Originally published by Fortitude Magazine. http://www.fortitudemagazine.co.uk.
Leeds-based quartet Middleman are a bit dangerous. Having every track on your new album licensed out to adverts is rare, especially an album that’s an amalgam of electrock, rapcore, dubstep and anthemia.
Reading their press release and seeing names like Blur, The Streets and Rage Against The Machine is a touch misleading; the toil involved in creating an album this wide reaching must have been significant, as the boys tear through genres like petrol station loo roll. Seldom is such cross-pollination administered so well, and points must be awarded for covering so much ground.
Opening with recent single Helpless, the bands’ intent of getting everyone involved is clear. Gang chorale not withstanding, the floor-burning, stuttering electronics that greet the listener are made to get you out and on it. Andy Craven-Griffiths’ vocals have come a long way from the perfunctory proclamations of previous album Spinning Plates, which, in retrospect, laid the foundations beautifully for Counterstep. Now a truly confident, heart-on-sleeve frontman, the final pieces of the puzzle align.
The glorious, star-caressing melodic work in Blindspot and Keep Breathing, and a desire to constantly push their envelope is both endearing and, in their lyricism, quite affecting. It is rare indeed for a band sprung from the historical markers of hip hop, dance and hardcore to be able to move with such delicacy, and yet Counterstep understands itself. This is an album – a record with a full and constant narrative. Even in dealing with that most common of topics – relationships gone wrong – the band are concise, direct and utterly believable; see Lifeline for proof.
Tempting though it would be to compare this record endlessly to their previous work, their contemporaries and touring buddies in The Streets and so on, to do so would be to do Middleman a disservice. A well-thought out, custom-wound, participatory record, and great on cans, this is an album worth taking on its own merits.
When the band choose to toughen matters, it is done so with great conscience. The punishing strength of Tunnel Vision, and the carefully off-kilter drum work and bewildering vocal overlay on Youth Is Wasted On The Young are well-realised and deftly executed, the production always giving the bigger picture.
Presented with the prospect of reviewing an English-voiced, dance-informed rap quartet, I will freely admit to expecting stilted flow, embarrassing lyricism and camera-on-the-floor council estate posturing. What I got instead was a wholly convincing, enthralling and human album that gave more and more with repeated listens. For a record to start off bouncing but end with the magnificent widescreen of Deny It All, with its strings and plaintive restraint, and to be bereft of a single cynical moment, was truly eye-opening.
Go and buy this record. Dance to it, cry to it, scream its words from the top of your lungs. A full five without hesitancy.