Chris NeeComment


Chris NeeComment

Loz Taylor must be sick of hearing, reading and talking about the words "throat surgery". He was forced under the knife in 2013 at the worst possible time for the lead vocalist of an up-and-coming band who were, by any measure, on something of a run of form. One EP and one full-length record into their career, Sheffield-based While She Sleeps were widely tipped as a band to watch in heavy metal music. Every magazine, every "new blood" feature, every list of predictions, Sleeps were there.

Writing on their second album had already begun before Taylor's problems took hold. The band's upward trajectory brought with it a range of new pressures for one of Britain's most vital new metal acts and they were stopped in their tracks mid-flow, left with songs brewing for over a year with nowhere to put them and no hope of completing them before their frontman had fully recovered. Worse still, While She Sleeps were off the touring circuit, waiting not so patiently for their moment to come back around.
That they survived such a setback is testament to the quality of the music and the personalities within the band. Singers having surgery on their throats can knock their plans drastically off-kilter; it's the kind of obstacle that can cut off a promising band at the knees, ending careers before they've even come close to fulfilling their potential. For a band whose vocal style is based on Taylor ragging his vocal cords liked a souped-up Vauxhall Nova around a housing estate, it could easily have been the end.

The end? Behave. While She Sleeps, fully intact, re-emerged in 2014 having completed the writing, recording and production of Brainwashed, and started putting out a handful of the new tracks ahead of the album's release in March 2015. If those songs were unveiled in order to build anticipation then they were selected perfectly. Instant classic followed instant classic and the feeling that Brainwashed was going to be something special was unavoidable. It blew even those expectations out of the water; it was a phenomenal piece of work, not only a coming of age for the band but, for many, their crowning moment as the kings of new British metal.

Despite being proudly associated with Sheffield, While She Sleeps originated not in the city itself but half an hour away, over the Derbyshire county border in the suburban village of Renishaw. Singer Jordan Widdowson parted ways with lead guitarist Sean Long, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Mat Welsh, bass player Aaran McKenzie and drummer Adam Savage in 2009. Widdowson left to focus on work rather than join WSS on their first tour and the addition of Taylor, a skinny skateboarder with a rasping voice, proved the catalyst for a remarkable rise to fame.

On that first tour and beyond Sleeps developed an impressive reputation as a live band, and not just because of their brilliance as on-stage performers. In the dual worlds of metal and hardcore respect is hard won and quality isn't enough in isolation to take a young, jobbing band up to the next level. While She Sleeps played shows relentlessly, fearing no sweat-dripping club ceiling, dive bar or crappy support slot. Word gets around when a band plays well and plays hard, and WSS quickly built a significant fanbase around the UK. It's in their relationship with those fans that this band really stands out.

In fact, it's less a relationship and more a mutual understanding, an unspoken kinship based on authenticity, shared values and a love of a good old-fashioned metal scream-along. Of course, every band talks about having a special relationship with their fans and, often, it's bullshit. With While She Sleeps it's almost telepathic, the kind of adulation that allows a band to disappear for over a year and return into a community that welcomes them back like they've never been away. Their debut album is called This Is The Six, a reference to the WSS fans as the band's sixth member, and it's a label they now wear proudly on tattoos and t-shirts all over Europe. When Taylor and Welsh sing live, they don't do it alone.
Sleeps screeched onto the scene in 2010 with The North Stands For Nothing, a phenomenal manifestation of their burgeoning reputation on the road. The song honoured by the band's first video, 'Crows', still goes off like a bottlerocket when played live; the EP was an early shot across the bows and remains every bit as loved a part of the While She Sleeps pantheon as the two records released since. Stylistically, it placed the band somewhere on the metalcore spectrum. That's a problematic label, apt in many cases but despised in equal measure by sections of both the metal and hardcore communities it nominally unites. While She Sleeps employ elements of hardcore and an unashamed punk ethic but metalcore is so tainted a term that it just doesn't cut it where a band of this quality is concerned.
This Is The Six was a creative continuation of the EP and the fulfilment of its promise. Although it garnered the occasional criticism about clichéd gang chants and hackneyed pronouncements of community with the Sleeps fans, the first album was generally received with overwhelming positivity. Tracks like 'Dead Behind The Eyes', 'Our Courage, Our Cancer' and 'False Freedom' established While She Sleeps as electrifying writers and performers. 'Be(Lie)ve' is a firm fan favourite along with the title track, nothing more or less than the call to arms that embodies the band's unbreakable alliance with its fans.
The first full-length album was written up as a metalcore album and seemed, at the time of its release in 2012, to be a record made with a legion of loyal followers in mind. There's an intimacy about it, a hidden understanding that to fully appreciate This Is The Six, you had to be part of The Six, part of the band, part of its low-level, rumbling, venomous movement. But While She Sleeps were about to break down the subgenre barriers and open their music up to the widest audience possible: put simply, Brainwashed is too much of a monster to be defined as anything more specific than metal and they're now doing metal as well as anyone.
What resulted from the creative process and the delays that hampered it was a layered, mature and supremely well written record that has had critics and fans alike swooning since its release earlier this year. To describe it as thick with riffs is to underestimate the quality of work that went into the Brainwashed sessions and came out in chunky, nasty, catchy hooks by the truckload. It's a headbanger's bounty; not only does the second While She Sleeps album contain probably the top three or four metal riffs of 2015, but each song boasts more than most bands can lay claim to on entire records.
In terms of overall tone and lyrical content, Brainwashed is, broadly speaking, enraged and political. The clue, as they say, is in the name: Brainwashed is an outspoken critique of an unequal society dominated by and for the few, a global corporate wasteland populated by wilfully blinded masses. While She Sleeps have created a conduit for the righteous anger of the downtrodden.

But it's not a complaint or a lament. It's not a laundry list of society's ills with no hope but a call to mobilise, affirming and unwaveringly positive, imploring any affected listeners to take one simple action to enrich their experience of being: wake up and pay attention.

The message is but a side issue. Above all else Brainwashed is just a brilliant rock 'n' roll record. It's a picture-perfect collection of tunes that are just gigantic, hewn from the torment of 2013 and whittled into a modern masterpiece. British metal, thy name is While She Sleeps and Sheffield is thy home.

Chris is an IBWM co-editor and appears on the Aston Villa Review and Football Fives podcasts. He reviews five new music releases every week and you can follow him on Twitter: @ChrisNeeFC.