The London-based indie rock band The Utopiates released their highly anticipated debut album back at the start of May and with the group confident 2023 represents a huge chapter ahead, I took a listen to the 12-song offering that came out via V2 Records.
Now, despite the iconic Alexandra Road Estate taking centre stage on the album cover – the capital city band instantly transport the listener north on Seekers with highly 90s sounds, fondly reflecting that psychedelic-powered ‘Madchester’ scene. There’s flangy, vibrant guitars that bounce in brilliant reverb and effect. A Ride-like bassline captures any of the overspill perfectly. Piano keys and Dan Popplewell’s lead vocal carry a certain infectious positivity neatly akin to Primal Scream. It’s some way to open an album and perhaps ties into the wider project’s purpose as a whole.
Originally a history student from Leeds, Popplewell found solace in North London and music production. After a new work-life balance pushed his music on to the backburner, the pandemic of 2020 eventually saw him furloughed. Yet, out of the dust of despair, the dream’s touch paper was relit. In one of the band’s most central interviews, Popplewell reflected:
“I remember saying to my girlfriend Hannah: “We can’t leave the house. I’m going to write some tunes.” I just started writing and, I swear to God, it became like therapy. I did some real soul-searching. Some of the songs are really deep.”
So, writing and creating for the betterment of himself, it seemed Dan had found his own Utopia (excuse me) and in track two, the momentum continues with the rolling bass, chirpy keys and raw swagger of Making History. This track is a great throwback to pre-album successes and comes as one of three favourites ring fenced by one Radio 6 DJ, Steve Lamacq. It’s clear why. It’s catchy, energetic and embodies an underlying talent in the group’s playing ability – especially when it comes to the ripping, swerving guitar solo that scorches the track to an exhausting end.
Whilst the listener catches their breath on Best and Worst Days with an acoustic guitar pairing Popplewell’s lyric like that of James or The La’s, Midas Touch plays in a slide guitar, drum machine haven. This ascends further with a mellow solo that reinforces the band’s plan for a summer release – it simply basks in a hazy late-evening glow.
The solos are an aspect that shine on this album. Alongside a crisp all round sound and a clear musical competence – the guitar is just so attention grabbing. After recruiting a suave bass player in old friend, Luke Nottingham – Popplewell knew he had to find the right fit on guitar. And that he truly did.
“I knew we needed a really good guitarist. I remember joking: “We need to find our John Squire”. An advert on Gumtree attracted Josh Redding and instantly his presence was known. “He sent me videos playing all these Pink Floyd solos and I thought: ‘All right, he’s good.’” Completing the lineup come keyboard-master Ed Godshaw and beat pusher Joe Jeffreys on drums and notably, the band clearly gel – making this release even more impressive considering the band officially came together back in 2021.
Continuing a consistent sound, Devolution struts in behind Midas Touch. Throwing forth a determined repeating bass and driving rhythm, this then gives way to the shimmer of Illuminise, yet another highly rated single that arrived pre-release. In yet another driven track, it’s epitomised by bellowing drum fills, electronic flickers of brilliance, an Arctic Monkeys influenced backing harmony and yet again, another excellent slice of lead guitar.
Guitar lines skulk in Sick Love, dancing on a thumping beat and jingly keys. Only Human takes on a semi-gothic tone before the album approaches its deepest topic yet in It’s Coming For You. Tragically, Popplewell’s father took his own life when Dan was just three years old. However, with a certain maturity and this now signature constructive narrative that manages to prevail throughout the album’s darkest forrays, The Utopiates approach the subject admirably.
“Now I’m almost as old as he was. It’s really striking a chord. I see a lot of him in me and it scares me a bit. I empathise with what happened so much more too. That’s found its way into my songs.”
The titular track The Sun Also Rises brings forth a certain euphoria in floating chords and yet again, an ethereal space for the guitar to play in a hypnotic The Stone Roses inspired trance. Popplewell touched upon the track and album title and how he found some literary inspiration.
“I’d admittedly gone down a bit of Wikipedia wormhole, researching prominent artists of the 20s. Hemingway was one. I bought his book on Amazon, thinking it might give me inspiration for lyrics, but put it in the top drawer and never looked at it. We needed an album title; I opened the draw and – boom – there it was: The Sun Also Rises. It perfectly sums up what’s always been at the heart of The Utopiates.”
As Ups and Downs and Simple Minds (especially) wistfully wrap the album up, The Utopiates can rightfully feel happy with their debut. From energetic pounding rhythm, ear pricking keys – emphatic yet thoughtful vocals and superb guitar; if they look to build on this great release momentum, they will indeed have a big 2023. And beyond…
“We should all believe that there’s going to be better times on the horizon. Hopefully that gives you some inspiration. Because it did, me.”