Being sad on vacation is a unique experience.
Because you’re not supposed to be sad on vacation — and you know you’re not supposed to be sad on vacation — so it feels like you’re breaking some sort of contract with the universe or society or yourself.
It’s kind of like being sad on your birthday. Because you know you should be happy — after all, it’s a celebration and celebrations are inherently joyous, right? — but, well, you’re just not. You’re not happy, and it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that if we’re being honest. Not in this moment, at least.
And I considered all of that, one year ago today, as I found myself laying in a bed that wasn’t my own, sad on a vacation I was privileged to have, and waiting in a dark room, whose furniture was more than vintage.
The nearby window let in the sounds of a tumultuous ocean rallying and raging against an exhausted coast — bearing through the final remnants of a lingering off-coast hurricane as if all her winds and rain couldn’t cope with saying goodbye just yet. And I waited.
It was nearly midnight in my little corner of the world — in this little house by the beach, whose stars were currently blotted out by storm clouds — and Enter Shikari’s latest album, The Spark, was almost available.
The waves crested and broke. The small beach town, quiet in its off-season coat, listened. And I waited.
The fifth studio album from British quartet Enter Shikari dropped a year ago today, and I haven’t stopped yelling about it yet. And the word I continually come back to, in all my rants and raves over the course of the last year, is “art.”
Plain and simple: it is art.
A well-curated blend of songs that both embrace and defy genre, The Spark is a collection of unfettered honesty. From the opening instrumental — a countdown almost humble in its own confidence — to the grit and grime of “Rabble Rouser,” The Spark, much like its name suggests, is a catalyst. It’s a simmering small thing that alludes to more. It’s potential and promise.
It is a place to begin.
“Are you staying awake for the liftoff tonight,” frontman Rou Reynolds sings on “The Sights,” a song that bounces along bubbling synth lines like a space shuttle navigating between stars. “You’ll never believe the sights tonight.”
And that is true. The metaphorical sights dotting the 41-minute sonic landscape of The Spark are ambitious, arguably the band’s most enterprising album yet.
Reynolds mines the wealth of his vocal range — incorporating falsettos and baritone into the usual mix — and Rob “Rolfy” Rolfe presents a master class in drumming on every track, all while Rory Clewlow and Chris Batten deliver slick and polished guitar and bass lines, respectively.
And if the lads’ individual musicality — pairing an electronic rock wherewithal with stellar pop tendencies — is the sun of this album, then the old-school synth — all warm and fuzzy — is the corona.
The Spark is an album that bristles with passion and blisters with energy: it’s an encapsulation of moments — of honesty — and, instead of collapsing beneath its own mass, it is only centered by its gravity. Quite a feat, given just how much Enter Shikari have crammed into this sonically dense, 11-song album. From the searing anti-Brexit/Trump/general-volatility-within-politics-and-society-today banger, “Take My Country Back,” to the emotional ballad, “An Ode to Lost Jigsaw Pieces,” this is an album that knows what it’s doing, and what it’s saying.
And, as Reynolds noted in an interview with the Independent in September 2017, that was a first for the band.
That clarity, however, that seemingly razor-sharp focus on intent and purpose, not only gives The Spark a tone, coalesced and unified — sounding entirely new, while still inherently Shikari — it also drives home a message that the band has explored within previous releases.
“Now I boldly go / Into the great unknown” Reynolds sings, in what could, perhaps, be the thesis statement of this album (and no, I will not be asking Rory C his thoughts on this metaphor).
And while notably lighter than previous releases — though, I would like to note that the harsh vocals and synthcore fundamentals are there, they’re just layered within the mix, instead of sprinkled on top — The Spark bolsters and shares, relishes and revels in its own humanity.
“I am currently under construction / Thank you for your patience,” Reynolds sings on “Undercover Agents,” a song that finds the band veering from the expected breakdowns and harsh vocals that have dotted their discography while staying explicitly true to their ethos.
A real connection, that is what the band offers in “Undercover Agents,” and that is what I desperately needed a year ago today.
I won’t name my sadness, because then we would just have one more thing in common. But The Spark came at a time when I found myself navigating between emotional peaks and valleys.
I was still disillusioned from the previous year’s election results, disheartened by a world that seemed progressively more vicious, and exhausted from fighting so hard against a news-machine that seemed to never tire. Nestled within my growing ache for the world, I found myself unmoored from a relationship that had defined much of the previous three years. Personally and communally, I was hurting, and I stumbled around holding all of my hurt like a wounded bird that I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of.
There were good days, naturally. But there were other days, too, where this casual melancholy would settle upon everything, much like how salt air clings to windowpanes. My sadness was sticky and uncomfortable, and while it never held me close for too long at a time, it liked to keep its hands nearby; it enjoyed me knowing that a slight change of the wind could send it my way again.
It wasn’t always at its most extreme, but it was always there in the periphery.
“If you want to go far and wide now / We’ve got to go together,” Reynolds offers in “Undercover Agents” over a current of synth, blissful but purposeful. Delivering with that line a promise of unity, a way to heal together.
