugles – ‘What A Time To Be Alive’

“A ramshackle wide-eyed and raucous enthusiasm that’s tough not to want to admire…”

My dislike for anything skapunk’s no secret, nor the hives that flair up at the hint of its bounce. But lucky for me, and without rhyme or reason, these hives don’t apply to its olive branch cousin of two-tone; Coventry’s late 70’s export of The Specials, Selector, Birmingham’s The Beat on a Coventry label, that fusion of every day anger with cross cultured flecks that combined and kicked outwards. I wasn’t alive when that crest came and fell but these mainstays of punk gig and festival sets bled into my musical backtracks.     

Lucky for me and lucky for The Bugles, who with gleeful and confident swagger and zeal, tap into and re-wrap these sounds. How much has changed and what hasn’t? That same blunt trauma message that everything’s split between haves and have nots and the questions of which one’s the richer. “Nobody, nobody nice says to me ‘I earn more money than you’ / He looks over and what does here see? / He sees a happier man…”  Who can argue with that? And why would you want to, when words tacked to reinforced rhythms react with a self assured vocal that flows with a blast. It’s the first track of four, it’s a statement, a purpose, a self styled introduction intent on impressing and pressing the flesh of the band.

‘Give Up’s presentation is simple; tight guitars run to a crisp central theme, metronome drums match the space of the bass while in gaps between words, in the blanks between beats, quick jangle flourishes pepper the track with singular acts of flamboyance. All the hallmarks of ska and it’s crossovers play and the throw back to two-tone’s complete. Granted, those eerie hints of new wave might be missing (remember those ghost sounds and synths), but the pace and the obvious joy, all the mean or keen eyed observations, they tie in so tight that it’s hard to ignore and it keeps all my itchings at bay. While we call out and celebrate every good reason not to, the gristle of punk lies beneath; “You’re bored/ You’re dead / A hole in your head” is as blunt and straight as it gets.   

‘What A Time’ settles down and plays loose with the rules that were set up in the two minutes previous. I can’t help but thread a connection… Here the band plays with ska and it’s offshoots like The Fall messed with old rockabilly. ‘Touch Sensitive’ comes to mind. It’s all bleary with jeer and soft focus, there’s sarcastic swipes that snipe with a sneer, we grin our way though our diminished ambitions and reasons why not to be cheerful. Sure it sounds cocksure, maybe snide, almost obvious (“Sort out your suit / Do up your tie / Look at your shoes / Oh how they shine / What a time to be alive…”), but it’s done with such self aware slapdash and ‘who cares’ that it’s easy to ride along with it.

‘What A Time’s lust for accessible mess against ‘Give Up’s ultra-neat clean, is a welcome and well worked out contrast. From here on the last tracks of this EP come from one of these camps or the other; the rigid and tightly wound structures and bounce or the loose flirt and play with tradition.

‘Fat Cats’ is the former, a song almost identical to the opening track but somehow incomplete in comparison. Where ‘Give Up’ got giddy with charm and intent, ‘Fat Cats’ can’t quite match up with its rival. For all the uplift and jump and for all the forced happy, it just sounds a little bit …serious. Maybe it’s the concentration it took to spit bars at speed in the track’s middle verse, maybe the song was an earlier template for later and much improved formula, but for all of its parts it has half of the ease that seemed to breathe through those opening tracks.

And out from the latter, that looser relaxed camp, comes the EP’s soft parting goodbye. Those templates and rules are stripped to a pulse, they’re slowed down to a new shallow groove. ‘Kings and Queens‘ shows a cool and soothing restraint as we bleed into indie and slide into croons. Sweetly chaotic vocal harmonies grow and give hints to a delicate side. State of nation addresses get drawn in and personal and it’s good to see sights fixed both ways. Again it’s the looseness, that wanting to flex out and stretch that attracts me. Again, set against the tight structures and rhythms it feels good to feel free and to drift.

Peel away my aversions and my personal tastes and there’s more than enough to latch onto. In those opening tracks there’s a ramshackle wide-eyed and raucous enthusiasm that’s tough not to want to admire… Not just to hammer out the music they love but to play at the edges and skirt round the sides while trying to own something big in the middle.

‘What A Time To Be Alive’, the debut EP from The Bugles comes out on August 16th. Catch their singles and gig news right here.

Find my pick of theses tracks and others from Rats on the Run featured artists right here on Rats On Run Radio.