Saturday, 22 January 2011

Viva Death - Curse The Darkness

Viva Death, supergroup or side project, or both? The question was finally answered in 2010. The outfit consisted of Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters), Trever Keith (Face To Face, Legion Of Doom), and Scott Shiflett (Face To Face) providing a triple baritone guitar attack, with the latter two providing vocals, Chad Blinman (Legion Of Doom) providing weird sounds and clips, and Josh Freese (almost every band you can think of) providing drums. This setup produced two albums in between the members’ various other bands’ schedules, a self-titled, brutal angle-grinder of a record in 2002 in which Keith handled the majority of the vocals, and a more diverse release four years later called One Percent Panic which threw in patches of sparse sound and upbeat vibes into what was still a very aggressive record on the whole, with Scott Shiflett’s more subdued vocals taking the reins on all but a couple of songs. The release of Curse The Darkness was driven almost entirely by Scott Shiflett, who played almost all the instruments and performed almost all of the vocals. Only a couple of guest musicians and Blinman’s return as random sound man take any other credit for what comes out of the speakers, as other three members are nowhere to be seen.

Has the question for best album of 2010 been answered? For the majority, this is unlikely. Admittedly having not felt a compulsion to check out too much in the way of new releases for the past couple of years, there isn’t much choice in my mind. The only competition for this personal accolade comes from Leatherface’s long-overdue The Stormy PetrelPhase 2, the sophomore full length by the insane psychedelic Alabama surfmeisters in Daikaiju, and The Bouncing Souls' Ghosts On The Boardwalk, which doesn't really count because all the songs were released on singles the year before. Curse The Darkness takes the biscuit, perhaps more for adventurousness than cohesiveness. The baritone guitars only rule is gone, along with some of the other hallmarks of the Viva Death sound, although this album is still distinctively a Viva Death album.

“The Life You Save (May Be Your Own)” starts off with a languid riff that’s possibly the dullest on the album, which soon gives way to a more familiar-sounding verse with a sneering guitar. The power of the studio allows Shiflett to duet his vocals for many an eerie chorus throughout the album, but here the call and response verses are performed with a guest (Charlie Ellis from little brother Chris’ own side project). The anaesthetic riff comes back, but is suddenly crushed under the heavy metal boot of an unexpected guitar solo that’s about as unpredictable as they come. It stops almost as soon as it starts to give way to some more standard riffs and crashing drums, and layered, spaced out vocals. Nothing much new for the second half of the track, but it’s given us a taster of the variety in the record. Blinman’s first noticeable appearance at the beginning of “Impact” is the first hint of the sound man’s increased prominence on Curse The Darkness. “Impact” is much more aggressive on the whole, and although it has less variation, the echoing chorus gives the song a bit of a creepy edge to complement the monotonous verses.

An evil sort of surf guitar opens up “Bullets Under Mind Control”, and the driving beat, the layered guitars, and just about everything else fits into place very neatly to create a cool, slick track. The fluid dynamics are in themselves quite unusual, but they’re quite welcome. They’re also a precursor to a bit of a headache on the next track. A guest musician on the tabla instead of regular percussion, understated echoing guitars, and droning layered vocals make “Love Lust Trust” sound like some sort of futuristic robotic Bollywood. A lot of Blinman work signals the end of the song, which segues into the more sudden “Everything’s Tic-Toc”. Some light harmonics over the returning drums indicate the slightly more upbeat nature of the song, but also disguises the style, as although the guitars are quite low in the mix here in favour of a more flexible vocal performance, the song has a fairly straight rock feel to it. Catchy is one label that doesn’t really belong on this album, but it gets pretty close here. An off-kilter end sees a fadeout from a gloomy little guitar into some static-laden sound clips, which then fades into a truly weird extra sound clip mix. A cheery old school female la-la-la taps along in the background whilst a monotonous man tells the listener “you will grow up someday, you will get a job, you will be… working”.

Following this disjointing affair comes the nasty “Villain”, which doesn’t have a nice note in it. Given the topic, it’s not all that surprising, and completes the comedown from the previous track. Again, the track fades into static and Blinman, and the more urgent “Freeze” comes in next. Fairly flat verses give way to another one of these choruses that flirt with both catchiness and a haunting nature. A change in the guitar leads to another one of these metal solos, although this one lasts longer and is followed up by a neat new rhythm guitar. A few vocal lines garnish this different section before a return to the choral refrain comes back, before two minutes of guitar soloing are gradually faded into the background of what could have been a great song to introduce someone to the album with but for its length. “Talking Backwards” is another completely alien track with the listener’s sanity in its sights, and judging from the opening sound clip from Blinman’s library, they know it. Tribal drumming, bland whispering, and guest vocalist Monica Richards’ starkly contrasting vocals in the chorus will make you cross-eyed, and only a lazy soloing guitar gives the song any break from this. An extra little instrumental piece attached to the end of the song is quite light and airy, with voices and sounds from black and white television strewn across its minute length.