The Revolt of the Atoms
I have found myself at home within Enter Shikari’s music since finding “OK, Time for Plan B” on MySpace over a decade ago (and refusing to change my profile song for months after that). To find a band that reflects your own morals and ethics, anxieties and hardships is something worth holding on to.
So, when the band announced a small, intimate show in Brooklyn shortly after the release of The Spark, I knew I had to get there somehow. And while Philly isn’t technically that far away, I knew there was no way to push my ’03 Ford Focus beyond Jersey limits (because, at the time, the only way to secure a ticket was to purchase The Spark in person).
But, after a series of events that unfolded quickly — a simple message to a friend in LA, who had a friend in Brooklyn, who graciously volunteered to swing by the record store who, then even more graciously, mailed the wristbands to me, a human being he has never met in his life — I found myself in Brooklyn for the band’s last 2017 US show.
It’s a silly little whirlwind that still makes me smile when I consider just how effortlessly it all came together. And perhaps that’s why, in a calculated effort by the universe to maintain balance, my body utterly betrayed me the night before the show. Refusing sleep, but seeming to relish in illness — though entirely not contagious — I was far from ready to hold my own coffee, much less, hold my own in a mosh pit.
That did not stop me, however.
“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die in the pit at a Shikari show,” I told my entirely-too-patient friend when he picked me up.
I needed this show more than I needed bedrest or orange juice. So, armed with Saltine crackers, Gatorade and a fighting spirit, we were Brooklyn bound.
By the time Shikari hit the Rough Trade stage, I was more exhausted than ill. By the time Shikari left the Rough Trade stage, I was more alive than — perhaps slightly-less-than-metaphorically — dead.
There’s a healing quality to music; a catharsis in sweating out all the bad stuff in a pit. There’s a unity in a crowd of strangers, who aren’t entirely strangers because, at the very least, you share this sonic common bond.
And I wish I could say that was the only time my body let me down so completely. But when Shikari rolled along the east coast again — Brooklyn and Philly, to be exact — my silly body was, once again, malfunctioning (and, lest I be decried a health hazard and banned from all future shows, it was malfunctioning in non-contagious ways).
But, I rallied.
I canceled all plans for the days leading up to the shows and flooded my system with vitamins and rest. Two days before Brooklyn, my 103-degree fever broke. The morning of Brooklyn, I ate toast. While the openers played, I conserved energy and settled on a couch downstairs by the bar.
During Shikari’s performance, however, I found my legs. I carved out a little space along the back of the crowd. Far from the many crowd surfers that rode the human sea, and close to the soundboard, I bounced around and screamed. I danced. I sang along as if nothing was wrong, or had ever been wrong.
“Tonight I’m howling with the wolves / Yeah, I’m howling, can you hear us now?” Reynolds sang on stage. And, just as the crowd had at Rough Trade months earlier — which nearly made me cry then — the crowd sent up a unified “Awoo!”
And, this time, I let myself cry.
It’s hard for me to discuss The Spark without it sounding as though I am slipping into hyperbole.
But I see my own anxiety in “Live Outside,” the lead single from the album. I need the reminder — “You’re down on your luck, you’re down / But that don’t mean you’re out— nestled within the piano-driven “Airfield.”
It’s hard to qualify all of this without sounding as though I’m swerving into exaggeration. But The Spark has buoyed me through a year no easier than the ones that came before it — the job search remains a constant, the rejection emails even more so — but, perhaps, no harsher.
And that, in and of itself, sounds like a victory worth celebrating, and set to music.
A year ago today, I listened to The Spark twice before finally going to sleep. In a bed that wasn’t my own, in a house I had no connection to other than the nomadic claim that it would keep me safe for a week, I listened to the album in a dark room; eyes closed and earbuds secure.
I smiled when I heard “Are you staying awake for the liftoff tonight?” from “The Sights” for the first time, because yes! I was staying awake! How did you guys know?!
I exhaled, in what felt like the first time in a long time when, in “Live Outside,” Reynolds goes from singing “I want to live outside, live outside of all of this” to “I’m gonna live outside, live outside of all of this.” That moment, that switch: it felt like resurfacing after being held beneath the waves for a while, it felt like the potential to swim back to shore.
And, while I’m sure I’m slightly more than bias, The Spark is an accomplishment because it’s an album that plays like a pep talk, or a love letter, or whatever you might need that day.
Its refined vision — blending the raucous energy of previous albums with a more measured and steady hand — bridges the divides we build in our world, and within ourselves. It’s a call to compassion and empathy, building upon the themes and musicality of previous Shikari albums, while stretching beyond those borders, somehow.
It’s a spark, a beginning.
And, one year ago today, in a house by the ocean, I believed that there were new chapters to write and that I could write them. I believed in potential: for myself and the world. I believed it would be okay, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that — than this quiet hope — if we’re being honest. Not in this moment, at least.
Because in a bed that wasn’t my own, I felt entirely at home.
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.