A sliver of strings, a squeal of feedback, pulsing drums, sheets of steely guitar and sonorous bass, and a rough, declamatory voice - from these primary components, Leeds quintet AUTOBAHN unfurl their second album, The Moral Crossing, which adds more finesse, dynamic and colour to the commitment and energy shown on their 2014 debut Dissemble – an album that Louder Than War described as, “driving, powerful and passionate… tapping into addictive darkness of our past and reminding us that that we cannot escape its attractive desolation.”
While Dissemble was made by imagining what the late, great producer Martin Hannett would do, The Moral Crossing is the sound of what AUTOBAHN would do. To capture the new sonic details of the band, lead singer and principal songwriter Craig Johnson, guitarists Michael Pedel and Gavin Cobb, bassist Daniel Sleight and drummer Liam Hilton decided to give up their practice room that doubled as a hardcore/punk venue (which influenced their original sound, as did a love of The Birthday Party) and build their own studio space.
They found a former double-glazing firm, under a disused bridge, in Holbeck (Leeds’ red light district), and despite having no experience of such a job, they undertook this feat. It took a year from ripping out the existing contents to finishing the album – which was then mixed in New York by Ben Greenberg, known for his work with the Sacred Bones label.
On top, Johnson taught himself how to make a record after the studio was built. “I was down there nearly every night,” Johnson recalls. “It was pretty horrible at times, but worth the pain to have control over everything. We’ve had the chance to create the sound we want, at times it’s more melancholic, and romantic.”
Part of the shift comes from Johnson’s newly honed melodies such as ‘Vessel’ and ‘Torment’, part from a greater use of electronics, such as the synthesiser underpinning a haunting ‘Future’, evoking neon-lit rainy-nocturnal rides through a cityscape, likewise the album’s title track, which is one song to benefit from the judicious addition of violin and cello. “!’d been listening to classical music, and I’d seen the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra doing Beethoven’s Ninth, which was mint, but I felt out of place, that people were looking down at me,” Johnson recalls. “So, it’s good to bring some of that to the record. A couple of tracks, ‘Torment’ was one, we ended up replacing the guitars with strings – whatever was best for the song. Like the French female voice in ‘Torment’ too, it just felt right.”
This time around, AUTOBAHN decided to create their fearsome depth charges by building the tracks as they went along rather than working on completed songs. As a name, AUTOBAHN has been a bit misleading, as they sound quintessentially Leeds, not Munich or Dusseldorf, but Johnson chose the name because he loved the repetition of rhythm. With Hilton – surely one of the best young drummers alive – driving, Johnson requested they all, “imagine they were all different part of a machine: a steam engine, say. Again, it just felt right. And then we put it all together. The lyrics came right at the end.”
Johnson’s lyrics on The Moral Crossing combine to form a whole: the theme of a birth, “but that person had no choice in the decision. And then it’s about the different outcomes that could happen. Which could be glorious or torturous.”
The words and songtitles suggest more torture than glory – for example, “A selfless crucifixion / You’ve nailed in the hard sell” in the manic ‘Obituary’: “Pain out of control” in ‘Torment’: “With your withered hand / Drag me deeper into the fallen ground” in the escalating drama of ‘Fallen’ - a word, alongside “fall”, that crops up in several songs. Though Johnson points out that another line from “Fallen”, “Give a break to that child in the noose” is an example of AUTOBAHN’s, “dark northern humour” (another example was the billboard ad for Dissemble: a hearse, parked outside a funeral parlour, with the band’s name in flowers, next to a group of kids holding balloons…)
And though Johnson admits to sudden negative episodes (documented by ‘Low/High’, another slowburner that eventually bursts into flames), “they don’t last long. Actually, as a band, we’re more optimists. I don’t find talking about this stuff as ‘dark’, but it’s stuff people don’t usually want to talk about - execution, rising from the dead, depression, feeling utterly lost and unsure where to go. To understand the moral crossing, to go one way or the other, and how it can change your life. For me, saying this stuff out loud give the feeling that there’s a future.”
On ‘Low/High’, Johnson sings, “You’re floating higher now / No more discontent” and in the part-spoken word litany that is ‘Creation’, “I want to be there for you / I want to rise on through.” To reinforce the optimistic feeling, gospel singers from the local church sing on both tracks. “I wouldn’t call it ‘holy’ but some of the lyrics they were singing were about going to a higher place, even if the whole lyric might contradict that,” says Johnson.
AUTOBAHN have checked their own moral compass, and chosen the hard way – not just building their own studio, but to keep confronting the dark stuff. But their music is infused with the joy of exorcising the darkness: to be there, and rise on through. There is a future, and AUTOBAHN and The Moral Crossing are very much part of it.
- Martin Aston, August 2017