Look Out Machines! is the musical troubadour Duke Special’s fourth album, and his second to be released by means of fan-funding. Having teamed up once more with Pledge Music and a series of songwriters (ranging from long term collaborator Paul Pilot, to Iain Archer of Snow Patrol, to the fledgling Fiona Hart,), the result is just as dynamic and varied as you would dare expect.
‘Wingman’, which Duke claims to be his personal favourite, not least because “despite it being the opener, felt like a central song in terms of the lyrical idea and the production values”, uncoils like a tightly compressed spring. Chock full of soaring vocals, observant lyrics, and electronic and orchestral embellishments alike, it is hugely promising and serves as an efficacious introduction of sorts.
‘Elephant’s Graveyard’ is, surprisingly enough, about pachyderms’ ability to pre-empt their own deaths and choose their resting place accordingly- they tend to favour sites that their ancestors died upon, and have been known to travel many miles to reach their final destination (“Did you find the perfect place to lay your bones?”). There is, undeniably, an intriguing morbidity to the subject matter, which is in juxtaposition with bright, cheerful, almost Vaudevillian melody.
‘Step to the Magical’ is soldiering and syncopated by nature. Brimming with a series of mesmerising, verging on eerie hooks, and containing a prosaic narrative that follows a woman wandering the streets who is so consumed by an overwhelming sense of wonder (to the point that it she is nothing short of a spectacle to passers-by), it is, by its own admission, “monochrome’s assassin”.
It is a near certainty that everyone who has ever claimed residency in Northern Ireland will be able to relate strongly to ‘In A Dive’; pertaining to discovering remarkable, unanticipated qualities in the most unlikely people and places alike (it is worth noting that this was recorded in the legendary RAK Studios, which has played host to the likes of David Bowie, Al Green, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd), it is not surprising that Duke, who hails from Belfast, warms to this theme. This is a track that gently ebbs and flows, nudging inoffensively at the edge of your attention as opposed to grabbing a hold of you and punching you in the throat.
The arresting minimalism of ‘Statues’ is meticulous, and so is of stark contrast to, but no less beautifully produced than, its predecessors. The driving theme is a strong desire to no longer be trapped and held back by past relationships (“Paralysed/Don’t want to be preserved in absent company”), and is technically speaking, sparse, but incredibly well arranged and immensely melodic.
Although ‘Son of the Left Hand’ is stamped with Duke’s trademark potency, it is far more forceful than his usual fare, with a near industrial bassline underpinning proceedings. Referencing the now laughable, but long upheld, idea that being left-handed was a rather effective way of letting everyone that you encountered know that you and Satan were the very best of pals, it is highly refreshing to see an established artist experiment successfully with audacious subject matter, and in such a zealous, assertive way.
The exclamatory title track, ‘Look Out Machines!’, was written by Duke and Gary Clark (ex-Danny Wilson), and is intended to serve as a word of warning to the machines -which double as a convenient allegory for the limits imposed by self and society- that demand that the individual conforms unfailingly to mass ideals, which can often be more restrictive than helpful in terms of reality. Some binary conversion might need to happen before the machines are actually able to get the message, but it should be something that is relatively apparent to (most) humans.
Continuing with the theme of retaining personal integrity in the face of opposition, ‘Nail On The Head’ comprises what are perhaps the most self-effacing summation of Duke’s work to date (“In spite of yourself/You speak in poetry/The knack of accidentally striking gold”). The Moog solo featured near the end is a surprising, but compelling, finishing touch.
Containing samples recorded by Duke himself with a tape recorder whilst walking along the streets and beach of Eastbourne, ‘Tweed Coats’ is the shortest track on the record, and perfectly captures the haunting, yet occasionally mundane nature of isolation.
Taken straight from the title of a book of interviews with the late, great Seamus Heaney, ‘Stepping Stones’ combines talk of hollow visions with a captivating, confessional air. It is poignant, reflective in nature, and highly expressive- this is of no surprise, considering that Duke and Fiona (Hart) “imagined someone at the end of their life thinking back over the years and their regrets and love and experiences” whilst writing this. The final track, ‘Domino’, is a highly appropriate song to close on. There is a vivid, joyous feeling to the melody; it is theatrically wistful, yet echoes of its hopes for things to come.
Even though a great deal of Look Out Machines! is focused on looking inwardly, by no means is this is a record that dwells in the musty familiarity of romanticising the past. It not only recognises the importance of acknowledging and learning from days gone by, but it realises the necessity of reaching a harmonious balance with the present and perpetually being in forward motion (as is evident in its frequent, but fruitful, use of synthesised instruments alongside their non-synthesised counterparts). Duke Special has, once again, struck gold, but it is no accident; it is the culmination of raw feeling, remarkable musical ability, insatiable curiosity, and a deep-rooted, innate need to articulate the intense, ever-changing connection he feels with music. Consider yourselves well warned, machines.