Despite the unlikely presence of hotshot producer Mark Ronson, terrace anthem extraordinaires Kaiser Chiefs' previous album, Off with Their Heads, failed spectacularly to stop the rot that appears to have set in amongst the wave of British indie pop bands that dominated the mid-2000s, selling just a tenth of their 2005 debut, Employment. Refusing to admit defeat, the Leeds quintet has continued to think outside the box for its fourth effort, The Future Is Medieval, but this time round it's the release strategy, rather than any changes in musical direction, that's attracting all the attention. Joining the likes of Radiohead and Ash on the list of bands attempting to change the way we buy music, Ricky Wilson and company have allowed fans the opportunity to become A&R men by asking them to choose their favorite ten songs (from 20 made available), running order, and cover artwork from their official website for a fixed fee. A revolutionary approach it may be, but unfortunately, as evident on this official 12-track physical release (selected by the band), the actual content never matches the ambition of its distribution. Perhaps keen to distance themselves from their lager-swilling lad-rock reputation, the Brit Award winners have suddenly gone all serious, eschewing their trademark singalong choruses and reining in the quirkiness that briefly made them one of Britain's biggest guitar bands, in favor of a more downbeat and slightly psychedelic sound that may be less annoyingly infectious but is also ultimately less fun. "Out of Focus" is a self-indulgent mess, whose aimless swirling organs and dreary echo-laden vocals sound like they've escaped from a particularly pretentious '70s prog rock concept album; "Man on Mars" is a substandard Bowie pastiche (perhaps the fault of producer Tony Visconti), whose lack of memorable melodies suggests the karaoke singalong part of the promo video was meant to be ironic; while even some Morricone-style twanging guitars and spacy sound effects can't prevent the lethargy that swamps the mediocre sci-fi score of "Child of the Jago." However, there are a few signs that the Chiefs are capable of restoring former glories. "Little Shocks" combines effective horror movie-style synths with Maximo Park-esque angular indie pop to produce one of their best, if not exactly immediate, singles; "Heard It Break" is a convincing jump aboard the nu-synth bandwagon, and sees Wilson wittily declare "It feels like I broke my heart again/But it's just a sprain" over a backdrop of steel drums and dubstep beats; and drummer Nick Hodgson does his best John Lennon impression while taking a rare lead vocal on a heartfelt message to his father on the string-soaked closer, "If You Will Have Me." But these are few and far between, and despite its innovative approach, The Future Is Medieval is just too disjointed, too meandering, and too pedestrian to halt their "law of diminishing returns" fate.
AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien