It’d be a bit of a stretch to say that Nine Black Alps ever had the world at their feet once, but there was certainly a time when the Manc quartet bordered on ubiquity; a decade ago, constant touring and some promising early recordings looked to have positioned them nicely for crossover success. The straightforward alt-rock sound that they peddled was commercially viable in an age ruled by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs, but their guitars leaned unerringly towards grunge - a feat in itself remarkable for a band from Manchester, which was suffering from a hideous post-Britpop hangover that threatened to reach full-blown malaise.
It’s not totally shocking that Nine Black Alps have slipped under the radar these past few years; unabashed guitar bands haven’t been in fashion for quite some time now. They’ve evidently carved out enough of a fan base to make new releases workable, though, because Candy for the Clowns follows pretty keenly on the heels of 2012’s Sirens; given that guitarist David Jones has spent most of the intervening months on tour with The Cribs, as Johnny Marr’s de facto replacement, it’s impressive that they’ve managed to maintain such a good rate of return.
‘Novokaine’, originally released to mark the band’s tenth anniversary last year, is a smart choice of opener; the dual guitars are menacing and frontman Sam Forrest’s on belligerent form, but it doesn’t sound unrefined - it feels taut, and there’s enough polish to ensure it sits somewhere between grunge and pop-punk, rather than firmly on one side of the fence. Candy for the Clowns is evidently a record built on the idea of maintaining momentum, in more ways than one; I don’t want to cast the band as sentimentalists, but reaching ten years together seems to have afforded them a new lease of life. ‘Blackout’ and ‘Come Back Around’ zip along, all punchy riffs and hooky choruses, although you suspect some of that zeal might have come at the cost of lyrical sharpness - “come back, I really need you / I’m out of the way and tired of letting you down” being a particularly banal cut from the latter.
In fairness, though, it’s actually the duality of the guitars that’s the band’s strongest suit; there’s some neat interplay on the thumpingly heavy ‘Patti’, and ‘Destroy Me’s interlocking lines rip across each other, culminating in a genuinely searing solo. You get the impression that they’ve long since mastered the art of turning out sprightly riffs that drag the rest of the song along with them; there’s also subtle suggestions that Jones’ time sharing stages with Ryan Jarman hasn’t passed without some of the latter’s ramshackle approach to songwriting creeping into the Nine Black Alps camp. The awkward thrash of ‘Something Else’ often feels as if it’s ready to leave its time signature behind, whilst the sheer urgency of ‘Not in My Name’ inspires a decidedly unvarnished vocal turn from Forrest at the climax.
The biggest criticism that you can level at Candy for the Clowns is that it often feels a little one-track, but then again, it’s a punk record to all intents and purposes; you can’t really blame the band for adhering to just the one blistering speed setting. There is an ill-advised attempt to change tack late on with ‘Take Me Underground’, the album’s gentlest moment; lyrically, it’s quite pretty, but it’s hard to overlook how much it jars in pacing terms. For the most part, though, Candy for the Clowns is very good fun; straight-up rock and roll, with no interest in pretension. I’d like to think there’ll always be a place for bands that take as much joy in simplicity as Nine Black Alps - here’s to another ten years