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Editors by Rahi Rezvani 2018

Performing on: Saturday 1 September

When describing Editors’ sixth album, Tom Smith keeps journeying back to the same word: “brutal”. It’s an apt descriptor for Violence, both in the record’s aggressive title and its all-enveloping, assertive sound. But on this follow-up to 2015’s stunning, top 5-charting In Dream, brutality doesn’t just exist as a one dimensional, juggernaut-like force. Violence isn’t brutal for the sake of it, and it’s rarely the enforcer. Instead, it acts as a haven, a protective shell against the often relentless brutality of the outside world.

In 2018, almost everyone is seeking some kind of escape – from ultra-consumerist culture, from tyrannical power-holders, from the endless swarm of grim headlines popping up as anxiety-inducing notifications. When Editors first started writing Violence towards the end of summer 2016, they didn’t intend to reflect today’s troubled times or create some kind of sanctuary from the world outside. Nor do the band view this album as some direct antidote to current events. This isn’t an overtly political record and it shouldn’t be perceived as such. But art has a habit of reflecting its environment. Months after finishing the record, Smith finally sees it in a new light:

“A lot of the songs are in a room,” he starts. “Outside of this room exists scary things, modern worries – the world we live in, essentially. But in this room, there’s a connection between two people. Whether that’s a direct relationship or if it’s friendship, there’s an escape. That connection is important because of the fear of what’s going on outside.” It’s hard to view this narrative outside of today’s context. Smith says he’s just like you and me – he often switches off the news when it gets overbearing. Not from a position of ignorance, but from a need to protect his own sanity, so that he can “focus on friends, children, things that are important to me.” Different people will draw different positives from this remarkable record, but for me, Violence finds solace in real-life connection. It doesn’t so much shun today’s grim realities as remind us that there’s always a shade of light to throw at the darkness.

That’s not to say Violence is all major keys and warm embraces. It prefers to be ferocious, in-your-face and direct, with equal emphasis on invention. It’s the sound of studio-heads honing their craft. Six albums in – three with former guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, three as the current five-piece – they sound more comfortable in their skin than ever. And whereas the self-produced In Dream saw the band relying on their own devices, this time they thrive thanks to outside input: production from Leo Abrahams (Wild Beasts, Florence & The Machine, Frightened Rabbit), additional production from Benjamin John Power (aka experimental producer Blanck Mass), plus mixing from Cenzo Townshend and Alan Moulder.

Recording sessions took place in Oxford from late summer 2016 to mid 2017, where the band shared a house, worked regular hours, and generally stayed “in touch with civilisation,” as guitarist Justin Lockey puts it.  Their previous album, In Dream, saw the band relocate to the desolate Western Highlands in Scotland – this time they “took it easier and didn’t force anything.” He adds: “On the last record, you could tell we were in the wilderness. It was a really dense, deep, minimal affair. Whereas this one is a little bit busier. It’s pretty balls out. I don’t think there’s anything insular about it. It’s fizzy and it’s bright.”

Lockey says Violence’s process can be separated into three stages. In fact, they pretty much made three different records. The first saw Editors writing several versions of each song, testing the waters and discovering their own boundaries. Next, they received edits from Power, whose own work as Blanck Mass and half of Fuck Buttons puts an innovative, saw-toothed spin on electronic music. “We were amazed at what he came back with,” remembers Lockey. “We were looking for someone else to stick a knife in it and see what would come out. The more we went along, the more confidence he had to rip things apart.” After that, they needed an outside voice to find a middle ground between the extremes of Powers’ input and the more grounded original versions. Leo Abrahams saw the “wood through the trees,” says Smith, and he helped give Violence’s songs a more emotional character, in keeping with Editors’ back-catalogue. “With Ben’s edits, it was super programmed and robotic, and Leo felt it missed some of that emotional connection. As soon as we got in the studio with him - making ‘Violence’ and ‘Darkness at the Door’ - we realised it was gonna work. It was amazing to have someone come to us and say: ‘I think I can see what this record is going to be.’”

