Saboteurs is a rock band from Lincoln, England who (in their own words) “play trans-genre songs about badgers, constellations and other things which creep into our lives during the night.” Fusing elements of alt-rock, grunge, post-punk, metal and folk, they create hard-hitting music that thrills and surprises our ears and minds. Like many a band, they’ve experienced some personnel changes since forming, and now consist of Ben Ellis (lead vocals/guitar), Rick Whitehead (lead guitar/vocals), Kirsty Marlog (backing vocals), Geoff Standeven (bass), and Pete Botterill (drums), although for the album Dance With the Hunted, drums and percussion were performed by Hamish Dickinson, who also handled production, mixing and mastering.
The band released their self-titled debut EP Saboteurs in 2018, immediately attracting a growing base of fans and recognition by BBC Introducing, as well as being named Richer Sound’s Artist of the Week and finalists in Radio Wigwam’s Rock Act of the Year. But shoulder surgery for lead guitarist Whitehead led to unrest in the band and, ultimately, a violent split with the rhythm section. This caused the band’s songwriters Ellis and Whitehead to sink into a dark place, which actually provided them with needed impetus for an explosion of new material that would become their first full album Dance With the Hunted, which dropped on May 4th.
The opening track “Splintered” reveals the intensity of their feelings while writing the songs for the album. The biting lyrics speak to a bitter breakup of a relationship, delivered by Ellis’ fiery vocals: “The pain – I dedicate our loss to you. The shame will never end but I’m coping on my own. The ones I left behind – they just fade out. If I fall down, I won’t stay down. If you fall down, you will stay down.” The roiling riffs of grungy guitars, pulsating bass and thunderous drums are fantastic.
Next up is “Over and Doubt“, a moody but gorgeous track that leaves no doubt that these guys know a thing or two about crafting superb songs with the power to inspire and move the listener. And I’ll state right here how much I love Ellis’ vocals, which in addition to his and Whitehead’s spectacular guitar work, are one of the strong points of Saboteurs’ overall sound. He’s one of the best rock vocalists around today, in my opinion, with an incredible tone and range that give him the ability to comfort us one moment, then chill us to the bone the next. When he plaintively wails “Please stay with me, over and over again!“, we really believe him. On this track he sounds a lot like Steve Kilbey of The Church. Musically, the song features a complex, ever-changing melody that keeps us enthralled from start to finish, and the guitar work is outstanding. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.
The dark and moody vibe continues with “Believe Nothing Hurts“, but presented here with an exhilarating fast-paced rhythm and chugging riffs of gnarly guitars. Ellis angrily snarls the searing lyrics condemning someone for their duplicity: “This time, believe nothing hurts. Oh, your lies. As they come in they’re drowning now in your own sweet precious melody of lies.” “Break Down” is a lovely, incredibly melodic song with a 1990s vibe that, to my ears, calls to mind songs by the Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms and Deep Blue Something. The strummed guitar is a great addition, providing a wonderful added texture of sound. The backing vocal choruses by Miles Kent and Kirsty Marlog are especially nice.
“Marooned” is a big, arena-worthy track, with lush, layered guitars and a torrent of bombastic percussion. But it’s the deep, pulsating bass that plays a starring role here, giving the song a massive U2 vibe. In fact, Ellis’ vocals sound a bit like Bono on this and a few other tracks. He passionately sings of emotional hurt that can never be undone: “Broken red skies are endless. The reason I guess why you left me here. They look like the old wounds you can’t suture. They are the scars of time.” On the poignant, hard-rocking “I Think My Face Hates Me“, Ellis sings of his feelings of hopelessness: “I’ve been lying on the floor just eating time. Pretending there’s no light behind my eyes. I’m going home or I’m going down. Every day I am reborn in the skin I’ve had before.”
The guys keep delivering compelling lyrics and killer riffs with “One Track Mind“. The protagonist acknowledges his need to change his ways: “What would it take to be the better man? To say, ‘Yes, I can – I’ll never let you down’. Constant mistakes – pathetic apologies. Want to effect a change and make it alright.” But then he bitterly resigns himself to the fact that while he’s the one who must change “I kill the doubt inside and learn to play your game.“, others will not: “You all stay the same.”
The title track “Dance With the Hunted” is about a rock star whose fame has not brought the happiness and contentment he’d hoped for. Instead, he lives a miserable, self-destructive life: “The spotlight I always craved keeps pulling me back but there’s no light behind these eyes./ Is art ever worth the pain? To watch you die on centre stage for fifteen minutes of shame.The disappointment never ends.”
“Traces” is one the darkest tracks on the album, with trace elements (no pun intended) of metal, giving it a heavier vibe. The song opens with a mesmerizing guitar riff, then expands with a powerful melange of intricate guitars, throbbing bass and hammering drums. The lyrics speak of someone tortured by their past and possible mental illness, desperate to escape their surroundings in the hope of starting over fresh: “There are traces of the old times. Like battle scars in my mind. Only the world to me. Turn the lights out – leave this home. Wherever the white lines take us.” Backing metalcore growls by guest vocalist Jamie Armstrong add an extra layer of gritty texture to Ellis’ raw vocals, to great effect.
The final track “Willows” closes out the album on a gloomy note, speaking of a couple whose relationship is so damaged by hurt and pain, it may be beyond salvation. In vocals that really seem to channel Bono, Ellis passionately wails “Skin so thin, so thin it bleeds right through you. And we blame ourselves, don’t you blame yourself too? Walking wounded – in a black wind. Take me to the place where the willows grow. Write down everything that hurt us so. Everything we never said.” As always, the instrumentals are hard-hitting, with furious riffs, crushing bass and tumultuous drums.
Dance With the Hunted is a heavy, emotionally-wrought album to be sure – there are no upbeat love songs here! But it’s a beautifully-crafted work, with deeply compelling, heartfelt lyrics, gorgeous rock melodies, and magnificent instrumentals. Every track is superb, with no filler or throwaways. If you like some of the aforementioned bands I discussed, you will enjoy the music of Saboteurs.
The beautiful original album artwork was designed by Anita Inverarity.
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