The Illusion Of Power comes eight long years after the last Contrastate album in 2012, A Breeding Ground For Flies (while 2016 saw the release of No Eden Without Annihilation, that is effectively a live collection and considered to be a ‘sister album’ to A Breeding Ground For Flies). So, given full-length albums from the illustrious Contrastate are a rare occurrence, this is reason for long-term fans to rejoice.
From a cursory review of titles and lyrics, it is fairly obvious that the album addresses the current state of England as a consequence of Brexit, while the artwork appears to refer to the wider refugee crisis facing Europe in recent years. As to the sound and style of Contrastate, since reforming in the early 2010s their approach to recording and production is clearly differentiated from the earlier phase of the project. The current era has a cleaner and sharper digital tone to production and a varied and layered approach to composition, where various musical fragments and rhythmical segments are woven together into longer compositional structures. This album follows this approach but its five tracks clock in just shy of 40 minutes, which differs from the usually lengthy releases. Of the five tracks, three are vocal-led, forming the start, middle, and end of the album, with each separated by two shorter instrumental tracks.
English Pastoral opens the album, and lyrically speaking it is a sorry indictment of the current political state of England as a consequence of Brexit, as well as a broader comment on the decline of an Empire and its standing on the world stage. Musically it spans close to 10 minutes and shifts through a number of phases: early sweeping neo-classical strings and doom-addled sub-orchestral drones act as a backing to spoken vocals, before shifting into a lengthy rhythmically-swaying passage with further monologue-based vocals. The first instrumental track Interregnum follows and maintains conceptual adherence, given the term means ‘a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes’. Sonically it features sparse piano and guitar motifs, coupled with subtle melodious drones and a variety of post-industrial textures (sped-up typewriter perhaps?). War Against The Other is the centrepiece of the album, and while no lyrics are printed for the track, it is strongly vocal-led; the vocals sound to be sung in both Latin and Arabic as a religious lament, while the musical backing charts an amorphous space between sub-orchestral drones, swelling classical strings, and scrabbling metallic, aquatic, and electric textures. Second instrumental track Appointment In Samarra maintains a metaphorical conceptual link, as the title would seem to be referring to John O’Hara’s 1934 novel of the same name. Incidentally, the title is a reference to W. Somerset Maugham’s retelling of an old Mesopotamian tale, relating to a character’s chance meeting with death, while in O’Hara’s novel it follows the main character Julian English over three days where a series of self-inflicted acts culminate in his suicide. Sonically the track follows an understated ritual ambient tone, which builds to a number of minor sonic peaks, but ultimately feels like a bridging piece to the final track Hard Border No Border. This final track is another lengthy affair that moves through a number of distinct segments. The first scattered, fragmentary, and atonal opening section gives way to an experimental passage of wonky and surreal tones, before abruptly shifting into a section based around a pulsing bass rhythm, to which the upfront spoken vocals are rhythmically-framed in response to increasing speed. The final moment of the track and album are then coupled with a rising melancholic orchestral melody. A sublime conclusion.
It perhaps goes without saying that The Illusion Of Power is an album that sounds only as Contrastate can, but to be more specific it clearly sits within the modern phase of the project, which commenced with Breeding Ground For Flies. Conceptually there are ample ideas to unpack, including myriad fragmentary sampled voices used throughout, which makes for attentive listening on repeat spins to unpack potential clues. The main impression I get from the album is that it is an almost sorrowful observation of the current state of affairs facing England, but that offers little in the way of solutions to what are indeed extremely complex issues and clearly not as simple as current populist politics presents them. If I am to level any criticism at The Illusion Of Power it is regarding its brevity, as additional length would be welcome. But this is hardly a criticism of the excellent material which is presented, and regardless of this, this is another exceptional album within the Contrastate discography.