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How To Do Battle by Senser

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Reviewed on 7th October 2009.


How To Do Battle

By Senser

Rap-rock pioneers Senser have existed - in various incarnations - since the 80's, and their faux American accents, rapped vocals, vague but politically-charged ideology, and industrial-metal-meets-hip-hop backing tracks, feels seriously at odds with the current scene. However, if you can look past how uncool it all is, lead-off single 'Resistance Now' is proof that even the most-maligned of genres can deliver something insanely catchy and enjoyable, if it's done well.

Halfway through 'Resistance Now' and it's already painfully obvious how much Senser want to be Rage Against The Machine. But, surely RATM are better rap-rock role models than, say, Limp Bizkit? 'Resistance Now' is a steady, solid, meat-headed chug that picks up the pace briefly for a chorus of ricocheting vocals that'll earn Senser some fists-in-the-air, call-and-response style audience participation when this is played live. Co-frontperson Kerstin Haigh's vocals may be a deal breaker for some, and Heitham Al-Sayed is easily the more convincing rapper, but Kerstin's vocals bring an intriguing extra dimension to this usually aggressive, testosterone-driven genre.

After appearing in a remixed format, as a B-side to the 'Resistance Now' single, the album version of '2 3 Clear' is a disappointment. Stripped of those pounding drum and bass beats, '2 3 Clear' trundles half-heartedly along, with limp riffs that are neither dark, nor rough-and-ready enough to add any colour to '2 3 Clear's grey canvas. Kerstin's eerie warblings are still a highlight, but they sound less like they've been lifted straight off 'Smack My Bitch Up' when heard against '2 3 Clear's comfortable puttering. '2 3 Clear's lack of conviction is even more obvious, after hearing such a fiery remix.

Lack of conviction is also an issue for 'Dictator Bling.' It has an simple-but-effective beat accentuated by short, but perfectly situated growls from those all-too-rarely-heard guitars. The choruses flow more freely, however, although there's a hint of brooding bass, Senser don't take the choruses to that dark place they're hinting at. Why they don't layer on that black-hearted bass, is a mystery, after all it's a vibe that suits them, and their political subject matter, well. But, they chose to go for the half-hearted option instead, which perfectly compliments Al-Sayed's half-hearted vocals. The snarling sentiment of 'Resistance Now' feels far away.

Another reoccurring problem with Senser, is the inherent cheesiness of a political rap-rock band in 2009. Senser do themselves no favours with the screechy slipping disc sound effects and smugly neat rhymes of 'Smoking Paranoia,' which is by far 'How To Do Battle's most toe-curling moment. It's also too musically sparse; Al-Sayed and Kerstin aren't world class rappers, and require a little extra padding to sound convincing. Kerstin's vocals are particularly cringe-worthy, as she tries to sound ethereal and dreamy, and just ends up sounding whiny.

'Brightest Rays' is another song with lyrics and vocals that'll have you cranking down the volume and hoping no-one's overheard you listening to Senser. Everything about Kerstin's contributions are wrong. She delivers her empty, vague political sentiments in a deathly serious voice. The gap between her grave tone, and the essential meaninglessness of what she's saying, is comical and, as if it wasn't bad enough the first time, she occasionally hits you twice with the same line ("see how your life is sucking you down / see how your life is sucking you down") just in case you didn't cringe sufficiently the first time around. It's a shame, as 'Brightest Rays's bass-heavy creep is studded with broken-sounding piano keys and crunching industrial synths, in an undemanding but catchy fashion that would work - if it wasn't for Kerstin's po-faced vocals.

Another low point is 'Fairytale.' 'Fairytale' is a song of two halves, and the first half is the song you never saw coming. Punchy rap-rock beats are replaced by a Siren-call of meandering pop melodies, as Kerstin's sweetly lilting voice leads us through an ethereal soundscape of twinkling guitars and the occasional Oriental-tinged guitar line. It's a sublime, shimmering head trip, if a little disorientating after so much angular rap-rock. But, prepare to be even more disorientated, as 'Fairytale' twangs suddenly back into rap-rock, with little more than a drum-roll bridging the gap between airy-fairy folk-pop and crunching rap-rock. Even if Senser do try and create a dialogue between the two halves by bringing in Kerstin's wafting vocals towards the end, the two halves bear absolutely no relation to one another. 'Fairytale' will leave you scratching your head.

Senser are at their best when they pick up the pace, and they do just that with the punkier 'End Of The World Show' and 'Lights Out.' The latter's chuggy riffing and clattering drumbeats, means that it sounds like a rock band fronted by rap vocalists, rather than a rap act with tacked-on, 'full band' flourishes. This is accompanied by rawer, more believable vocals from Al-Sayed, who finally manages to muster up some passion for his subject matter.

Al-Sayed and Kerstin's vocals are even more enthusiastic on 'End Of The World Show.' The song's clattering drums and frenetic riffs race to keep up with their zippy to-and-fro rap-banter. Even better, Senser lay on the brooding bass, which transforms the central line of "the end of the world show / is a re-run" into a foreboding chant. Kerstin's hit-and-miss vocals are spot on throughout. Whether she's performing a convincing stint on main vocal duties or providing a sweet, chiming counterpoint to Al-Sayed's tongue-tying raps, her performance is, for once, impossible to fault. 'End Of The World Show' and 'Lights Out' are Senser at their fired-up best.

Senser expand on the 'full band' feel of 'Lights Out,' with 'Hex' and 'So Refined.' Compared to the rest of 'How To Do Battle,' both of these songs lean towards the 'rock' end of rap-rock, with some subtle electro beats, skipping disc sound effects and an overall dark, brooding feel giving them a slight industrial-rock slant.

It may be hard to take 'Hex' completely seriously, with its 'scathing' "a hex on those who halt the soul's progress!" chorus, but look beyond that dire lyric and it's a song of sinuous, bass-drenched twists and turns, with subtle female vocals haunting the song's distant corners. The verses are long and lyrically complex, but thankfully Senser keep things snappy by alternating between Kerstin and Al-Sayed.

Industrial-tinged partner in crime 'So Refined,' is prefaced by 'Sandhurst In Zero G,' which is actually an extended, and rather irritating, introduction of distortion and eerie sound effects. Thankfully, it occupies its own place in the track listing, so you can skip over it once you realise it's just sound effects.

'So Refined' however, is one song you don't want to skip over. A dark stomp, studded with synths and possessing plenty of industrial-rock crunch, it's a sound that'll sit a little easier in the current music scene. Al-Sayed and Kerstin trade line for line for the majority of the song, in particularly snappy style, and there's even an instrumental interlude that's one step removed from a guitar solo. Senser at their most rocking, and a definite album highlight.

But, Senser end on a low note with 'Arturo,' which is a completely pointless collection of creepy(ish!) distortion and sound effects. You'll be biding your time for the song to kick in properly - but it doesn't. This is it. 'Arturo' is a skit of atmospheric noise, and a disappointing end to the album, especially considering this is the third song out of thirteen, that's just sound effects.

For anyone who enjoyed Senser's 'Resistance Now' single, that's as good as 'How To Do Battle' gets. It might be best to stick to your copy of said single, especially since its remix of '2 3 Clear' is far superior to the album version. 'End Of The World Show,' 'Lights Out,' 'So Refined' and 'Hex' are decent songs but, beyond that, 'How To Do Battle' doesn't have that much to offer.



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On 19th February 2011 at 00:36 Anonymous 9858 wrote...

"and their faux American accents"

Erm, what? You've actually heard Senser, right? London accents, maybe...but American? Even faux? I think you've got totally the wrong idea about this band.



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