Hot off the release of their second studio album Change or Die (1996), Essex dance group Sunscreem faced shady legal battles after the bankruptcy of their record label, which stalled the release of their third record. When they eventually won the rights to the masters, the moment had somewhat vanished and the band decided never to release it. Over the last two decades the clamour of their fanbase to hear the cancelled project only intensified, until earlier this year it was announced that Out of the Woods would be released in full. Led by vocalist Lucia Holm and keyboardist Paul Carnell, and joined intermittently by an ever-evolving carousel of contributors, since they formed in 1991 the group has been a factory of syrupy electronic club hits. Although famed for their wild and electrifying live performances, that is not what’s captured here. Instead, we glimpse a band that shaped dance trends throughout the ‘90s in their absolute artistic prime.
Sunscreem open the record with ‘Britannia’, a number introduced with almost jocular country and western guitar chords. Holm meanders onto the track, prevented from sliding into oblivion only by a springy bassline. It makes for an odd first impression, and this is doubtless not the typical mixture of elements in a good song, but with its conclusion I had a lingering satisfaction. A pattern along these lines quickly emerges in the majority of tracks on this LP: they begin slowly, generically and without any real purpose. However, these slowly form into more than listenable cuts that are very much suited to the lo-fi club atmospheres Sunscreem’s music has always been made for.
Not all albums are good in the same way. Some will have five or six incredible tracks amongst smouldering garbage heaps, and some material is remarkable only in how solid and consistent it is. By and large, Out of the Woods falls into the second category, as the listener is presented with track after track of generally the same standard. By and large, the songs don’t stray from being what I could safely term decent.
Without going so far as to term it a “concept album”, the record is certainly conceptual, a fact that will sadly not gain as much coverage and acknowledgment as it should. Though introduced by Britannia, Out of the Woods is musically bookended by ‘Catch’ and ‘Wonder’, tracks which have the same basic beat and tie together themes of love, estrangement and loss in a simple yet satisfying lyrical style. The particular arrangement for both numbers is minimal and sweet; versatile in a way that gives feelings of ascent and closure as they lead into, and end, the LP. These motifs echo throughout the album’s run and provide a direction that compensates for a lack of a statement track.
Evaluating a record from an iconic group that has been shelved for so long a time, turns out to be difficult in ways you hadn’t first imagined. If this were a new album, that would be simple. It would be a question of comparison to the music of today, the music the band has released in the past, and contextualising this alongside the group’s most acclaimed works. Not so simple here, because with releases of this variety you also have to re-evaluate that past. You aren’t simply hearing new material, you’re witnessing a previously lost chapter of their earlier years that contributed to their evolution and rewrites the history of the band as you know it. At least, that’s what it has the potential to do. Out of the Woods doesn’t change Sunscreem’s story: this is a solid album, sure, but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or really stretch how we think about dance and its development. And that’s okay. There’s an artistic vindication here for a band that lost their chance to have this album out on their own terms. Now they have that, and the results are certainly worth a listen.
Out of the Woods by Sunscreem is out now. Check it out here.By Jarlath Nolan