Every time I have tried to talk about It Bites I have had to utilise the same gambit. "You know, from the 80's (then sings) Calling All the Heroes...Shooting up the town boys..."
The response is mostly on the positive side if the retort "oh, hang on, yes, vaguely" can be deemed positive. Which I reckon it can.
The new album Map of the Past is their fifth official studio album, not counting the Best of... in 2003, and the Map of It Bites' past makes interesting reading.
The new record is about "going back through the past and fixing everything that ever went wrong
in a person's life," say the band, who launched way back in '84 and hailed from a part of the country not normally the spawn of famous rock bands - Cumbria.
After an initial surge, cult rather than commercial success became the hallmark of a band of fine musicians whose eclectic style square pegged them in the eyes of the market. A shift towards the more prescribed style (that of the hard rock trend at the time) of their third album (1989's Eat Me in St. Louis) did little to swell the coffers and the end was nigh.
A mega-hiatus ensued between 1991's live record Thank you and Goodnight and their 2008 renaissance with new lead singer and guitarist John Mitchell, The Tall Ships. Here, the sometimes disparate pop/rock/prog elements seemed to harmonise under the freedom of not being dictated to by a record company (as had been the case in the 80's). There is also the feeling that they are making the music they like for its own sake. And why not. After all, no record company is going to thunder great sums of money into a band whose members are all wildly over 25.
But remove yourself entirely from the idea that It Bites are mere hobbyists. They wrote thought-provoking songs with stunning modulations 25 years ago and they still do now.
The opener, Man in the Photograph, takes back through time by the turning of a radio tuner. This is going to be a concept album, I can smell it (I suppose it's been a long time coming for a band which were not only mentioned in the same breath as Marillion but also toured with them in the late eighties). It is also strangely reminiscent of an episode of Sapphire and Steel, but I digress...
The past is being seen through a series of old photographs but the corking riff that hammers us into the second track, Wallflower, reassures us that the jazz organ war requiem of the previous song is not setting the tone for the duration.
Mitchell's journeyman voice tears rapaciously through the title track which has possibly the niftiest common time syncopation I have ever heard. The opening lines
"I've got wild eyes and chemistry, undying sense of loyalty/and all these things you won't believe right now"show off Mitchell and songwriting compatriot (keyboardist John) Beck's impressive lyrical juxtaposition of intelligence and cool.
Another highlight is The Big Machine, a melodic hard rock epic for a while until the familiar dynamics of the It Bites fabric kick in to add both texture and fine instrumental solos from both Beck and Mitchell. Mitchell, particularly, is an outstanding instrumentalist. Add to that the fact that he also produced this record and you have quite a formidable musician. His production is enormous without being absurd and the mixing is quite, quite gifted. Everything sits in perfectly. Hats off.
Not inconsistent but diverse, It Bites are probably sick of seeing the words "should be huge" but they probably should be huge. They are, moreover, a powerful and exact live act. You can catch them on tour in May where they will be showcasing this new record.
Map of the Past is out now on Inside Out records.