You can hear those three different versions of Violence meeting in the middle. The barbaric stabs of Powers’ production run parallel to Smith’s pointed lyricism. Big, direct guitar parts are built up by more obtuse, unorthodox synths. On the revelatory ‘Hallelujah (So Low)’ for instance, gentle acoustics are juxtaposed by processed electronics, and both are set aside by a thumping, wig-out guitar section. These varied elements are essentially in a sparring match. It’s enthralling. But at no point does Violence sound like different voices each trying to shout the loudest. Everything works under the same umbrella, which is testament to Abrahams’ production. “There’s that jarring nature of having an acoustic guitar working alongside something very synthetic and programmed,” describes Smith, “[and] trying to get those things to work is fun.”

Taken as one whole, watertight package, Violence’s biggest strength becomes clear: it channels aggression but packs a tender heart. Opener ‘Cold’ is up there with Editors’ finest, most direct moments, but it’s also one of their most savage-sounding songs. Lead single ‘Magazine’ is an uncompromising, forceful rallying cry against today’s power holders, but it remains outward-facing. There’s a constant, careful balancing act at play. “A lot of this stuff is really on the edge of taking your face off, sonically,” says Lockey. “It’s not a dark, brooding Editors record.” Far from it. But while departing from In Dream’s introspection for something more – that word again – brutal, Violence carries an emotional warmth.

Violence is also Smith’s strongest record as a lyricist. “I’ve always wanted the words to resonate on an emotional level, to be able to penetrate that way. That’s what a lot of our fans like about what we do. Equally, that’s what people who don’t like the band hate about us,” he smiles. “I very rarely sit down to tell a story.” As a writer, he doesn’t tend to follow a grand conceptual arc. “I go on gut instinct, and I follow a certain thread of an idea,” he says.

But whether he intended to or not, Smith taps into a feeling: the sense that we need a refuge, a safety net from the world outside. You hear it in ‘No Sound But The Wind’, a touching ballad about fatherhood, inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. “Bury your face in my shoulder, think of a birthday,” he sings, over arpeggio pianos. Similarly, ‘Belong’ captures the connection from two people who need nothing but each other: “Our skins align, I wear your soul.” ‘Belong’ also refers back to “this room”, an intimate haven with the shutters closed, nothing but personal contact, the here and now. Again, this wasn’t his plan from the outset, but Smith has tapped into a feeling and a sense of escape that others are actively seeking.

One more defining characteristic of Violence is its confidence. It’s now almost five years since Editors had to regroup, welcome in new members and pretty much start afresh. Three albums on, and they sound even more comfortable and in their stride than the band who made In This Light and on This Evening. “It was a big decision to move on [without Chris], and a horrible time for us,” Smith admits, looking back. “When we got the two new guys in, there was an element of just putting one foot in front of the other. You just have to go through the process. [But] it’s just nice to be at a point where we’ve done as many records in this new line-up as we did with the first one. I’m proud of our longevity and I’m excited about the next phase.”

I put it to both Smith and Lockey that not many bands make it this far – not least ones who emerged in the mid-’00s, hyped by the press and pigeonholed into scenes, only to be mercilessly ignored as time went on. Smith says he remembers writing ‘Bullets’ – a highlight from debut album The Back Room – and “thinking: ‘There’s something here.’” At that moment, he could envisage Editors taking the long road. “The bands I looked up to, or the reasons I was writing songs in the first place, they weren’t bands on their debut records,” he says, listing R.E.M, Elbow, Echo and the Bunnymen, Radiohead. “They’re bands with catalogues. Bands who evolve and who make mistakes but follow a path.” Lockey joined several years after ‘Bullets’ was written, but he’s of a similar mindset, triumphant about the band’s future. “You might as well not bother if you don’t challenge yourselves. Nothing’s ever taken for granted,” he states. “We’re the opposite of how most bands go down. Especially from our country. We’re the ones out there getting bigger and smashing massive gigs. We’re an anomaly.”

- Jamie Milton, January 2018