Best known for their 2009 hit How You Like Me Now?, Bath-based quartet The Heavy return with their strongest album to date, in the form of Hurt & the Merciless. Though the band’s eclectic range of influences is well known, none could have expected the perfected blend of blues rock, neo-soul and classic pop sounds that appears on this triumphant fourth LP. The instrumentalists’ superb collective skill and frontman Kelvin Swaby’s knack for killer hooks and affecting lyricism make this simultaneously a musician’s album and a great pop record.
Crashing in with almighty force comes album opener Since You Been Gone. Its powerful brass accompaniment and reliance on bass-heavy grooves could easily send inattentive listeners back to the height of funk and soul in the 1960s and ‘70s were it not for the band’s dramatic urgency keeping them rooted in the here and now. There are hints of Marvin Gaye and James Brown dotted throughout the record, and yet the high tempo, slick production (their own) and sheer instrumental ambition is what makes Hurt & the Merciless a record with its eyes looking decidedly forwards.
Each instrumentalist has his moment to shine on the record, from the groovy bass of The Apology to the mighty drum fills used sparingly and yet to thrilling effect on Last Confession. Meanwhile some fine guitar work can be found throughout the record, as axe man Dan Taylor fires home some piercing riffs and dirty licks without ever overwhelming the album’s distinctly soul-orientated aesthetic. This presence is most valuable on penultimate track Slave to Your Love, as The Heavy return to the hard rock sound of their earlier work, and in the process channel the forceful energy of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Vocalist Kelvin Swaby performs a crucial role in conveying the band’s throwback style, both in his controlled, intensely masculine performances and the highly narrative-driven nature of his lyrics. Frequently Swaby paints himself as the pantomime soul villain, the jealous and paranoid lover of pop music of old. On Last Confession he admits to being ‘a cheat, a liar, a son of a gun’, whilst Nobody’s Hero has him display touching emotional tenderness as he laments ‘I’m nobody’s champion’. The boisterous, expansive sound of the band contrasts beautifully with Swaby’s intimately personal poetry.
Elsewhere the record proves itself to be a cinematic experience full of tragedy and melodrama. ‘Don’t call me baby, that’s not my name’ snaps Swaby, as a dark tone fuses with the band’s blues rock essence, recalling the more sinister works of Jack White and The Black Keys. What Happened to the Love? is equally downbeat in its tone (if not its pace), whilst Miss California is a prime example of the singer’s storytelling prowess, as he relates the tale of a fallen beauty queen who ‘don’t turn their heads no more’.
Terrifically playful, and yet equally an emotive and personal record, Hurt & the Merciless is a thriller from start to finish. The Heavy went into this with guns blazing, and have emerged with one of the most exhilarating rhythm and blues records of recent years. Music enthusiasts will cower at its technical complexity, whilst the casual listener with surely be entranced by its unrelenting pace and seductive hooks.