Had the Manson girls, rather than Charlie, pursued a pop career and decided to ride that oh so of the moment synthpop wave, they might have come close to something like Stealing Sheep’s latest album, Not Real. From the first track, Sequence, it’s clear that the trio have progressed from the straightforward psychedelic folk of their earlier efforts but maintained their knack for harmony-centric compositions. One looking for a floor-filler for their next dance night might pass this one over; one who’s seeking something between roller disco and drum circle will delight, at the very least.
Sequence shimmers in with oscillations followed by a steady bassline then those syllabic voices, layered on one another, asserting that this is both the same Stealing Sheep we’ve always known whilst presenting the ways in which, incrementally, they’ve explored other facets of their sound. The track, along with many others features verses sung with each syllable adhering to a beat, followed by an interlude and a not quite chorus featuring more melismatic musings on words or phrases. It doesn’t draw attention to the text, nor does it serve the purpose of the traditional hook; if anything, it makes the song more obscure in the mind of the listener, blending with other similar vocal passages.
What it does highlight is the trio’s vocal ability and predilection for crafting unconventional melodies, something which they attempt to place in the arrangement of a full band. On tracks like Sequence and the lead single Not Real, it works. The two tracks bring to fruition the experimentations with different elements offered by the album. They aren’t outright pop hits but they offer an exciting interpretation of such an idea by a group who, having established technical prowess, aren’t afraid to try something new, to greater or lesser effect. These tracks are the triumphs, but even those one could term less successful are intriguing in their own right.
The album lags a bit at Greed through to Sunk; the energy of the first half of the album cedes to a dreamlike chromatic arrangements and mixes where the vocals become the focus. These are the songs most reminiscent of the early sound, both inviting new listeners to explore their back catalogue and letting old fans know it’s still them. It’s in this manner the songs are deceptively simple; they’re accessible in both their relation to the band’s chronology but also in their sound. The vocal-centric mixes with minimal other instrumentation, one might be inclined to think, could have been recorded by a girl alone in her room on a night in. The harmonies and construction of the melodies reminiscent more of a capella arrangement than sleepover singalongs belie their technical ability. Less obviously rhythmic than the earlier tracks, these songs nonetheless pack a punch in their lilting trance.
The electronic elements return on the last few tracks, effectively unifying the different sounds which have preceded. If the album opens energetically but simply, it closes with a complicated listlessness, though listeners lured in by the promise of a musically-literate dance party may not be so convinced. The album isn’t uneven or inconsistent, but it does trail off intentionally. The chanting grows ever more hypnotic, the structures of the songs less conventional, and one isn’t sure one could distinguish between the latter tracks except to say they enjoyed them.
The conclusion doesn’t immediately designate any future direction, and that’s alright. Having proven they have the chops, why shouldn’t Stealing Sheep be allowed to experiment in any direction in which they may be interested? The album may have different high points for different listeners, but this is due to an attempt to amalgamate a variety of influences rather than some fundamental incoherence. It’s a transitional album, maybe, but a great one and one in which one finds more clever moments with each subsequent listen.
Not Real is now available through Heavenly Recordings.