Intensity—it's one thing rarely lacking in albums by UNKLE, the collaborative umbrella helmed by Mo' Wax founder and now Surrender All impresario James Lavelle. Focus, on the other hand, has ebbed and flowed since 1998's Psyence Fiction, the UNKLE debut that reputedly nearly hobbled overseeing architexturalist DJ Shadow both creatively and physically, as he labored under deadlines and duress. Psyence Fiction—with its low-slung appearances by Mike D, Alice Temple, Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and more—had a heady aura about its gravelly thwacks, creating a peaty amalgam in which to get mired, and which at times threatened to sink the project itself. It was a Grand Statement on premillennium tension personified, albeit a tick early.
By 2004's Never, Never, Land, however, the UNKLE project felt more like desperation had become resignation. With atmospherics above all, the revolution would be cinematized, according to UNKLE. The world's governing bodies are corrupt? That story's been told. Strings make the ballad? That story's getting old. It was what one expected of an UNKLE album looped, but still muted, in peaks and valleys. Psyence Fiction was an eddy of unrest, while Never, Never, Land was a centripetal percolation.
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Now with War Stories, Lavelle has eschewed the sample-borne approach, enlisting Queens of the Stone Age producer Chris Goss to co-chair the live tracking (or "desert sessions"). The result is UNKLE's most deliberate yet unforced-sounding album to date. A quickening roil underlies the proceedings, without undue petulance. Josh Homme, Gavin Clark, Ian Astbury, 3D, Autolux, Duke Spirit and regular Lavelle co-conspirator Richard File do an admirable job of sounding beleaguered but not bored, not too blustery or browbeaten. Sonically, there's a cohesiveness of taut interlacing (think shades of QOTSA, Massive Attack and Tool), with "Chemistry," "Keys to the Kingdom," "Burn My Shadow" and "Twilight" the standouts. War Stories possesses some homogeneity, but also an improved ratio of ambition to execution.