Vennart – ‘The Demon Joke’ album review

Mike Vennart album

Although Oceansize only split up in 2011, it seems far longer ago. A lot has changed in the life of Mike Vennart since the end of the much-loved cult band. Joining Biffy Clyro as a further guitarist (and later being accompanied by fellow Oceansize member Richard ‘Gambler’ Ingram to form Biffy-size…), he’s become accustomed to playing to huge crowds all over the world – from headlining Reading Festival to the likes of the 02 Arena. Although now a valued member of Biffy’s live crew, you always had the feeling – and it’s a given how much he clearly still adores playing with the great bunch of lads that is Biffy – that someone bursting with as much talent and creativity as Mike would always want to go back to playing his own material. ‘The Demon Joke’ is his first solo album – and he’s welcomed Gambler and fellow Oceansize guitarist Steve Durose to join the band for the record. Completed by Denzel on drums, Mike decided to release his own music under his surname Vennart and ‘The Demon Joke’ is the resulting album.

There’s an intergalactic feel to the proggy intro of album opener ‘255’ that collides with echoed guitar effects, huge bass and riffs that instantly recall Mike’s former band. A huge sound to start a record with, Mike’s unmistakable vocals then deliver his first wordy zinger: ‘Are you on a magic carpet? Are you caught in a net of imperial entanglement?’ As glitches come to the forefront and Mike sings about being run out of town, his voice remains soft and comforting – even with the final bout of scuzzy riffage that marks the progression into ‘Doubt’. On this track, Denzel gets to show what an aggressive, talented drummer he is while dirty-sounding bass and intricate guitar lines battle for your attention before some surprisingly offbeat synths take centre stage. Recalling everyone from Swans to Patrick Wolf, there’s a mention of a ‘crisis’ in the lyrics which hints at the prevailing bleakness to come…

Vennart The Demon Joke

‘Infatuate’ has everything Oceansize fans love about our dearly departed band. Psychedelia-laced with crunching bass, gorgeous dual vocal interplay and a guitar riff you won’t get out of your head for weeks, it also finds Mike singing in a more forceful tone than seen so far on ‘The Demon Joke’. There’s a delve into something even more inventive on ‘Rebirthmark’, a song with odd time signatures, unconventional sentence structures (‘Answer: You’re falling backwards. What are you gonna do?’) and an idiosyncratic pop intelligence and sensibility that would sit happily alongside Clock Opera, King Crimson or Dutch Uncles. There’s a wicked sense of humour running throughout the record – we couldn’t help but wonder if the title ‘Duke Fame’ was an in-joke about the currently MIA Marmaduke Duke – alongside some very dark subject matter that includes entering the ether, the devil and finding the truth. Loaded with theatrical guitar lines, Mike growls out the words: ‘Did you look in the mirror, did you see what I’d become?’ on ‘Duke Fame’ before then going on to state: ‘I’ll wear the skull, you wear the head’. Instrumentation-wise it’s very much a case of the calm after the storm on ‘Don’t Forget the Joker’ but the subject matter remains marvellously macabre: ‘I’m resigned to sweeping your bones away’.

When writing while on Biffy’s tour, Mike would send his initial ideas to Steve Durose and they’d be returned with piano melodies that would then be shaped into the songs that feature on ‘The Demon Joke’. This process is shown to great effect on ‘Retaliate’, a grunge-soaked track that has Steve’s harmonious backing vocals almost taking centre stage while Mike sings about flames and playing the devil, eventually descending into chilling screams as Steve’s subtle melodies keep going to the final note. ‘Operate’ is the ‘pop hit’ of the album – straightforward and accessible with a killer chorus, it opens in a style akin to The National with the rasping delivery of a familiar theme throughout the album: ‘Am I looking in the mirror?’; ‘Now the rules are getting clearer…’ This is followed by repeats of the words: ‘still operating’ and a quiet/loud dynamic, marching drums and a hook-laden anthemic chorus that has elements of The Twilight Sad hitting it off with Tall Ships. The closing song on the record is its shortest one – ‘Amends’. A more subtle sound and emotional outpouring combine to devastating effect: ‘Could we be over the hill and out of the game? We all need someone to blame…’

With ‘The Demon Joke’, Vennart has created an album that not only recaptures the magic of Oceansize but also looks forward to something new and no less thrilling… All-encompassing and compelling throughout, it’s an album anyone with a passing interest in prog, math and rock will love. It’s been well worth waiting for…

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