It's been a tough couple of years for guitar bands. During the past decade it seemed like almost any group of guys with skinny jeans and a handful of tunes that sounded like Television or Gang of Four could make it into the pop charts.
While Kaiser Chiefs almost came to embody the unprecedented takeover of mainstream music by indie rock, even the band's detractors could understand the reasons for their success. With a keen ear for pop-songwriting, the hard-touring Leeds rockers shifted an astonishing three million copies of their debut, 2005's Employment. But they still couldn't hold back the tide of change.
The new decade brought urban genres like dubstep and grime into the mainstream while indie rock has been hung out to dry. Three years after their last album, Off With Their Heads, received strong reviews but generated only lukewarm sales, The Future Is Medieval could be seen as make or break for the band. And what better way is there of getting yourself noticed than with a massive gimmick?
Earlier this month the group invited fans to "create your own album", by allowing them to choose 10 new tracks (out of 20 provided on their website) and arrange them in whichever order they liked. While it lacked the simplicity of Radiohead's pay-what-you-like approach, the idea of deconstructing an album certainly got people thinking. The band followed the ploy by announcing the release of a physical copy of the record, as well as an accompanying download, with an official tracklist of 13 songs.
The lead single and also the album's opener, according to the official running order, Little Shocks seems to look both to the band's past and future. The bouncing riffs, hooks and singalong choruses of old are still there, but with a murkier aesthetic; the singer Ricky Wilson and his bandmates seem much less eager to please.
From the Human League-infused Heard It Break to Things Change, a sparse early-Gary Numan-inspired tune, synth-pop appears to be one of the album's big influences. Ray Davies and other 1960s pioneers seem to shine through the carefree When All Is Quiet, while Long Way From Celebrating and Dead Or in Serious Trouble both call to mind the band's quasi-punk dabblings of their breakthrough hit I Predict a Riot.
There are also times when Kaiser Chiefs seem unlike anyone else. The slow-burning Man on Mars has an air of Tokyo nightlife about it, while the sound of spaghetti Western film scores, an ever-present influence of late, seem to have had an affect on the stormy Child of Jago.
The material still suffers from one of the band's long-standing problems however; repeated plays rarely reveal anything you didn't notice first time around, making listening a somewhat superficial experience. Also, the band have always been known for magpieing from some of British music's greats, but the jumping of styles on The Future Is Medieval is at times rather relentless. That said, it's almost impossible to find any individual songs on the record to dislike.
While the band's decision to release two albums' worth of music online and allow fans to determine the running order may have helped them to gain press attention, there's a danger that the move could backfire. Focusing on quantity rather than quality is an odd way of attempting to win back the fans who have left the band over the years. Perhaps someone should have told Kaiser Chiefs that these 13 songs are good enough to survive on their own without stunts.