'I think the problem for anyone striving to create their own sound is, once you – hopefully – have achieved that, how do you expand that whilst maintaining it?' This is the dilemma that guitarist and keyboardist Matt Calvert suggests Three Trapped Tigers have been wrestling with over the last five years.
Yes, it really is five whole years (well, almost) since Three Trapped Tigers unleashed their debut album – the magnificent [Route One or Die}(http://drownedinsound.com/releases/16245/reviews/4142739) – upon the world. Having followed the band since around the time that they released their second EP (way back in 2009), the genius of that album came as little surprise to me. It was that increasingly rare thing: a debut full-length that managed to sound like very little else and yet also feel almost fully formed. In light of that it may seem hard to imagine what more Calvert, and his bandmates Adam Betts (drums and percussion) and Tom Rogerson (keys and synths), were supposed to do after their debut album. Having toured exhaustively with a diverse range of acts, and with each band member having had plenty to occupy them in their spare time (ranging from stints with Roots Manuva to organising semi-regular improv nights at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters), Three Trapped Tigers have finally taken up the challenge of the second album. As the mammoth crescendo to its opening titular track announces in some style, Silent Earthling is no half-assed retread.
Certainly [i]Silent Earthling[/i] does seem more self-consciously 'rock' than its predecessor. At some point earlier in their evolutionary trajectory, one could reasonably accurately describe Three Trapped Tigers as being somewhat akin to Boards of Canada as played by a live band. On the first half of this album, at least, they are more akin to Deftones (with whom Three Trapped Tigers have toured thanks to the avid appreciation of frontman Chino Moreno) – minus the vocals of course – attempting a late career switch after binging on early Autechre records. Whilst Three Trapped Tigers have always been noisy enough for some to attach to them (somewhat ill-advisedly, at least to my ears) the 'noise rock' tag, [i]Silent Earthling[/i] is chock full of some seriously meaty dual guitar riffs. The title track, and opener, starts things off with one of the album’s biggest whoppers in this department. ‘Kraken’ also deserves praise for the enormous humdinger that acts as its central motif. As on previous releases, Calvert’s guitar is also given hefty backup from some almost comically chunky synth bass lines. Seeing him and Rogerson drop these live is going to be all kinds of brilliant.
As Silent Earthling continues it becomes less obviously geared towards these set pieces, which may ultimately be characterised as leaner, meaner counterparts of those previously found on ‘Cramm’ or ‘Noise Trade’. Despite this, however, it doesn’t fall into the obvious trap of increasingly sounding ever more like a re-run of Three Trapped Tigers’ previous work. ‘Blimp’, ‘Tekkers’ and ‘Hemispheres’ are just as much new takes on aspects of the band’s personality as the album’s first salvo of tunes but – once again – they seem slightly stripped of the more schizophrenic elements of previous releases. Appearances are probably deceptive in this regard, especially as ‘Engrams’ seems to collate everything Three Trapped Tigers have ever been good at into just a little over five minutes. However, the impression is the important thing, and the impression Silent Earthling continues to give over its nine tracks it that of something more refined, less concerned with demonstrating its distinctiveness and more with hitting the nail on the head time after time.
In this sense, Three Trapped Tigers are less comparable to math rock than ever before. If there are any bands that they can be accurately compared to then Battles are surely at the top of the list. However the contrast between the two bands is striking. Battles have increasingly dug themselves into a hole: every passing record that they release sounds more concentrated, more like they are self-consciously trying to make their lives difficult. Three Trapped Tigers are going in the opposite direction. I am sure it was anything but, but Silent Earthling has the wonderful habit of sounding effortless. Don’t misunderstand, Betts in particular still gives a performance that emphasises his godly mastery of his instrument, but somehow the attention is not so instinctively drawn to the contradictions in the band’s music. If the focus in the past was automatically on 'How do these guys manage to actually play all this stuff, not with samplers, but live… in a room together?', then now it is firmly on 'Hey, all this goes together super tidily'.
It takes some talent to blend elements of metal, prog rock, classic electronica (Brian Eno has been an acknowledged influence, and Rogerson will be releasing a collaboration with him in the near future), techno and hip hop into an album, but Three Trapped Tigers have pulled it off so convincingly here that it makes some of their previous material look unfairly clunky in comparison. It is always foolhardy to enter debates about who is 'the best band in Britain', but that won’t stop me in this instance. In terms of uniqueness – seriously, nobody else sounds quite like this band – and in terms of songwriting (and all-round musical) skill, there aren’t many bands in the UK who can even compete with Three Trapped Tigers. When you add in the self-assurance with which they have jumped back into the spotlight after five years away, it is undeniable that you have a very, very special band on your hands. Next to them, other bands do seem very much like puny earthlings after all. Hail our multi-instrumentalist alien overlords!
9Benjamin Bland's Score