Hailing from South East London, Familiar Action has developed a passionate following on the live circuit. Their music has a certain theatrical flair that lends itself to the stage. But their debut self-titled album carries equal weight and power and feels like a record for these strange times that we find ourselves in.
Familiar Action defies easy categorisation but probably the closest I can come to labelling it would be to describe as irreverent art rock or a form of absurdist guitar pop. Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t dull. It’s a heady mix of dissonant melodies, quirky lyrics and unusual chord patterns and song structures. The opposing vocal styles of the Armstrong brothers also give the band a distinctive sound. Familiar Action is an absurd carnival, a rollercoaster ride through every day contemporary life. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there is a theatrical feeling to some of the music but not in a conventional sense. It conjures strange images in my mind of Kurt Weill in the manic 21st century world of digital London making indie pop music.
Nausea is one of the stand-out tracks on the record with an unnerving organ sound and cynical, often relatively odd lyrics. The song almost refuses a linear path, jumping about and changing time, with crashing drums and lo-fi guitar noise coming in and out as it goes. Hand That Takes has indie inflections with a sprinkle of surrealism and the characteristic offbeat vocals of the two brothers.
Such A Waste grooves along with a distinctly 80s post punk guitar jangle sound. The Small House And The Mountain is a constantly changing, moving feast. It is split into many sections, some lasting only a few seconds before another discordant shift. The lyrics here are brilliant – playful, strange, eccentrically delivered. This track feels like it is part of a canon that extends back to the experimental pop of the 60s – some of the flourishes of prog and art rock in the 70s – hints of wyrd searching-for-England 80s acid folk rock – touches of the more leftfield Britpop 90s.
Moment has a darker edge but is still driven along by clattering guitars. By the time you reach the last track you already feel like you’re well and truly down the rabbit hole. Weight is absorbed by a strange organ like drone, a dream state almost that is constantly broken by eruptions of shattering guitar noise. As the track comes towards the end the lyrics repeat over and over again ‘Do you feel alive? Oh I feel alive’. Well, quite. It certainly could be a metaphor for listening to this record.
Each song contains multitudes and complexities but they’re never overwhelmed by their experimental sides. They all work as individual pieces of music and while some of the rhythm changes can be a bit jarring it isn’t a difficult listen. A criticism of art rock can be that it has a tendency at times to disappear up its own arse. These songs never do this; in fact the longest song on the record is just over four minutes and the album in its entirety only just clocks in at over half an hour. In that sense there is a certain pop sensibility to Familiar Action despite some of the absurdist, experimental overtones.
I imagine the influences of Familiar Action to be many and varied. There are elements of Zappa in there. Trappings that remind you of bands like The Aliens. Occasional nods to more conventional indie rock like The Auteurs or Blur. Something about the record reminded me of XTC’s Drums and Wires and on reflection I think that is probably the lyrics; surrealist humour mixed with a despondent aggression.
Overall Familiar Action is an enjoyable, intelligent album. As a debut record it certainly stands up well. It’s a portal into a slightly different world and yet it is a world that is English in sensibility and humour. The dry wit, the searching and strange lyrics and the at times off-kilter music all adds up to form an absurdist commentary on the bizarre and often painful reality of life in this slightly deranged country.
Familiar Action is out now.