Often when a band releases their debut album and hits the road hard to promote it, as Eagulls most certainly did, they return with something in the way of an encapsulation of that period, an attempt to capture the raw energy and spirit of a live show that they have honed into blistering perfection through sheer repetition. However, in the case of Eagulls, the polar opposite is to be said. If their self-titled debut album was the surging adrenalin of a young band funneling all their energies into their opening statement to the world then Ullages is the result of them pausing for breath, reflecting, pondering 'where next' and then doing it all again, set on creating an altogether different record.
When you see a band stroll up to the podium to beat the likes of Arcade Fire, Lilly Allen and Pharrell to a major prize at the NME awards or take the David Letterman show by storm the same night Bill Murray is a guest, the in-built cynical response is to presume that what you're seeing is the result of yet another well-oiled, major label-funded, buzz band being churned through the mechanisms of the music industry. These are not scenarios necessarily synonymous with a hardworking independent band with staunch DIY ethics that are from Leeds. However, such was the success of Eagulls and their incendiary self-titled debut album, that this is where they found themselves in the wake of that release in 2014. Having spent a few years filling basements, sweatboxes and a plethora of venues throughout the country, they found themselves catapulted -- with the full support of both mainstream and independent press and radio -- to playing all over the world, taking in prominent festivals throughout '14-'15 such as Coachella, Latitude, Field Day, Leeds & Reading, Bestival and numerous others, as well as acquiring -- often hand-picked -- major support slots for bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Suede, Franz Ferdinand, The War on Drugs, Ride and more.
Whilst their debut album was a juggernaut of a record, often moving at breakneck speed and intensity, it was also a deeply melodic one, one that underneath the heady fuzz and gushing charge of the guitars laid a band with just as many pop leanings as they had punk. It's these moments that have been brought to the surface on the new record: dense, deeply textured explorations that recall the shimmering opulence of the Cocteau Twins and the ominous gloom of Disintegration / Pornography-era The Cure. It's a sound that represents what they feel was perhaps a misconception about their personality the first time around, "There was an idea around the release of the first album that we're these rowdy lads and we're not, we're just into making music." Says guitarist Mark Goldsworthy, adding "We just wanted to make music that had ups and downs, not one sort of beat, something different but that follows on from the first record. More dynamic, more thoughtful."
Such dynamism and thoughtfulness is instantaneously apparent on the album: on opening track 'Heads or Tails' one might be temporarily fooled into thinking Smiths-era Johnny Marr had resurfaced to lend his melodic touch to the track but the song, much like the guts of the rest of the album, has a faint whiff of such timeless song structure but takes a new shape, unmistakably becoming the band's own. On 'My Life in Rewind' the group allow ruminating bass-lines to power the underbelly of the song as luminous guitar lines dance afloat on top and powerful but restrained drums colour the background. It's on tracks such as this that the vocals themselves become another layer of melody, gliding within the song almost like another guitar track has been thrown into the mix. Whilst thunderous drums and heavy hammering bass may lead the opening to 'Lemontrees', it's songs such as these that display the group's natural propensity for plucking out a melody as beautiful as it is gutsy from seemingly nowhere -- it's a trait that can be found peppered throughout the entire record. 'Euphoria', as the song title suggests, is a glorious injection of serotonin but it's delivered with a tact and deftness to it -- whilst charging with a pumping, melodic euphoria to it, it too is draped in a seductive, almost lugubrious tone. It's an exercise in texture and ultimately proof that if Eagulls wanted to make straight up, fist-pumping euphoric guitar music, they could do so with their eyes closed -- on Ullages they are stretching, and reaching, for something much higher.
Pushing themselves was always on the agenda for this record, "You don't want to end up getting stuck in a comfort zone." Says guitarist Liam Matthews of the process, whilst Goldsworthy echoes the sentiment by stating, "You have to push through the hard moments to get places sometimes. You can sail along comfortably or you can take a chance and do what you want to do...when touring, you learn the [old] songs inside out and I still really love those songs but it came to a point where it wasn't as challenging so we thought it would be nice to do something that was out of our depth, to push ourselves". This is a process that came with its fair share of self-inflicted pressure too, "There was pressure on ourselves to do it better, and we definitely have." Singer and lyricist George Mitchell says, "We had to propel ourselves to get there."
The process of writing and recording the album involved long days and nights in their rehearsal space, which turned into long days and nights in a converted Catholic church with returning producer Matt Peel before the album was sent to London to be mixed by Craig Silvey (Portishead, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, R.E.M). The intensity of working out some of these songs, intent on breaking new ground, combined with the concentrated proximity of extensive touring, might be enough to unsettle or fray some bands around the edges but as Eagulls get set to release their most accomplished work yet they seem as focused, bonded and determined as ever, "It's really important to us, this band. We don't ever switch off; I know I don't switch off...ever. It's very important." Mitchell says, with Goldsworthy echoing, "None of us switch off but our friendship comes before the band, we'd never let the band affect our friendship." A friendship that's morphed into a mutated sort of family Mitchell says, "I see our band as more like family, really. We're together so much -- we're like dysfunctional brothers."
The title Ullages is both an anagram of the band's name and was once something of a plan-B name, explains Mitchell, "I was thinking about if we ever decided to change our name, Eagulls, it might be to Ullages because its an anagram but it also suits these songs really well as most of them are trying to look towards positive thoughts rather than negative, so there's like a whatever's left in the bottle mentality to it [A ullage is an amount by which a container/bottle of liquid falls short of being full]." The current of positivity that can found running throughout the record was an important one to have, say the band. Not only to again shift any false misconceptions that the group are a bunch of raging nihilists with a permanent sense of pessimism attached to their songs but also on a more pragmatic level for Mitchell, "The optimism part comes really from the last album in that everybody saw it as this completely pessimistic stuff but a lot of those songs weren't pessimistic, it was more about seeing the good in the bad. But with this one I just wanted to make it a lot more prominent, that you can get positivity from negativity. I also wanted to sing stuff with optimism because I'm constantly down, I wanted to sing songs that could make me feel positive in myself because I am always down."
It's refreshing as it is exhilarating to hear Eagulls' Ullages as they continue to forge a fierce and prominent British voice in the world of music. This record is every bit as dazzling as it's predecessor but it comes along with that most rare and treasured quality of being so in a way that feels simultaneously new whilst remaining in the existing character and tone of the band. Never has the term 'sophomore slump' been kicked so mercilessly to death as by Eagulls on this album.