[NWNA] Yard Act – The Overload

A dance-punk debut for a nation amidst an identity crisis.

Phoebe Fox
Yard Act

If it is to be said, by this point in early 2022, we are witnessing the second (if we can count emo in waves, surely, we can do the same for post-punk, right?) post-punk revival of the millennium. In case the post-“Is This It” era of garage rock-influenced soundscape wasn’t enough for you, the more experimental “Post-Brexit New Wave”, an umbrella term coined by NPR (the successor to the moniker  “Crank Wave” coined by publications like NME or The Quietus) might be what you’re looking for. Or not, it’s all a matter of taste, anyway.

However, trying to put all these bands under a single roof can be a rather troublesome task, as that removes not only most non-British bands who were already innovating in the genre beforehand – groups like Protomartyr, Parquet Courts, Iceage or Viagra Boys – but it also heavily reduces how distant some of these bands can be in terms of soundscape. Just look at black midi’s “Cavalcade” for example, a hybrid of King Crimson’s avant-garde jazz experiments with the chaotic sound structure of the Cardiacs, or how Black Country, New Road’s latest material is pushing towards a more Arcade Fire chamber pop-influenced art-rock. They have become, sonically at least, quite distant from Dry Cleaning’s or Wet Leg‘s Fleabagian charismatic post-punk, or the tipsy art-punk of Courting, DEADLETTER or shame. But what connects them all, to some degree, is that most of the mentioned groups are young bands or artists (we do not speak enough about how incredible Sinead O Brien is, for a fact) using their music and art to reflect and capture the heap of anxiety that has reaped across the UK in the years leading to and following Brexit. That is, seemingly, a catalyst shared across them all.

Nevertheless, one group from Leeds has stood out from their peers on how they tackle this whole ordeal, given they approached it very directly, while also embracing the very sarcastically, tongue-in-cheek like layer of post-irony flowing across the music made by most of these bands: Yard Act. If their “Dark Days EP” from last year had already displayed their ability to tackle the social commentary of post-Brexit UK with a somewhat disturbing accuracy, their debut record, “The Overload”, follows up on that regard, while also embracing newer and improved soundscapes that live up to the hype created with tracks like “Dark Days” or “Fixer Upper” (the main standout from their debut EP). It doesn’t take more than the first 20 seconds of its opener – the title track for the record – to realize this.

ISLAND • 2022

In “The Overload”, we are greeted with James Smith’s (formerly of Post War Glamour Girls) very peculiar delivery (it’s very spoken word inspired) and lyricism – to some degree, imagine if Jarvis Cocker met The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and suddenly did a punk record, he probably would sound like this – as he chants “I’m shakin’ up my eight ball coz I’m trying to see/What tomorrow’s world has got in store for me” in a way he almost incarnates a character to display anger, confusion and anxiety towards the current and future stand of the UK. That’s an idea very commonly heard across the whole record, as the narrative style here does create the idea of a conversation happening between different people, trying to understand where their anger and disappointment comes from. It’s a bit of a pub vibe in a way, and there’s a good reason for that. Yard Act was formed by Smith and bassist Ryan Needham (of Menace Beach fame) amidst their pub stays and house-sharing experiences in Leeds, before expanding to a quartet with the help of guitarist Sam Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell (who replaced Sammy Robinson and George Townend, respectively), and those experiences helped shape the narratives presented on their tunes.

The best example of this influence is perhaps the second to last track on the record, “Pour Another”, where a Joy Division style bassline meets the dance-punk sound of Franz Ferdinand, a band whose influence is felt in a large fashion across the entirety of “The Overload” (and whose influence on the whole new wave of British post-punk isn’t mentioned enough). I would argue “Pour Another” is the most uplifting track on the whole record, feeling as we are ready to ask for a new fresh pint to further help us forget the current state of affairs. Climate change? Increasing social tensions? Precarity? A head of government conducting parties when a lockdown is in place? Who needs a “Don’t Look Up”, when real life is so far beyond parody a video edit of Boris Johnson to The Killers “Somebody Told Me” becomes a perfect summary of everything British in 2022?

And it’s interesting “Pour Another” feels like the most cheered up track on the whole record, as the song it follows is perhaps the sincerest one on the whole of “The Overload”. Towardsthe entirety of the noisy, raw (the production on the whole record, courtesy of Ali Chant, gives the tracks a really raw and garage-y feel – it’s very well done)and danceable, quite Squid-esque, “Tall Poppies”, we can hear Smith slowly dropping the irony mask, with the last moments of the tune sounding despairing and full of heartbreak, as he sings “We cry because children are dying across the sea/And there is nothing we can do about it/Whilst we benefit from the bombs dropped which we had no part in building/We are sorry, truly we are sorry/We are just trying to get by too”. It’s a big quote, sure, but if there is one moment where everything comes crashing down on the record, it’s this. “Tall Poppies” is the musical centerpiece of the record, the climax of its narrative, and in some degree it reminds me of “Lucid Dreams” from the Dan Carey (yes, the founder of Speedy Wunderground, the most important label for this whole new post-punk wave) produced “Tonight”, Franz Ferdinand’s third record (a fantastic album, though that requires no reminding), encapsulating all the themes and soundscapes of “The Overload” into one massive tune. It’s no coincidence both are the longest tracks on their respective records.

