Largely known in geek circles for 2004’s “Hey Hey 16K”, a viral hit in the days when it actually took effort to make a viral hit, and more recently an ode to a certain bearded Glycon-bothering comics writer titled “The Ballad of Alan Moore”, London-via-Leicester’s MJ Hibbett and his band The Validators have ploughed a distinctive nerd-folk-indie furrow for a while now. But, with this rock-opera concept album based on a two-man Edinburgh Festival show, they might just have hit their apex.
Dinosaur Planet is a ridiculous, charming, delightful oddity. Part concept album, part full-cast audio drama, it’s kind of like what might have happened if Jeff Wayne had been a mild-mannered Englishman rather than a bombastic New Yorker. It tells the story of the Earth, or more specifically, Norfolk, being invaded by armour-wearing dinosaurs from space. Armour-wearing dinosaurs from space who talk like pirates. Yep. It’s that kind of story, and one that, across its many twists and turns also takes in giant evil robots, inter-species romance, alternative theories on the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, and literature searches. The whole thing is completely and utterly ludicrous, and yet it’s held together by its own unique sensibility of logic.
What really drives the album is a distinctly British sense of humour, you can draw a line from this right back through Hitchhiker’s to Python that blends the surreal with the mundane (Its world is one where the first stand of the human race against the invading dinosaurs happens in Peterborough). But, there’s also some great humour drawn from situations, particularly the news reporter marvelling at the majesty of the dinosaurs even as they’re eating her, and language, with some nice recurring gags (“Meanwhile, in the charming Lincolnshire market town of Stamford, in Linconshire…”). And there’s a Transformers joke to die for.
While the majority of the songs are performed by The Validators themselves, and Hibbett plays the notional lead character Terence Truelove, there are guest voices aplenty in both the musical and theatrical sections, although it’s fair to say the motley assortment of friends, bandmates and fellow cult figures are variable in their acting ability. Standouts, though, include Claire Gibb in the pivotal role of General Muriel Truelove (aka Terry’s mum), while Brighton-based singer-songwriter Chris TT hams it up in the extreme as Terry’s granddad. Even the weaker performances generally add to the charm rather than detract from it, however, and besides, any deficiencies in this area are more than made up for by some genuinely strong, expensive-sounding production and FX.
Musically, on the whole it’s in keeping with the Validators’ usual style, so it’s guitar-pop-with-added-violin in the main, very C86 indie at times, and Helen Love and Half Man Half Biscuit are notable touchstones on occasion. There will doubtless be those who find the overriding twee-ness of it all a bit wearying over the length of a full album, but even those people surely can’t help but admit how infectiously catchy most of it is. And it knows when to swap the self-conscious gentleness for bombast, as evidenced by the telling of each of the story’s two climactic battles, not to mention the punchy rock number that accompanies the arrival of The Giant Robots (as they put it, “Capital T and G and R”).
In the end, though, despite several laugh-out-loud moments, it’s an inherent charm and likeability that gives this record most of its appeal. And as silly as the whole thing is, this is, after all, an album that features space-faring dinosaurs dancing a hornpipe in Norfolk. The epic finale, with scattered plot nuggets tied together in delightfully clever fashion, is surprisingly and genuinely gripping. So much so that the typically B-movie tease at the end of a possible sequel is positively welcome.
Return to the Dinosaur Planet, anyone?