Retrospective: New Model Army

New Model ArmyNew Model Army is a band to grow up with. That’s crucial to understanding their appeal. It means they’re a band that's grown and evolved naturally, rather than staying stagnant in their comfort zone.

They aren’t, however, a ‘fashionable’ band, and never have been. In an industry that idolises youth on one side and is full of legacy artists trading over their back catalogue on the other; New Model Army never quite fit in. They’re not afraid to age, but neither do they let their history shackle them. This might go some way to explain why they’ve never quite entered the mainstream in their 35-year-long career. They aren’t a band that attracts a casual following. Instead, they are supported by a remarkably loyal and devoted fan base.

So they aren’t a band for everyone. They’re too open, too emotional, too intense. That can be off-putting, to those who want music to be a relaxing backdrop to their lives.  That’s an entirely valid position to take. But those that care about New Model Army care about them a lot. They aren’t a band you’ll find in many people’s top 20s. But you’ll find them in a disproportionate number of top 5s.

A lot of that comes down to their previously mentioned ability to grow and mature. It leads to many of their fans feeling that New Model Army can speak to them directly through their lyrics, and continue to do so over time. That’s something very few bands can manage.

With 13 studio albums under their belt, there’s a lot of New Model Army to explore. Really, you can come in anywhere. Any of them will reflect a band at a different stage of their career, exploring different themes and moods. Their 1984 debut Vengeance is where the band (despite some previous live shows) first cement themselves firmly on people’s radar. Even today, it’s a remarkable album. It exudes anger but, unlike some of their punk contemporaries at the time, it’s not the fiery sloganising of a rant. It’s an anger that burns white hot, cold and controlled. It’s anger at alienation, injustice and the less appealing parts of the human psyche. As the title track “Vengeance” puts it, “I believe in justice. I believe in vengeance. I believe in getting the bastard." As an introductory statement, that’s pretty hard to top.

“Vengeance” made people sit up and take notice. So (and this tells you so much about New Model Army’s way of doing things) the band refused to play it live for a significant period of time.

It’s not that mainstream success has eluded New Model Army. It’s that when the threat has beckoned, New Model Army have steeled their jaws and walked firmly in the opposite direction. They simply aren’t interested in compromising their vision or becoming defined by a song or an album in that way.

To see New Model Army’s trademark change in approach, we’ll jump forward to 1990 and Impurity, the band’s fifth album. It’s an album that explores new musical horizons for the band. The songs are sweeping in feel, helped by the bringing in of the violinist Ed Alleyne-Johnson. It’s more personal somehow. It’s the sound of a band realistic enough to know that things might not get better anytime soon but optimistic enough to understand that the fight is still worthwhile. “Fear is the only enemy that I still know,” sings Justin Sullivan on standout track “Purity” and it is impossible to remain unconvinced by his sincerity.

For a band that understands how to grow older gracefully, there’s 2005’s High. It’s one of the band’s heavier albums, with songs that aren’t afraid to let their hair down and rock. But it’s also an album with a certain low-key spirituality, of introspection and a refusal to be beaten down. It’s an album that demonstrates that, all these years later, New Model Army still aren’t interested in doing things on anybody else’s terms.

It’s not possible to give an overview of what New Model Army have to offer in just three albums. More importantly, any fan would pick their own three albums and have their own reasons for doing so. And that precludes consensus. New Model Army are a band of mavericks, for mavericks. They are perhaps the quintessential outsider’s band.

And that’s without getting into their live performance. Which, if anything, are even more crucial to understanding the band than the studio recordings. By now, truly multi-generational and the kind of events few other bands can manage. At the risk of falling into cliche, New Model Army gigs are as much about the coming together of a community as they are about what’s happening on stage. New Model Army just provide the focus, a role they seem happy to take on.

Despite their long career, a retrospective for New Model Army is in some way an odd way of looking at them. Because they are and always have been a band moving forward.

If you’re already properly aware of New Model Army, you’ll know whether they’re for you or not. If you aren’t, it’s time to rectify that. For many of you, they won’t be of interest. But for those of you that do want what they have to offer, you may well find they quickly become one of the most important musical discoveries you’ve ever made.


2 Responses to “Retrospective: New Model Army”

  1. Ken Deal 28/04/2018 at 1:37 pm #

    What band used “New Model Army” in one of their songs? I’m racking my brain and can’t remember the band or song, but it seemed like the lyric went “it’s your new model army” Help !

    • Tiffany Daniels 29/04/2018 at 10:04 am #

      Not off the top of my head, sorry!


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