Stealing Sheep – the Liverpool trio of Rebecca Hawley, Emily Lansley and Luciana Mercer – have always revelled in their quirks.
Their early records really felt like something from the days when “indie” meant something more than just a style: actually independent in approach and home-brew in production, not overconcerned with recording quality or vocal technique, sounding as influenced by archaic kids’ television themes as they were by hip electronica or experimentalists of the past.
Add a tendency to wear glittery suits and sci-fi goggles and it's been unsurprising that audiences have sometimes found it hard to know where to place them, or not known how seriously they were supposed to take any of it.
Over time, their production finesse has increased hugely.
Their third album, 2019’s Big Wows, brought a whole new level of gloss, and this record ramps that up considerably once again.
But nonetheless, questions about seriousness of intent might once again be asked.
The whole “wow” thing sounds quite jokey, and this album does, after all, feature a track called “Synthetic Love Muscle”, as well as untold electronic swoops and boings, and vocal styles that have replaced naive sing-song quality with a rather arch jerkiness and sharp pronunciation of words, emphasised by robotic voice processing.
But in fact, to get into this record – and Stealing Sheep’s work in general – you need to throw the entire false dichotomy of silliness and seriousness right out of the window.
After all, none of Stealing Sheep’s predecessors had any truck with that division.
Like the exploratory sci-fi kitsch of Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, like the home made instruments of hobo-wizard-composer Moondog aka “the viking of Sixth Avenue”, and above all like the band they most resemble in their performance style, Kraftwerk, Stealing Sheep’s tomfoolery is profound in itself.
Stealing Sheep’s ‘Wow Machine’ takes you on a journey
This album is structured like a science fiction voyage, bookended by a “Power Up” and “Power Down”, with electropop powered momentum rising and falling either side of the remarkable, 15-minute, zero-gravity centrepiece “Don’t Think, Just Do”.
And it is best experienced as such, too: if ever there was a record to get on your headphones and lie back in the dark, this is it.
Like the original Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series – which featured its own Radiophonic Workshop soundscapes – it creates a completely transformative world that seems quirky at first but frequently pull aside the curtain to reveal the vertiginous ambition of its imagination.
It would be perfectly possible to keep pulling names out of a hat all day long.
The jerkiness to the vocals locked tightly into drum patterns manages to resemble both Sparks and Missy Elliot, for example – while the vocal processing might bring to mind The Knife or even Auto-Tune rap like Future.
The song structures recall everything from Kate Bush to underground dance music, and it would be very easy to cite near contemporaries like Hot Chip, too.
But actually, if you are fully immersed, you don’t hear any of that: you hear Stealing Sheep first.
Because they have been given time to explore their own peculiarities over more than a decade, rather than A&Red to within an inch of their life, they have truly become a band like no other.
This album is a total trip, and it’s one which, thanks to absolutely indulging their quirks, only Stealing Sheep are able to take you on.
Cover Credit: Holly Whittaker
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.