The gold medal for the most under the radar release for a long-hoped for return must surely go to Extra Life, who might not be one of the most well known bands, but who have a faithful following. Charlie Looker put the band to rest in 2012, after the release of the Dream Seeds album. It wasn’t a hiatus, but a disbanding that seemed final. As much as fans may have hoped for Extra Life to return, there was really no indication that this ever might be the case. In recent years there has almost been a trend for an artist to release a new album completely unexpectedly (and no one did it better than Bowie), but even if no one knew those albums were coming, everyone knew they were released. Charlie Looker did one better, by not only creating an album no one knew was coming, but releasing it without telling anyone. Secretly recording an album is one thing, but secretly releasing it is another entirely. It’s decidedly uncommercial, but then Extra Life has never been commercial.
Honestly, were it not for a post on Facebook by Helium Horse Fly (a Belgian band I love, and can heartily recommend), I’d probably still have no idea that Secular Works, Vol. 2 even existed. Yes, that’s right, I said Secular Works, Vol. 2. Extra Life is not just back, but back with a declared sequel to their debut album. I was introduced to 2008’s Secular Works after the release of their final (at the time) release, and recommended to it by a friend who described Extra Life as sounding like Morrissey meets Tool. While it’s not an entirely accurate description, I could hear where the comparison was being made. It was pretty much love at first listen, and I ploughed my way through Extra Life’s discography like a pig in Zen. Extra Life was my introduction to the world of Charlie Looker, and I devoured everything else I could find that had his name to it (Zs, Seaven Teares, Psalm Zero, PERIOD…), but Extra Life has always been my favourite. And now they’re back!
So how do they sound? Well, Extra Life has always been (to me, so apologies if I have it all wrong) Charlie Looker and whoever he chooses to play with at the time. The most important thing about Extra Life are his vocals, and pretty much every song seems to be built from the lyrics and voice first, with melodies and rhythms built around those. So, in that sense, there has always been a consistent sound to the music, and obviously that will still be there. What has changed between releases in the past has been the underlying aesthetic. Each album from Extra Life may have had the same overall sound, but the different aesthetic approach gave each a quite individual identity. Secular Works, Vol. 2 continues in that vein, while somehow also managing to be beautifully and wonderfully reminiscent and evocative of the original Secular Works. Similar enough to generate waves of pleasurable nostalgia, while different enough to never be accused of simply re-visiting the past. Secular Works, Vol. 2 may be a nod to Extra Life’s past, but it’s undeniably a vibrant and contemporary album that screams here and now.
Let’s start with the vocals then, because that’s where the Morrissey comparison surely comes. It’s down, no doubt, to the melisma. Morrissey infamous warble is instantly recognisable, and either loved or mocked. Many pop stars over the years have used melisma, but usually subtly, so that it’s rarely noticed, and certainly isn’t considered to be what they’re known for. Charlie Looker uses melisma to great effect, with a sense of control and gravitas that Morrissey has never had. It’s more Gregorian plainsong than Salford Lads Club, giving a strange, beguiling and confusing mix of modern and ancient that adds a truly timeless quality to Extra Life. For most listeners, Charlie Looker’s voice will be what makes or breaks Extra Life for them. But just as I love the unique vocal mannerisms of singers like Claudio Milano, Demetrio Stratos, and Peter Hammill, I freaking love Charlie Looker.
Next up, the rhythms. Extra Life were a math rock band before I had ever heard the term, with seemingly incredibly complex and constantly changing time signatures. As impossible as that would be, it almost seems that the rhythm is as melismatic as the singing at times. Most music has some degree of repetition and symmetry, but often it seems like Extra Life are in free fall – though they are so tight that they are obviously extremely well rehearsed, in order to know exactly when and how each change occurs, as the music always sounds carefully composed. On drums this time around is Gil Chevigné, and now we’re back to where I came to this album, as Gil Chevigné is the drummer for Helium Horse Fly, so, boy, am I thankful he is part of Extra Life for Secular Works, Vol. 2, or (as I said) the existence of this release would remain unknown to me.
I admit to being a big fan of Gil Chevigné and what he has brought to Helium Horse Fly. At the time of their last release (2019’s Hollowed), I wrote that “the greatest difference between this release and the previous is the drumming. Without meaning to dismiss or demean previous drummer, Bastien Dupont, new man on the stool Gil Chevigné is next level. He brings a jazzy feel to the album, which works really well. I love the drumming on this album.” Needless to say, I was rather excited to hear Gil Chevigné drum for Extra Life. That the rhythm section is completed by Toby Driver on bass is pretty much perfect. With Charlie Looker playing guitar as well as singing, the line-up for Extra Life this time around is completed by Caley Monahon-Ward on violin and viola (who has now played on three out of four Extra Life albums).
Basically we have a recipe for a massively successful comeback record, so it seems somewhat perverse that Extra Life has released the album in almost total secrecy, with next to no PR. The album does not appear to be on any streaming platform, and only one track is available to listen to on Bandcamp. But I can assure you, if you are at all wary, that this is absolutely an album you should purchase if you have been even vaguely intrigued by anything I’ve written. And, yes, I know I’ve written next to nothing about the actual sound of this album, but somehow that just seems right. Far be it from me to lift the veil of secrecy. If you’re a fan of Extra Life, and didn’t know until this review that Secular Works, Vol. 2 had been released, you’re already buying it. If Extra Life are new to you, the original Secular Works is on streaming platforms, and available to listen to on Bandcamp. If you like that, you’ll love the new one. Trust me!
01. What is Carved (8:25)
02. Coming Apart (10:06)
03. The Play of Tooth and Claw (3:55)
04. We Are Not the Same (5:01)
05. What’s Been Lost (5:01)
06. Diagonal Power (12:07)
07. How to Die (9:07)
Total Time – 53:42
Charlie Looker – Voice, Guitars
Caley Monahon-Ward – Violin, Viola
Toby Driver – Electric Bass
Gil Chevigné – Drums, Percussion
Nate Wooley – Trumpet
Michael Atkinson – Horn
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 2nd July 2022