The Alarm: Forwards [Album Review]

The Alarm
The Twenty First Century Recording Company [2023]

The first time anyone heard Welsh band The Alarm in No. America, they opened the last half or U2’s “War” tour in ‘83, with little more than their 5-song eponymous debut EP on IRS Records to promote. With their tall, spiked hair, and amped up acoustic guitars played like they were Gibson electrics (and just as loud), Mike Peters and Dave Sharp made a strong impression with the martial drum beat of “Marching On,” and “The Stand,” which seemed to borrow The Clash’s punk version of reggae, with Bob Dylan’s harmonica. By ’87, The Alarm introduced the continent to songs from their third album, Eye of the Hurricane, while opening a tour for Dylan, Peters joining the headliner on stage each night to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In time the band recorded their own live version of the song, and they had a brief airplay hit with their version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but the original band members final recording together was 1991’s Raw.

Forwards is the 15th album made by Peters and his backing band, guitarist James Stevenson, who’s also played with Gene Loves Jezebel and The Cult, drummer Steve Barnard, and Peters’ wife Jules Jones Peters on keys and backing vocals, still using the moniker of The Alarm. When I saw The Alarm play at the intimate supper club, The Music Box in Cleveland in 2017, Peters was promoting his recently preleased documentary, The Man in the Camo Jacket, which told the story of his musical career and his struggle to overcome cancer which led to the creation of the Love Faith Hope Foundation. Peters used his live performance to work chronologically through the story of the band, playing musical highlights from his 35+ year career, and introducing songs from The Alarm’s next album, ‘18’s Equals, which included the song “Peace Now.” In 2022, Peters was forced to cut short a tour celebrating The Alarm’s 40th anniversary when he had a relapse of lymphocytic leukemia. 

Peters took a guitar with him into the hospital to face down chemo and his cancer, to help him hold onto his sanity and to offer a bit of an escape from dwelling on his disease and wrote eight of the ten songs on his new album between treatments. So, the surprising thing right off the top is how positive and life-affirming Peters new songs are. In the opening title track, Peters is all too aware of the “parish of decay,” but as the guitars ring out over that familiar martial beat, Peters sings in a full voice how “I’ve been trying to get myself back home to you/I’m living for today/I’m trying to find a way forwards.” It’s a bold, out-going melody, and Peters sounds more like Bono singing this than anything I’ve heard in the past. In the punchy, drum led “The Returning,” Peters assures that “love will survive/love will endure.” And in the electronic pop/rocker that follows, Peters refuses to believe the worst-case scenario, insisting that there’s always “Another Way.” And with that propulsive beat, and Peters’ strong, vocal delivery it all sounds completely believable.

The singer that sang “give me love/give me hope/give me strength/give me someone to live for” in the title track to 1985’s Strength, he recognizes that he’s not in control of his life and circumstances, so he asks are you going to give me “Love and Forgiveness,” perhaps the only song here that sounds like a goodbye. He follows it with “Next,” a fast-paced rocker built on a strong electric guitar riff by Stevenson, as Peters’ only looking forward, because “all is forgiven, all is understood,” so he wants to know, “are you ready for what’s next?” Then borrowing a line from John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” Peters wants you to know that “whatever gets you through another hour/whatever gets you through this life, it’s alright.” He’s learned an important lesson: “Every time the sun goes down, I say a little prayer for when the morning comes/I count all my blessings, and I say thank for the simple things in life.”

“Transition” is another guitar rocker, but starts out slow and brooding this time, singing “there’s a line I have to cross tonight/if I want to stay alive, live for a second time.” In the old-school driving punk rant of “Love Disappearing,” Peters is sending out an “S.O.S.” while blowing some harmonica to the marching beat of Barnard. He mourns the loss of charity, and human kindness. “New Standards” feels like the album’s only miss-fire, as so many of the other tracks seem to track to deep human emotions in the face of a real life or death moment. But Peters regains his creative connection in the long, Dylanesque rant about the new dark age that closes the disc, “X,” a bluesy rock riff on the idea that the “times they are a-changin’,” but he still lives in hope that “your eyes do not lie/if you treat people kind/they can separate the truth from the lies.” The harmonica is a blazing, and the hope for humanity achieving some kind of harmony seems within reach, at worst we live for another day.

“Forwards” / “Next” / “The Returning”

U2 / The Waterboys / The Call

Equals (2018)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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