For the unaware, Shield Your Eyes have been kicking out their distinctive math-rock blues for a good few years now, lo-fi, sinuous and with a kick of London soul thrown in for good measure, and six albums in they aren’t moving in any directions that followers of them wouldn’t have predicted, but they are continuing to develop, refine and redefine their sound. There’s plenty of scattershot drums, dancing maniacally across the kit in fits and starts, and Stef Ketteringham is still a unique presence, both for his caterwauling vocal style and the sometimes angular notions his guitar often takes, but the softer, more melodic touches that had been creeping in over the past few albums are fully fleshed out now and they are, to be honest, quite wonderful.
As always with Shield Your Eyes, the changes are gradually unfolded throughout the course of Reciprocate’s runtime, a delightfully wonky intro phasing into the first song proper, Dilemma, Dearbhla Minogue’s soft bass tones guiding the song’s lazy melody as Ketteringham’s guitar see-saws across the surface, settling into a tone that’s as reflective as it is energised. It’s a steady development of their recent progressions yet it’s innately comforting, gifted with a warmth that’s framed in stark contrast to Henri Grimes’ fevered drumming. Splashes of harmonica slink through the haze and resurface in Abandon, a stop-start, rough’n’ready creation that Grimes completely dominates with his speedy, chaotic rolls and clatters. Stand shuffles and shimmies across a desert plain of acid-fried country blues and noise rock verve; False Neutral wields repetition like a scalpel, looping mystifying melodies in precisely ordained pattern before throwing them to the wolves and hitting mathematical freak-outs; even the two live cuts which split the album down the middle offer a new form of energy to familiar themes and structures.
It’s a healthy case of something old, something new, but perhaps the most valued change is the addition of new bassist Minogue. Shield Your Eyes have rotated bassists on an almost album-by-album basis but they have hit the jackpot here, his even hand confidently guiding Reciprocate’s melodic developments and leaving the high-end progressions to his associates, and it’s a huge part of why this album works so effectively. Playing with cleaner structures is nothing new for the band but Reciprocate fully embeds them with the technical side of the band, one underpinning the other in musical symbiosis that sees these formerly opposing elements spur each other on to deliver a finely-crafted emotional kick, though the satisfaction of hearing Ketteringham and Grimes really let rip in salvoes of skewed fret-worrying and kit destruction remains one of life’s little pleasures.
This is still the sound of a band who are unique in almost every respect, though it feels a bit more ready to show off its influences than anything they’ve done before, like the traces of Minus The Bear on Abandon’s needling noodling, and the Shellac-like angularity of False Neutral. Fans of Enablers, too, will probably find plenty to appreciate here, not just in Ketteringham’s more introspective moments, but also in the album’s structures as a whole, and in the way Reciprocate can pull off emotional u-turns on a dime. There’s less vitriol, but for complexity, atmosphere and skill, they make a fine pair.
Comparisons aside, though, there’s no mistaking this for anyone else. It’s a struggle to think of another band who operate in a fashion anything close to these three, and even if you’ve been out of the loop for an album or two, they haven’t stepped too far away from their prototypical sound but they have refined it to a degree that most should be able to appreciate. It’s their finest collection of songs to date, nuanced, human and fantastically immersive, and it shows that even six albums in, a band can still deliver a pleasant surprise or two.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes