Though trip-hop was pretty much dead by ’98, UNKLE’s slow-beat, sample-heavy debut, Psyence Fiction, found a way to breathe new life into the genre. Its acid-jazz, hip-hop, and rock miasma was scratched and spun out to another universe by turntablist DJ Shadow, but the group was always eclectic ringleader, producer, DJ, and Mo’Wax label owner James Lavelle’s vision—one from which Shadow quickly distanced him- self shortly thereafter. Sure, Shadow went on to great success, while the next UNKLE project (Never, Never, Land) didn’t see release for six years, but Lavelle’s new label, Surrender All, has nothing to do with defeat and everything to do with disentangling—he’s left his more meticulous process behind to co-produce the rock- and rhythm-heavy War Stories at the laid-back Desert Sessions studio with Chris Goss. After a soulful and wicked missive of an intro, the recordsettles right in with eddying guitar and stick-snapping drums, while Lavelle makes his vocal debut on “Hold My Hand”; on “Morning Rage,” he even duets with longtime collaborator Richard File, whose first major involvement in UNKLE occurred in the backseat of a car in Psyence Fiction‘s controversial “Rabbit in Your Headlights” video.
Like “Rabbit,” it’s the hauntingly theatrical track “Burn My Shadow” that stands out here, with the Cult’s Ian Astbury lending a dark richness to a mostly up-tempo record. His lyrics seem to apply specifically to Lavelle: “I have burned my tomorrow/And I stand inside today/At the edge of the future.” The Autolux collab “Persons & Machinery” lacks Lavelle’s usual propulsive, imaginative flair, but it’s only flat compared to the robustness of “Chemistry” and the Josh Hommesung cowboy funk of “Restless.” It just shows that, as in the past, Lavelle manages to maintain direction and an indefinable quality while working with talents of dissimilar background. That’s something he’s not likely to surrender.