Some palm muting and a low-soaring chorus bring us back to the familiar upbeat-but-not sound on “Out Of Reach”. It doesn’t do anything spectacular, although the plodding guitar solo has a hint of country to it. A long feedback sequence segues into the next track, which begins with more palm muting. “In Search Of Space Boy” starts unnoticeably enough, but has a heck of a lot more hidden up its sleeve. The guitars roar into life, bringing the song into life with it, and the chorus lifts and cruises. After a couple of these, a descending riff takes the song into another gear, and then an ascending riff takes it even further, right up to a simple but catchy and well placed guitar solo at the other end. The outro takes about a minute too long to fade out, which is the main drawback of a great song that not only breathes life into the record again after a couple of tracks that were beginning to hint at an album running out of steam, but is a highlight of the album.

“It’s Like This” brings some swirling guitars to the mix and almost a new wave pop vibe to it, exacerbated by the heavily layered crooning. Other than a drowsy lead guitar towards the end of the track, it’s rather nondescript, but it works well as a pace changer. “Wisdom” provides the obligatory swift kick to the nuts, coming from the same vein of aggression as “Villain”. There’s even a hint of Iron Maiden’s “Wratchchild” in the solo break here, as an antireligious tirade commonplace in the Viva Death catalogue is delivered. Another too-long fadeout follows with what is probably the last of Blinman’s crazy concoction of sounds, as “Crutch” is one of those percussion-free acoustic ballad clich├ęs that so many hard rock acts seem to put at the end of a record. One of the key differences is that Viva Death have taken so many twists and turns on their already experimental sound that this song doesn’t sound even remotely out of place. With the guitars layered, and the vocals layered, and after the last twelve tracks, it takes a while for you to realise that this is actually one of those acoustic tracks, and by that time you can’t even roll your eyes into a headache of despair, because the song’s actually quite good. It’s likely not until the ahhs after the first verse that you cotton on. It’s a bit of a sad ending, but it’s also nice to be put down gently after listening through the record.

Over an hour long and quite gruelling for the most part (and exhaustingly confusing in the other parts), Curse The Darkness is more of a marathon than a sprint. The effects are laid on heavier than ever, which will frustrate some, but the new shapes thrown in have made it vaguely accessible to a slightly different audience. A little. I say that because Viva Death are not very accessible to the majority of music fans. Of course, none of this will be played live, and with all the members currently involved in side projects, it’s not even that likely that another Viva Death record will be made. Curse The Darkness doesn’t have a dozen or so decent tracks up its sleeve, which is something The Stormy Petrel is much closer to, but it is an intense long-distance rollercoaster that I’d recommend to fans of punk and/or hard rock that are looking for something different, or looking for evidence that 2010 wasn't a complete waste of time.

Personal picks: Bullets Under Mind Control, Freeze, Crutch, In Search Of Space Boy
Picks for others: In Search Of Space Boy, Bullets Under Mind Control, Everything’s Tic-Toc
Relative weaknesses: Love Lust Trust, Talking Backwards

Tracklist
01 – The Life You Save (May Be Your Own)
02 – Impact
03 – Bullets Under Mind Control
04 – Love Lust Trust
05 – Everything’s Tic-Toc
06 – Villain
07 – Freeze
08 – Talking Backwards
09 – Out Of Reach
10 – In Search Of Space Boy
11 – It’s Like This
12 – Wisdom
13 – Crutch

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Hot Water Music - A Flight And A Crash

I could easily introduce Hot Water Music as one of my favourite bands, and the one that changed my attitude to a rock world full of high-pitched whiny brats. Their first proper record, Fuel For The Hate Game is raw, powerful, and a fantastic exponent of dual guitars rather than the more familiar rhythm-and-lead combination that we’re all familiar with, and that these chaps eventually succumbed to, to an extent. Whilst the band went on to produce a number of good records, there were naturally relative highs and lows, and the bands swansong (at the time) The New What Next was a major disappointment for me, and the least impressive in their canon.

I can think of at least five records the band put out that are better than A Flight And A Crash. Perhaps all of them, besides that final outing. Whilst the band still kept ties to their local No Idea Records, their first four proper full lengths had each been released on a different label. This fourth record was their first on Epitaph, that increasingly questionable flagship for punk-related genres. At the time, Hot Water Music were one of the least dubious acquisitions, having released No Division in 1999, a positive record that made them the rougher, tougher brother of frequent tourmates (and then labelmates on Epitaph) The Bouncing Souls. However, it’s pretty clear that the band were experimenting with new sounds, and it also appears that the experiments hadn’t led to a clear direction by the time this album was released, and the fruit borne from this work wasn’t shown until Caution the following year.

