I’ve been a fan of Welsh rockers the Alarm since I first discovered music in the eighties. Back then, their passion, integrity and sheer intensity spoke to me, and it still does. I’m happy to report that though the intervening thirty years or so have brought ups and downs, for me as well as the band, we are all still here. That’s something to raise a glass to. This might be the first official Alarm album of new material since 2010’s Direct Action. I say ‘might’ because it’s difficult to keep track as Mike Peters (sole survivor of the original incarnation of the Alarm and driving creative force) is one of the most prolific figures in rock. In the past few years there have been countless reissues, soundtracks, live albums and re-recordings of earlier material, as well as the recent Blood Red/Vinyl Black project, mostly put out through his own 21st Century Recordings label, all of which muddy the waters somewhat. You do get the feeling, however, that most of the aforementioned has been leading up to the release of Equals, which has more in common, both lyrically and thematically, with Direct Action than anything that has come between the two releases.
When I started writing this review, I told myself that it should be more about the music than the man. God knows, there have been more than enough column inches written about Mike Peters’ (and latterly his wife Jules’) health issues. But it quickly became apparent that this was going to be easier said than done, as over the years the music and the struggle have become inexorably linked. Thriving in the face of adversity is a big component of the bigger picture, and in my opinion to not understand and acknowledge the back-story detracts slightly from the power of the music. To quote the Classic Rock review of Equals, “The fact that this album exists at all is a testament to the endurance of the indomitable human spirit in the wake of tragedy and woe.”
The tone is set from the restrained yet subtly defiant opening chords of the first track Two Rivers, an uplifting synth-led rocker with a lyrical focus on redemption and reinvention, and continues into standout track Beautiful, another hard-edged anthem with a soft centre. The next track sees Mike Peters rekindle his bromance with Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, who does a serviceable job adding some depth and potency to Coming Backwards, before the pace drops slightly for Transatlantic. The scathing, socio-political commentary of Crowd Trouble follows before we are hit by Peace Now, a kissing cousin to Neil Young’s Rocking in the Free World, which The Alarm covered in 1991 for their Raw album. A nice touch is the repurposing of Pink Floyd’s famous “Just another brick in the wall” lyric, along with the “No guitars in the war machine” refrain. The next highlight for me is another stirring anti-war Cenotaph, which surely ranks among the best Alarm songs ever written. Like Peace Now, this track was debuted a couple of years ago on the well-received Spirit of ’86 tour, itself a continuation of the Year of Strength, where it slotted in seamlessly alongside an expansive repertoire of 80’s classics. The album closes out with Hell Fire (on CD and download only) and Tomorrow which, from a slightly whimsical opening, builds to a soaring crescendo of a climax. A fitting way to finish.
You already know what you’re going to get with an Alarm/Mike Peters release, so there’s a small element of preaching to the converted here. Peters found his niche decades ago. He knows what the people who buy his music want and, apart from adding the occasional dance beat or funky bass line, is unlikely to break any new ground at this point in his career. But why should he? If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. Impassioned and poignant, Equals stands as one of the best albums of his career to date, and it’s out now.