Pete Spiby may not be the most well-known name in rock, but if you live in the UK and own a black t-shirt, chances are you’ve unwittingly heard his pipes at some point over the last 25 years, either upstaging your favourite band in a local dive bar, or melting faces on a festival side stage. Put simply, the man has been in more brilliant British rock bands than syphilis. Following the demise of the wonderfully raw and ramshackle Black Spiders, due to various issues including “geographical differences”, the erstwhile Boneyard, Groop Dogdrill, Future Ex-Wife and Bleeding Antlers alum has turned to crowdfunding for his first solo venture, leading us, his faithful devotees, to Failed Magician, a triple-album of 10 rock tracks, 10 stripped back renditions of said rock tracks, and (for pledgers only) 10 covers. That’s quite the challenge, even for the best of the best, but it is with enormous pleasure that we can report Spiby is indeed worthy of going to Miramar.
Rock album opening track Lighting Bolt acts as a stark reminder of just who we’re dealing with here, Spiby’s instantly recognisable wail coming in swiftly over a track that has strong undertones of Black Spiders’ own St Peter, but that’s not to say this is Spiders 2.0. Musically, this first album often strays far from Spiby’s past work, and is markedly slower and bluesier than we’re used to, with Wrap Me Round Your Little Finger and Thrown to the Wolves acting as the only truly balls-out rockers, standing out somewhat as a consequence. Elsewhere, blues and country are the main orders of the day, with a whole host of other influences creeping in like waves on an island shore. The fantastically titled Friday Night Just Died (In Saturday Morning’s Arms) ploughs much same furrow Metallica dug with Mama Said back in 1996, but to better effect; Working for Mary Jane has more than a faint whiff of the Eagles about it, with added notes of RHCP’s Californication; while Mary Lou’s Dawg brings The Liberty of Norton Folgate-era Madness to mind, as played through the fug of a hungover Britrock band. At all times however, the heart and soul of Sir Spiby remains front and centre, marking him out as one of our generation’s true blue rock troubadours, joining the podium alongside the likes of Ginger Wildheart and Jamie Lenman. Slow, bluesy and at times effortlessly cinematic, whereas Spiby used to “eat thunder, shit lightning”, these days he has clearly learnt to harness his meteorological powers, summoning oppressive storms before cracking the skies just at the right moment to let the light through.
Which brings us to disc two, the stripped back acoustic album, where things get really interesting. This is very much not the Spiby we’re used to, but it’s certainly one that we could. There’s an inherent danger in creating companion albums or EPs such as this, with tracks often coming across as mere demos or curios peeled off the soggy studio floor, but with Failed Magician, Spiby has clearly taken the time to write with both versions in mind. Stripped of amplification, the foundations of Spiby’s songs are slowly revealed like a lost village at the bottom of a draining reservoir, their strength, fragility and beauty exposed at once until just the bare bones remain. Unsurprisingly, the two heaviest numbers from disc one make the biggest impact, with Thrown To The Blues almost unrecognisable from its bigger brother, and Little Finger Blues throwing some seriously creepy Nine Inch Nails vibes into the mix. With other tracks such as Guiding Lite Blues, Mary Lou’s Dawg (Came Back) and Lighting Bolt Blues, it’s near impossible to decide which version is better, the decision largely coming down to which one you’re listening to at the time, while Bible Studies Blues is so good it’s easier to just believe this was the original version. The stripped back versions arguably make more sense after listening to the pledgers-only covers album (or vice versa), which largely avoids the pitfalls of such vanity projects by refusing to recreate, only re-interpret. Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love is made even more louche with a David Lynch surf-rock makeover; L7’s Pretend We’re Dead is transformed into a Victorian nursery rhyme; and Iron Maiden’s Running Free is told to stop running and settle down a bit; while the Creep-esque re-fit of Alexander O’Neal’s 80s classic Criticize is so perfect for Spiby’s style, it has hit single written all over it.
The demise of Black Spiders was something to mourn, but the resurrection of Pete Spiby is something to cherish. Worship accordingly.
Failed Magician is available to Pledgers now and everyone else 31 August on Be Lucky