JANUARY ALBUM OF THE MONTH
For some years, the resurgent grassroots rock scene has been firmly associated with the Midlands and North, but the sparkling debut album from Tarot Rats reminds us that, quite emphatically, the South East Rocks. There’s a strong rising scene south of London and Tarot Rats along with Stonewire, Gallows Circus, The Rocket Dolls, Indya, Wild Horse, At The Sun and The Outlaw Orchestra are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a new generation of performance bands. These acts have been turning the lights on in South East venues for some time now.
With ‘Major Arcana’ we have the essence of what makes Tarot Rats a special band. Live they are fast becoming show stealers, as their Friday night performance at Wildfire Festival last June underlined, but on another level their song writing is hugely impressive. With Tarot Rats these two elements inform each other. There is a pervading sense of live performance in their studio recordings – and their sets are sparkling as a result of the steady addition of great new songs that adding fresh dynamism to the set list.
I first met the band back in Spring 2017; a local band, we met at a nearby pizza bar for lunch in Tunbridge Wells. As I’ve come to find, first interviews are often telling. I remember clearly a playful sense of fun from my first meeting with the band. They didn’t take themselves too seriously but, underlying this, they were passionate about getting better, working hard and pushing themselves to write the best music they could.
In the years that have followed, the band has issued a number of singles and EPs and I’ve been fortunate to premier a number of Tarot Rats songs on my Friday show. Each EP has been an improvement on the previous one, and with ‘Major Arcana’ we have perhaps their most rounded, complete collection of Tarot Rats material to date.
The new release opens with ‘Only The Brave’ (Will Remain), a single released following the band’s triumphant debut at the resurgent Wildfire Festival last June – and the accompanying video captures well the crazy antics that took place at the top of the Scottish mountain. There were no salmon slippers in the video, but a rock colander made a fleeting appearance. The song is perhaps the best ‘pop’ single the band has released to date and, backed by regular requests, it has made the playlist on 18 of my shows during the second half of 2019
‘Medication Generation’ follows, a song we premiered a few weeks ago. A song with a message and, unusually for the band, a few saucy explicit lyrics (hashtag, call the midwife) to help give the song a little extra bite.
With track three the new album goes up a level. Ever since Temperance there has been a more sophisticated dimension to the band, the ability to craft more involved material on a broader canvas, unrestrained by the confines of the 3-minute single format. ‘Sky on Fire’ is the latest such song, a more widescreen song, giving space for far greater light and shade and range of expression. Whilst in Tim the band has a truly fine vocalist, ‘Sky on Fire’ is a song that showcases the excellent instrumental musicianship within the band, which is the heartbeat of this fine new song.
‘Lost At Sea’ is a masterclass in control. The fine guitars and vocals during the verses evoke rich moods and they counterpoint with the muscle and power of the chorus sections. One of the band’s simpler songs in terms of construction and ambition, but also one of their finer ones – and a song that encapsulates well the Tarot Rats brand and identity at this stage of their creative journey.
With track five we’re back with the first single from this new collection – ‘Pseudo.’ Like photo albums, some songs evoke memories and, with this one, I’m taken back to the Tarot Rats studio takeover last Spring. Salmon slippers, railway modeller magazine and the now infamous ‘Black Keys and Cheese’ song (you can listen to the chaotic show again). In summary, ‘Pseudo’ captures that sense of excitement and creative energy of a band making breakthroughs during 2019. Doors were opening, people were talking on socials, listeners were requesting songs. What that does for a band’s confidence you hear on the immediacy, verve and spontaneity that’s captured during the recording of ‘Pseudo.’
That said, for this release the Tarot Rats have saved the best ‘til last. ‘Black Hawk’ is another Johnny Hammond special. To think the band went from two guitarists to one last year, there are no empty spaces here. The guitar work here dictates the mood, the temperament of the song – vividly expressive and natural. A good job it’s the last song on the album, it’s the song you will keep replaying.
As I’ve chronicled the rise of this fine band, a passing comment from many was the question of ‘who do they sound like?’ To me, this totally misses the point. They sound like the Tarot Rats. The fact they don’t sit within a neat sub-genre niche is an emphatic plus – and precisely at a time when genre means less and less. There are clear heritage influences with Tarot Rats, but the band has a resolutely contemporary delivery. They do things their way. The fact the debut album is coming out in two parts over 2020 is entirely fitting for Tarot Rats – a band unafraid to do things their way, to invent their rules and to let the organic music process dictate what comes out, when and in what form.
This is the right music to start a new year and, indeed, a new decade. Tarot Rats are a band who person by person, town by town are winning over new audiences on the strength of their songs. And it’s been a patient but constant evolution. When I saw them opening for Wayward Sons in 2018, they more than held their own. They then won over a non-rock audience at Cowes Week – and at both Wildfire and the Party by the Lake in 2019 their stagecraft had risen to another level. Voted Band of the Month at the start of 2019, and finishing the year in the top 3 of our Bands of the Year vote (of 150 bands), make no mistake this is a band that has proven the power to grow, to evolve through line-up changes – and with ‘Major Arcana’ Tarot Rats confirm their position as one of the bright lights of the modern rock scene in Britain today.
Major Arcana – Part 1 is released 24 January 2020
Order direct from the band at www.tarotrats.co.uk
Label Record – WDFD Records
Contact with the band
Catch up on our story over time with the Tarot Rats. Selected interview links below
December 2019: Bands of the Year – South East Rocks winners write up
Spring 2018: EP launch interview