The UK album chart is weighted heavily in favour of musicians whose fans actually buy their albums – rightly so, you could argue, given how hard it is for artists to make money these days. One sale of an LP, CD or download is equivalent to 1,000 streams, meaning that if an artist gets their ducks in a row – pre-order campaign, enticing vinyl editions, merchandise bundles – they can gatecrash the Top 5 off the back of fan purchases, as the cult likes of Dry Cleaning, Thunder and RJ Thompson have found in recent weeks.
On the strength of this very good fifth album, and the formidable passion of their fanbase, Sheffield pop-metal band While She Sleeps could probably have secured a No 1 spot – they sold out Brixton Academy on their last tour. Instead they used a local distribution company for their pre-orders that isn’t recognised by the Official Charts Company, reducing their chart position but giving something back to their area and scene.
This is just the latest way the quintet have turned their backs on the music industry’s markers of success and methods of business. In 2016, they walked away from Sony to release their third album independently, its title You Are We laying out their vision of communality. Sarcastic posters promoted their fourth album So What? with the words “no one buys music any more, but it’s OK, we only need 4m streams to pay for these posters and our rent this month”. They have since deepened their direct-to-fan connection with a monthly subscription model: for between £5 and £60 a month you get extras like soundcheck access, instrument tutorials and mental-health advice. As mass culture continues to atomise into individual “content creators”, While She Sleeps are consolidating an intense connection with a smaller number of people. On the opening track of Sleeps Society, Enlightenment(?), they declare in their trademark massed vocals that “there’s no me without us”. Later, they fold recordings of 200 singing fans into Call of the Void.
Where While She Sleeps’ previous album So What? was overly ambitious – each song full of exciting moments but poorly finessed – those structural problems have been tightened here, and the band finally realise their pop potential in cheesy but magnificent songs (particularly You Are All You Need and Nervous). Vocalist-guitarist Mat Welsh sings yearning boyband hooks, before frontman Lawrence Taylor responds with stark realisations: “We are so [pause for breath] bliiiiiind!” It makes for a reliably exhilarating pattern of tension and release, with Sean Long’s clean and pealing lead guitar tone evoking Eddie Van Halen in virtuosic solos.
In the past, the band’s lyrical focus has occasionally blurred into lazy homogeneity (“sick of division in colour, religion, when we’re all the same” ran a misguided lyric on So What?) but their humanism is often invigorating. Just as fellow British metalcore stars Bring Me the Horizon imagined the apocalypse on Post Human: Survival Horror, and Architects confronted the climate crisis on For Those That Wish to Exist – both excellent No 1 albums this year – While She Sleeps aim to vent the pressures of 21st-century common life. Their shared sound is essentially an intense update of the nu-metal plied by Linkin Park a generation ago, but with the world having demonstrably worsened since then, personal angst is transplanted into a wider civic context.
Architects sounded like a jaded bishop on their album, with a clever, sardonic irony to their use of sermonising language about the end of days; While She Sleeps are more plainspoken, and reject religion’s salve in a much more straightforward way (“there’s no hope in a rosary”). Written down, While She Sleeps’ lyrics like can read like the ramblings of a redpilled Redditor down a conspiracy rabbit hole: “How many more times are we going to be tricked, by society and more importantly our own minds?” runs a spoken intro. But nuance was always likely to be drowned out by music this loud, and in the eye of a storm of drums and thrashing guitars, their bullhorn slogans prove gripping.
After all, it can be difficult to pinpoint where anxiety stems from in a loose fog of different forces. Blunt lines such as “if the worst is yet to come then I don’t think we’ll make it out” could map on to pretty much any crisis, be it personal, environmental or political. There are rallying cries for protest but to no specific end. This isn’t so much a cop-out as music for a world where so many things are badly wrong it’s difficult to focus on a single one. The pleasure of a band like this isn’t in poetry or perspective, but in a howl of shared fear, and a fraternal paw on your shoulder to let you know, as they say, “it’s OK to not be OK”.
Social distancing may soon end, but it’s a term that seems to define a UK wracked with problems of loneliness, inequality and division. And with the right to protest also under threat, While She Sleeps’ rallying cries for unity and resistance have real potency, and are another example of how the UK’s best pop music right now is often its loudest.
• This article was amended on 19 April 2021 to correct a lyric to “sick of division in colour, religion, when we’re all the same”, instead of “sick of colour, division, when we’re all the same”.