Friday, 3 December 2010

Sugar - Beaster

Extended plays...why? What exactly are they for? Are they trying to give us more than a single, or less than an album? One has to wonder why bands bother with these releases, they're rarely given the credit of full lengths or singles of similar quality. This is often why it's usually a mystery of whether you're going to get anything good. Some of these are like miniature compilations. Moonpies For Misfits is a combination of Hot Water Music's Moments Pass and Where We Belong singles, and China Drum's stateside Barrier release was a selection of tracks from their singles up to that point, and was a real missed opportunity to make a full length compilation. Some are mere scraps from recording sessions for an album that weren't suitable for that album, but were granted a separate release. Beaster is one of these. If you've heard Sugar's commercial debut hit Copper Blue, you'd be surprised at this release. It's obvious at first listen why most of these six tracks weren't included on the long player. A complete mismatch to the melody-saturated and relatively upbeat collection of songs that made up the majority of Copper Blue, these follow in the footsteps of the two gloomier cuts, "The Slim" and "Slick", only with a naked aggression that, while not entirely absent, was well veiled on the album. Even the lighter moments on Beaster are often cut with an unhealthy severity that set them apart from the instantly catchy Copper Blue.

Does this make Beaster a gruesome delinquent sibling? This recipe has all the ingredients of a small disaster. However, Bob Mould and his chums have managed quite the opposite. What they have turned out is a collection of songs that recall some of the finer moments in Hüsker Dü's SST catalogue in which hints of melody work their way through aggressive hardcore, whilst keeping some of Mould's pop sensibilities that had come to the fore on Copper Blue and Hüsker Dü's swansong, Warehouse: Songs And Stories, aided by the solid rhythm section courtesy of David Barbe and Malcolm Travis. The songs have even been fashioned into something more than just a collection of songs into a sonic experience, and at over half an hour in length, you feel like you've listened to an entire album.

"Come Around" is first on the list, and qualifies as something of a curveball. Recalling the title track that opened New Day Rising for its lack of lyrics and relative increase in intensity, "Come Around" is nonetheless a fairly lighthearted affair that sounds at first like it could have fit on Copper Blue. The jangly opening guitar sounds like the one used on some of the poppier moments on the album. There's something less than cheery in the other guitar work this track that somewhat justifies its separation from the long player, but it's more likely the lack of lyrics making it more of a mood piece that didn't make it quite concise and commercial enough. Nonetheless, it serves well as a great way to mislead you. More jangling at the end of the track gives way to some feedback, and then all of a sudden you get "Tilted" barging into you. Released as a single in the UK, "Tilted" is the best song on the track. Charging at a blistering pace throughout, it begins with a violence that kicks the opener from memory and grabs your attention by the throat. Mould's vocal delivery is the only thing that really stops "Tilted" from sounding like a song that could have made a fine addition to Metal Circus. The odd layered guitar adds a little flair to the verses, but it's after the chorus, a repeat of the opening riff that ends with Mould being drowned out by his own guitar solo. This one is mental, and the highlight of the EP. A long, scratchy feedback and a tellysavalasangelist soundbite leads to more on the next track.

Three songs over six minutes follow. "Judas Cradle" slows the pace drastically, and what tunefulness Mould's voice brought to "Tilted" is left there for the most part, and instead we see a match with the darkness of the music. The notable exception is with the chorus, which is a bit catchy, and will be the main thing you take from the song even though it contrasts with the rest of it. Ominous drumming introduces "JC Auto", which saw a live version of which was the flipside to "Tilted" on the single, and was used in its own right for promotional purposes. More interesting than the preceding track, "JC Auto" spits more violently and takes the pace back up a notch. There's also a lot more in the way of melody, which frequently appears and disappears from both the vocals and the guitar. After treating us to a rollercoaster, it ends on a rather aggressive thread, which "Feeling Better" tricks you into thinking is continued for another long slog. Soon enough, the opening note gives way to a descending hook laden with synthesisers recalling "Hoover Dam" that come across at first as kind of annoying, but you soon realise that they actually work rather well. While the song has its moody moments and keeps more in tune with Beaster than Copper Blue, it's ridiculously catchy and packed with melody. It even has noticeable bass. Perhaps a minute or two less wouldn't do any harm, but "Feeling Better" is just about good and varied enough to warrant its lengthiness, as most of these bouncy numbers don't work too well over six minutes and repeat themselves too much.

As if this EP wasn't a weird and distorting enough experience, after giving us the meat of it from "Tilted" to "Feeling Better", Mould sandwiches it by eschewing his guitars for some organ keyboard synthesiser thingies. "Walking Away" almost sees Beaster come full circle, serving as the churchbound brother of "Come Around", with its relativety pleasant nature and minimal lyrics. It's a very distorting end to a very distorting little record. Stay the hell away from it if you like Copper Blue and Warehouse: Songs And Stories, but don't like Hüsker Dü's earlier material. If you are a fan of the Metal Circus/Zen Arcade era, but don't like Sugar's commercially successful debut and File Under: Easy Listening, then approach with caution. If you like most of what Bob Mould put out in the 80s and 90s, then you might find some of the stuff on here to be among the best material in that timespan.

Personal picks: Tilted, JC Auto
Picks for others: Feeling Better, Tilted
Relative weaknesses: Walking Away

01 - Come Around
02 - Tilted
03 - Judas Cradle
04 - JC Auto
05 - Feeling Better
06 - Walking Away

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