Review: Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell ‘Very Uncertain Times’

I saw Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell live a few years ago in an absolute shithole of a venue. It was an incredibly hot night, the turnout was criminally sparse, and the support band was one of the worst bands I’ve ever seen in my life. Names and location withheld but bugger me it was atrocious! I remember one of the Admiral shaking his head in disbelief as he wandered outside wondering what the hell was going on. I expected that under the circumstances they might just knock out a disheartened half-arsed set and get the hell out as soon as possible – and who could blame them? Instead, they blasted through an unforgettable bombardment of hard rockin’ heavy riffs and smoking leads with a seasoned swagger and indefatigable English sense of humour. British grit and grins all round.

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell 'Very Uncertain Times'

I first heard of them when they released Check ‘Em Before You Wreck ‘Em on Rise Above in 2014. Seeing the album cover with the bird-headed mascot and odd name, I first took them for one of those goofy retro cravat-wearing novelty bands that affect eccentricity. Of course, I hadn’t listened to them yet. If you’ve ever gotten the sense that this is a band taking the piss, you are – as I was – dead wrong. Not only are they all excellent and distinctive players who hit hard and play heavy, they craft great songs, too.

The Admiral take their influences from a range of mostly 70s heavy rock and blues rock bands that most folk know as well as a lot of bands that most folk don’t. However, this isn’t retro or worship or trying too hard to fit in somewhere, nor is it a bunch of obvious songs full of tired riffs and hackneyed references. This is a band that writes fresh-sounding songs with swagger: unusual riffing, soulful soloing, driving rhythms, and hard pounding drums. Songs with unexpected structures and musical shifts, great choruses, wry lyrics, and distinctively cool gruff vocals helped along by harmonious backing. There’s the raw power of the jam room at the heart of everything, but you can hear careful arrangement and thoughtful layering in the leads, harmonies, and vocals.

As for some reference points, I could mention Sir Lord Baltimore, Captain Beyond, Blue Cheer, Atomic Rooster, early Quo, and a lot of the usual suspects of the best 60s and 70s rock. Despite there being a lot of American influence that I can hear, the Admiral has a very English sound and vibe, but it’s more than just the music coming through. There’s an atmosphere and spirit of early 70s British counterculture. Old British telly programmes, Psychomania and Pete Walker films, Warlord and Dan Dare, Monty Python and Benny Hill, proper facial hair and jeans that fit where they should.

This is the band that Bodie would listen to while doing 90mph in his Ford Capri and sipping from one of those old cans of lager that had pictures of scantily clad women on the side. Or in fact it wouldn’t be, because as I say, this isn’t retro or affected, it just has that cool vintage rebellious swaggering spirit, but it’s doing something unique and contemporary with it. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s often funny, but crucially, it’s not a joke. I’m no fan of goofy novelty or bands ‘avin a larf, but the Admiral is something different. They have a style that feels familiar, but it’s the next step – and it’s a step up.

Very Uncertain Times is a phenomenal album. If you’re a fan of heavy rock, blues rock, 70s rock, etc. and like me you’ve been delighted to discover forgotten bands that never quite made it, but perhaps released one awesome album (Lucifer’s Friend, Message, Iron Claw, etc.) you probably know how hard it is to find something special. We’re spoiled and hard to impress. If that sounds familiar, then this is the album you need. It’s in the same vein of the styles we love, and it’s played and recorded the way it should be, but the music is also something new.

Things kick off with the title track, a sneering riff loaded with attitude, and some of the heaviest hard rock drums I’ve ever heard. The vocals are weathered and lively with a denim and leather cool that avoids being obnoxious or belligerent. None of the all-too-familiar adolescent tales of male frustration or macho chest beating here. Instead, we have a bluesy tale of life and living, past and future, and three-and-a-half minutes in, the first of many awesome switches with a heavy head-banging breakdown into the coolest swaying solo and a massive bass-driven riff.

Rocking riffs, huge grooving bass lines, swooping and soaring leads, gruff but melodic vocals, and the constant barrage of rolling and hammering drums…

Ten Years Later is another powerhouse track, the sound of stripped-down psychedelia conjured by excellent song writing rather than relying on FX, and the first of many memorable vocal lines. There’s so much power and aggression in the playing, but with a melodic, song-focused sensibility. Rocking riffs, huge grooving bass lines, swooping and soaring leads, gruff but melodic vocals, and the constant barrage of rolling and hammering drums.

The Third Degree smashes in with a bludgeon and ritualistic beat that had me thinking of Atomic Rooster, with another great chorus that shows the band’s skill with harmonies and an air guitar-worthy solo that builds and builds before really paying off. This song is a great example of how the Admiral works to craft subtle lifts and arrangements as part of the main trip.

Mr Freedom is a high energy rocker with something of the James Williamson-led Stooges to it, until it halts to a plod and comes back in with a signature Shovell breakdown: a big slow riff coupled with great harmonised vocals, then another switch back to the Stooges rock blast. The Admiral keeps you on your toes!

One of the album highlights is Iceberg: great driving bass line, supporting guitar melodies, a wistful ode to absent friends, and maybe the best chorus on the whole album, with three voices lifting a great line, ‘keep on livin’ like an Iceberg’ – awesome. Oh, and there’s another one of those fire-bellied high energy guitar solos lifted by frenzied bass and bone rattling drums.

Blackworth Quarry is for me, the coolest most sneering track on the album. Slow grooving heavy riffs, grafting for a living, and that gruff biker voice that struts and gives no fucks – well, apart from about ‘making a million.’ More soulful and melodic soloing, and a descending heavy riff coupled with my favourite vocal on the album, ‘chipping away at the end of the day, trying to make a buck.’

Biscuits For Victor is a galloping rocker, loose and sleazy with hard bending bass and a precision swing. It’s high energy and a great showcase for each member to show what they can do. There’s no need to wonder what they’re like live, this track reveals all. Finally, No Mans Land is driven by a tasty riff that leads the band to what sounds like the end of the set, everything falling apart before they tighten up and come back in locked and loaded with a rock crescendo that jars to a halt before one last round of riffs and hard rock. 

A word on the lyrics. Does anyone care about the words? Well I do, and with the Admiral they’re bluesy and rocking and befitting of the style, very English, but they aren’t typical in any way. Laced with humour and heart, one line will have you crack a smile while the next will have you banging in agreement. If you haven’t got the picture yet, the band is great, the album is great, life’s too short, go and listen to them because these are Very Uncertain Times!

I’m not sure how Lee Dorrian finds so many unique bands in and among such a sea of repetitive sameness but hats off to him. The Rise Above Records roster rarely disappoints (has it ever?) and after four albums I think that by now the Admiral has enough out there to establish what they’re doing. They have the name, the aesthetic, and a totally unique take on proper live, proper heavy, proper bluesy English hard rock. It’s got heart, soul, brains, and a sense of humour. The message is there: the times may be uncertain, but you don’t have to take anyone’s advice. And you don’t have to take mine, either. Just go and give this a listen and you’ll hear how good it is yourself! It’s time the Admiral got his due.

Label: Rise Above Records
Band Links: Facebook

Scribed by: Josuph Price