Outside the obvious Franz Ferdinand influence that we can hear on Yard Act’s sound – just look at the infectious and weirdly funky “Payday”, a song that tackles very assertively the themes of gentrification and class with a punk ethos on board – there’s some particular works (and artists, to some degree) that I feel are a heavy influence on the Act’s debut.

On one side, we have works from working-class directors like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, the bleakness found in a movie like “Naked” or “I, Daniel Blake” can be heard in songs like “The Incident”, where Shipstone’s Graham Coxon-style guitar work pushes the band to groove like a Britpop band doing a The Clash punk-style tune. On another, there’s a very Pulp-Esque feel “The Overload”, stretching a bit far beyond the obvious influence of Cocker as a singer and songwriter on James Smith. I’ve always felt “Different Class” – the best Pulp record and perhaps the most accomplished Britpop LP – had a bit of Mike Leigh’s “Naked” in it, and for some reason, the connection between those two works and Yard Act’s debut just leaves me more with that perception in mind. And while I’m not sure “The Overload” has what it takes to become a cultural staple from a time period just like “Naked” and “Different Class” became representative of the nihilism and mundaneness of post-Thatcher United Kingdom, it has at least the potential to get somewhere close to it. Maybe it’s a bit of a hot take, but who knows, time will tell if it will get colder or not.

Still, I would argue “Different Class” and “The Overload” are presented in somewhat similar ways. Both feel bloated (in a good way), both cross genres to infuse the band’s sound, they are madly entertaining throughout, and both Cocker and Smith incarnate characters across the story, using them to convey messages related to how a Brit feels or remembers the present and memory of the country. They even end on a somewhat similar tone, a tone of slight hope and comfort in something or someone. Not saying “100% Endurance” is similar instrumentally to the great “Bar Italia”, but again, it has a similar feel to the sentiment it brings. It’s a great closer, as it feels like the climax of “The Overload”, pushing for a more melancholic sound, where the synths sound hopeful and ethereal, counter playing the groovy bass and drums that plague the track, just before that great switch-ups gives us a punch to takes us to its hooky chorus, almost as if a new dawn is rising, where, as Smith sings in the last line of the record, we hope “It’s not like there’s going to be nothing is it?”. It’s bleak, but hopeful in some way.

Of course, comparing “Different Class” and “The Overload” does run a bit thin when one remembers the second doesn’t have the sexual energy of the first – and we’re glad it doesn’t – and it’s also much more politically charged (at least directly) than Pulp’s fifth LP. The song “Dead Horse” is the best example of this. It’s a tune that without a doubt would 100% be worthy of the post-Brexit punk moniker. Just look at some of the lines that Smith sings in this: “And I’m not scared of people/Who don’t look like me, unlike you”, an obvious nod to how the UK is treating immigrants, or “The last bastion of hope/This once great nation had left was good music/But we didn’t nurture it, instead choosing to ignore it”, a reminder on how the current British government in the post-Brexit world has tackled visa-free travel and work permits for touring outside the UK. It’s not even a surprise to know, according to Needham, that the track was born out of anger towards the Dominic Cummings shenanigans. How does one even track these things anymore in the UK?

Actually, you can essentially pick up the first four tracks on this record – up until the Sonic Youth (the early no-wave Sonic Youth) inspired cut that is “Rich”, a hooky and drone-y tune about, well, what happens when we obtain capital -, make someone read the lyrics, and they’ll get a pretty comprehensive journey of the state of affairs in post-Brexit UK. It is bleak to listen, but it’s great to groove and sing-a-long, and Yard Act do ride that line quite well all across “The Overload”. Perhaps nothing displays it better than the dance-punk of “Quarantine The Sticks”, where the added female backing vocals (courtesy of Billy Nomates) just add so much depth to the hook of the song. The lyrics on this tune are some of the best on the whole record, just going at it on the references (spot the American Psycho one, please!) and on the critique onto the sticks of the world. Truly a highlight here, without a doubt, especially as it follows perhaps the worst track on “The Overload” – or perhaps, its least engaging one – “Land of the Blind”, which kick starts the second half of the record, following the straight up earworm punk of “Witness (Can I Get A?)”, reminiscent of some of The Clash’s faster material.

But even in its worst track, “The Overload” just feels like a cohesive unit. It’s a record where every song is required for its complete narrative, a terrific reflection on the contemporary UK, on the struggles and insecurities the youth (and more) are going through in a country amidst an identity crisis, split between bogus nationalism and a desire for many to change things for the better – at least that’s what it appears for a curious bystander from outside the British bubble. Its music might be rooted in dance punk, but it pushes far beyond the genre, embracing the nicks and scratches of experimentation that have plagued the “Post-Brexit New Wave” associated groups. And in the end, it all comes together through James Smith’s charisma and lyricism, helping Yard Act live up to the hype it, in all honestly, truly deserves.

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