The vibes of hope and good faith seem to have evaporated, A Flight And A Crash sounds like the band had been betrayed by all the friends from No Division at times. Well, at least the vocals and guitars, George Rebelo’s drums are as composed as ever, and Jason Black’s bass doesn’t stray too far.  “A Flight And A Crash” sees singing guitarist Chris Wollard tell a tale of just that. The immediate guitars bludgeon as aggressively as anything HWM put on an album, only “Free Radio Gainesville” and “Three Summers Strong” really come close (songs on singles and splits like “You Can Take The Boy Out Of Bradenton” and “Elektra” take the biscuit though). The onslaught doesn’t relent. While the vocal tones do contain leitmotifs, there isn’t a chorus as such, and even the brief input of some backing vocals doesn’t throw it off track. The title track isn’t designed to do anything other than rock. It really does, and it’s been a popular choice for opening up the band’s live set since the album was punched out in 2001. “Jack Of All Trades” takes the foot off the pedal a bit, but you don’t really notice it. The guitars are a little more forgiving and the opening riff and outro are quite subdued. However, although Wollard delivered the opener with some real gusto, Chuck Ragan’s unforgiving rasp leaves everything in its path left buried balls-deep in gravel, and he’s not even singing as brutally as on older records. Every time the song threatens to slow down, it picks right back up again, until it actually ends. Maybe not in the same direct way, but it’s another fist-pumping rocker.

So many of these albums that fall into the “not their greatest work but not all that bad” pit have a weak track early on, and it’s usually the second one. This one saves it until the third track, though. “Paper Thin” isn’t a grossly terrible track, but it’s just not right. Some of the guitar work and the chorus sound more like Sham 69 than Hot Water Music, and the chorus lyrics are pretty annoying, too. Wollard does occasionally impersonate himself, which makes the song sound more experimental than an Oi! tribute and keeps the track loosely involved with the album.

Many will be confused at this point. We have a song called “Instrumental”. It has lyrics though, and they’re not about instruments, instrumentals, or measuring things. If you were smart like me and picked up the Never Ender compilation with the bonus disc of demos, you’ll have noticed that the first track, titled “New Instrumental”, is in fact this song in instrumental form. One could extrapolate that words were added later and the title just wasn’t really changed. Almost as brutal as the title track, and even shorter, being the band’s briefest at just ninety-eight seconds, it’s a real smack in the face following the benign “Paper Thin”. It’s sung in duet fashion throughout save for a Ragan half-line, and sounds lyrically like it could be the result of the song being co-written. “Swinger” was presumably titled after the bassline rather than anything else in the song. Black’s given us a few funky riffs in his time, but nothing HWM put out is quite as danceable as the first half of this song. Damned if I didn't shake my fat arse around when I saw these guys play this in London in June 2010. The guitars do a lot of jangling above it. It doesn’t quite sound like your typical four-piece indie-rock song (why are those bands called indie or indie-rock anyway? They’re all on major labels rolling in dough), but the combination of the arrangement and a more laid-back Wollard wail do take it in that direction. The song changes direction halfway through, Ragan’s morose backing vocals kick in and the music gradually descends into a din, starting off a small series of songs that seem to end this way.

Ragan’s muffled guttural bellowing starts “A Clear Line”, and for the most part it’s quite boring. Defiant, positive lyrics are delivered unconvincingly to an even less convincing soundtrack. The attempted harder-shouting bit comes near the end, misses the mark, and gives way to some distorted guitar for another bland end. “Choked And Separated” brightens things up a little, despite beginning with a rare Wollard roar. It doesn’t carry any positive message of hope, but it meanders through different moods for the minute and a half that makes up the song itself. Two more minutes of outro music that fades into a wall of noise and overlapping tape loops, but with some layered vocals, it’s much more interesting than “A Clear Line”.

Ragan brings a more familiar song structure back with three songs in a row, beginning with “Old Rules”. The guitar riffs seem a bit messy, but on the whole it’s crisp and energetic, which is what the album needed. The song also evolves a fair bit in less than three minutes of existence, nothing sounds too protracted. The lyrics are both written and delivered in a more convincing style reminiscent of previous records, but the defiance fades and the moody “Sons And Daughters” cruises in. Sullen verses sandwich a more aggressive chorus, but it isn’t the beefy chorus that’s of interest here, nor the sandwiches. The riffs in the instrumental section are decent enough but do seem to go on a bit, and the ending is a little bland. “Sons And Daughters” is one of those songs that start off well but fails to blow you away, but you’re left fairly satisfied anyway because what has been different about it has worked out alright. A stop-start bass riff leads “Sunday Suit”. Think “Difference Engine” given a shot of adrenaline and two doses of Prozac. The song’s quite bouncy for the most part, and although the song’s a bit hit-and-miss with moodswings and stop-starts, it’s quite enjoyable.

