Five years is a long time between a first EP and a first album. For The Middle East, this period spanned a duration in which they re-released the EP as an independent album, broke up, reconvened, were signed by Spunk Records, and then re-released it as an EP. They also won over a plethora of people, drawn to the delicate and slightly wistful nature of the first release. Their debut full-length album, however, features a dramatic shift in sound. Insular fans looking for the soft acoustic songs with which they associated The Middle East will be left wanting. Most others will not. This is perfectly-crafted folk music of the highest order; it sounds like it’s been written and recorded with the utmost of care, despite joint-songwriter Rohin Jones’s claim that it was ‘a shambolic process.’
The album cover and first track, Black Death 1349, make it quite clear that one shouldn’t expect too many happy moments from the album, which is undoubtedly ironic given the album title. It’s not that ‘they can’t do happy,’ because EP highlight Blood perfectly demonstrated that they have an ability to inject full doses of happiness. But they do limit moments of jubilation to first single Jesus Came To My Birthday Party, Hunger Song and Months, with the latter breaking into an ecstatic refrain after starting in a relatively lacklustre, finger-plucked manner. But happiness isn’t a synonym for beautiful, and The Middle East prove that dark and brooding can work a treat, particularly on Mount Morgan: a track which slowly marches uphill until reaching a boisterous, shambolic peak, before abruptly coming back down to earth.
One of the countless highlights is As I Go To See Janey. Jordan Ireland, who along with Jones forms the creative nucleus of the band, claims the song ‘is not founded upon anything,’ and it sounds so light and ethereal that one would believe him, but not care in the slightest. Melody-wise, the track is untouched by any other on the album, and its overall quality is only rivalled by album closer Deep Water. Running for almost eight minutes, it takes the listener to a chilling place, ‘It’s deep water, driving rain/ and all I can remember is cold.’ Despite this, it possesses a sound that would lend well to a clear summer night spent under the stars.
The strength of The Middle East is their ability to craft a song using only the most basic of musical ingredients, but at the drop of a hat introduce any number of additional instruments which allow their tracks to transcend their primary state. With a burgeoning popularity and a stellar album in I Want That You Are Always Happy, where to now for The Middle East? I’d say that the only certain thing on the horizon is the Land Of The Bloody Unknown.
Four and a half stars.