Meet the anarchic Leeds rock band Ultimate Thunder unleashing their noise machine into the world

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When Ultimate Thunder step on to the stage, anything can happen.

The Leeds band have thrilled audiences with their crashing, experimental noise-rock - peppered with stream-of-consciousness lyrics from frontman Matthew Watson.

There is no setlist at an Ultimate Thunder gig - and never a guarantee that Watson will utter a word at all.

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The band unleash their whirlwind of bleeps, synths and sounds, surging drums and pulsating bass and as Watson feels moved by the music, he delights his audience with his improvised lyrics.

Ultimate Thunder will release their self-titled album later this month - which has been years in the making (Photo: James Hardisty)Ultimate Thunder will release their self-titled album later this month - which has been years in the making (Photo: James Hardisty)
Ultimate Thunder will release their self-titled album later this month - which has been years in the making (Photo: James Hardisty)

Bottling that anarchic energy up into an album was never going to be an easy task and Ultimate Thunder's self-titled debut album, released later this month, has been years in the making.

The pandemic threw another spanner in the works, with much of the album recorded over Zoom before the final pieces were added in the studio.

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Guitarist James Heselwood told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "We always had plans to make the album, but recording over lockdown made it sound very different.

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Guitarist and mentor James Heselwood, left, pictured with producer James Mabbett (Photo: James Hardisty)Guitarist and mentor James Heselwood, left, pictured with producer James Mabbett (Photo: James Hardisty)
Guitarist and mentor James Heselwood, left, pictured with producer James Mabbett (Photo: James Hardisty)

"But it fit into the way we play as a band and it ended up working in our favour - it's a truly experimental album."

All the members of Ultimate Thunder, bar Heselwood, have learning disabilities.

The band was founded in 2013, initially with the help of Leeds charity People in Action, and has performed across Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford.

After numerous line-up changes, the band began to work with arts charity Pyramid in 2017, with Heselwood staying on to guide and mentor the band.

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The band will performThe band will perform
The band will perform

The current line-up made their live debut at Wharf Chambers and managed to squeeze in another gig in 2019, before the pandemic hit.

"We really enjoy playing on the stage," Watson said.

"I like the nice sound of the music and singing rock and roll and the blues.

"The big stage lights are absolutely amazing. I like playing in the band and everybody makes me happy. We have a lot of fun.”

“I play the drums and keep the sound of the beat," Scott Anderson added.

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“And I’ve been playing the bass for about 10 years," John Greaves said.

The band is completed by Stuart Illingworth on the piano, percussionist John Densley, all-rounder Kenneth Stainburn who plays guitar and synth and Alex Sykes on the keyboard.

"I like playing different tunes on it," Sykes said.

"And I love performing on the stage, it makes me feel happy."

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The band collaborated with musician and producer James Mabbett, better known as Napoleon IIIrd, to record the album over Zoom - before getting back into the studio to add live vocals, drums and synth.

Described by Mabbett as "The Fall meets Hawkwind", the collection of nine tracks will be released on July 29, with the first single Bring The Science out now.

The band will perform at Sheaf Street on July 21 ahead of the album's release.

"Making this record was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding projects I’ve been involved with," Mabbett said.

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"I feel very lucky to have spent these unforgettable pandemic years experimenting, creating and reimagining how you make a record with these fantastic musicians.

“I’ve always experimented with music, but they’ve taught me to do that more and to just play something, without thinking about it too much. They just go for it.

"Years and years of work have gone into this record and we’re all so excited for people to finally hear it."

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Pyramid's director, James Hill, said the album is proof of the "amazing" art that people with learning difficulties can create when barriers are removed and the right support is given.

“People with learning disabilities don’t make a different kind of art," he added.

“Every artist in the world needs support to develop and people with learning disabilities just need a particular kind of support.

“Ultimate Thunder, for example, haven’t had formal training and therefore they are anarchic. There’s an element of chaos and fun in the work our members make.

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“It’s been amazing to watch them flourish. I’ve been watching them play live since 2015 and it’s an absolute riot - anyone who has been to their performances can tell you that.

“Having that sound properly captured on the album is brilliant."

The album was made possible by funding from Arts Council England - which gave Ultimate Thunder the complete experience of making a professional record.

“There are costs associated with this that there wouldn't be for a group of mates playing together in a garage,” Hill added.

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“James Heselwood and Mabbett are there as musicians, but they also have a social care role in looking after our members. That’s the cost we’re always having to raise.

“The extra funding covered the cost of somebody properly mixing the album and the vinyl production, which we wouldn’t have been able to do.

“We need to give our members the experience that non-learning disabled people would have, like giving them a proper PR company and actually printing an album.

“They are musicians, they are a band, and they need that full experience.”

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‘Ultimate Thunder’ will be released digitally and via 12” vinyl, produced at Press On Vinyl in Middlesbrough, on July 29.

Who is Pyramid?

Pyramid has been helping people with learning disabilities to discover the arts for more than 30 years.

Founded in 1989, some of the charity's first members are still with the group today - and members range from eight years old up to over 50s.

The charity runs several arts groups each week, where members can explore different art forms for a couple of hours.

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"We also support artists with learning disabilities to develop to the fullness of their potential and aspirations," James Hill said.

“And we try to support our artists to disrupt the social and institutional barriers that all too often get in the way of people with learning disabilities developing as artists.

“There are a huge amount of those barriers at different levels, from arts provision not being set up to account for impairments people may have, right up to systemic, structural issues like access to further education.

“At Pyramid, we’re trying to do something about all those levels of barriers."

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Hill said it is equally as important to provide a social space for Pyramid members to have fun, as it is to support artists with big ambitions to reach their full potential.

"We always welcome donations and we have an online shop with amazing artwork," he added.

“But we also encourage volunteers to come along.

"Those volunteers have the chance to meet people with learning disabilities and learn about them - and that's really important.”

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