Wollard follows up with a pair of his own, bringing the slowest and fastest tracks to the table. “She Takes It So Well” features a more minimal instrumentation from the more familiar instruments in the band, and the inclusion of a piano and the sound of a guitar pick on strings in the mix make the downbeat track a rather disorienting affair.  It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t really feel like it belongs on the album, despite the loose boundaries afforded. The same could almost be said of “One More Time”, with its demonic surf guitar rapidfiring all over the place. The rhythm guitar chords and chorus keep things in check enough, but the two songs don’t stack up to some of Wollard’s contributions to the first half of the album, and as the last two songs aren’t identifiably his, there’s no chance of a turnaround.

Some eerie reversed guitar, or something weird, buzzes in, but don’t worry. Carrying on in the same vein as “Swinger” and “Sons And Daughters” but a class above, “In The Gray” is a great song that veers more towards adult alt-rock than the brand of punk and hardcore-infused rock that Hot Water Music fans are familiar with. The stop-starts seem to be in all the right places between the ringing and jangling riffs, and Ragan provides some particularly haunting vocals. It’s one of the few songs on A Flight And A Crash where most of the ingredients seem to have worked. Some dual vocals halfway through signal that the song will be going into shutdown mode at this point like several songs before, but the song finishes on a relative high. My only gripe would be that the riff is faded out rather than the song being given a proper compositional ending, which bugs me in all forms of rock (ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits is an absolute nightmare for that, I think only two tracks on there actually have an ending), but the song’s good enough to be forgiven. “Call It Trashing” tries to end the song on a more powerful note. It goes about this by pointing fingers at the generic posers in the rock world. It’s not the worst track on the record by any means, but it lacks any real bite. The brief dual vocals don’t really work, and although the trading verses and call and response bits are a nice idea, this is one of the few vocal performances on the record where Wollard actually needed some more grit, and he didn’t come up with it.

Vinyl-only bonus track, and you know how I love bonus tracks. The band released the vinyl versions of their ‘00s albums on their old No Idea Records, and I presume the bonus track is one of those loyalty things. The bonus track is available on the Till The Wheels Fall Off compilation, so don’t fret if you’re not partial to wax. “So Many Days” is quite slow and relaxed, with a grooving bass. It’s nothing supreme, but it’s fairly lighthearted and would have broken up the middle section of the album quite nicely.

A Flight And A Crash is more than just that experimental album that Hot Water Music made that was such a racket that it split the head of Scott Sinclair's loose-limbed chap on the front cover. There are snippets of top HWM material in amongst the din, and it also has the distinction of Wollard often singing in a consistently rougher style and Ragan frequently smoothing the edges off of his own voice. There is a heck of a lot to latch onto if you’re looking for it, which is why this album is still pretty damned good despite not even being in the better half of the band’s catalogue.

Personal picks: Jack Of All Trades, In The Gray, A Flight And A Crash
Picks for others: Swinger, Old Rules, In The Gray
Relative weaknesses: Paper Thin, A Clear Line

Tracklist
01 – A Flight And A Crash
02 – Jack Of All Trades
03 – Paper Thin
04 – Instrumental
05 – Swinger
06 – A Clear Line
07 – Choked And Separated
08 – Old Rules
09 – Sons And Daughters
10 – Sunday Suit
11 – She Takes It So Well
12 – One More Time
13 – In The Gray
14 – Call It Trashing
Vinyl bonus track
15 – So Many Days

Sunday, 9 January 2011

China Drum – Simple / Great Fire / Barrier / Fall Into Place / Pictures / Can’t Stop These Things / Last Chance / Goosefair

The Japanese get more than everyone else. I don't know why, they're just better than you. Or maybe are trying to cut out imports. Hardly seems fair though, does it? Smug online music stores are even doing it these days. If it's about importing, they just shouldn't charge so much in the first place. Not only are we the non-Japanese short on material time and time again, but Muggins here has so many bonus tracks from the previous releases to refer to in this case that I might as well just discuss them all. There isn't all that much in the way of releases before that, and because songs from nearly every prior release manage to find their way onto the full length record's main content as well as the bonus tracks, I might as well just discuss everything. So much for just reviewing Goosefair, thanks a bunch.

Now, to take a little respite from hacking away at bonus tracks, obi strips and consistently recycled material, the music. It's only pop-punk, really. If you think Descendents belongs in the pop-punk category and noticed that emo was something different to today's tripe back in the 80s and didn't always suck quite so badly, then China Drum can be defined rather easily as pop-punk. If Blink Hundred And Eighty Two, Green Day and The Fallout Boys are your 'ard as nails system-defying punk rock heroes, then they can rather easily be defined as too good for you, and you're either here by some sort of freak accident, or are perhaps doing some research into finding a better way. Here's to hoping.

China Drum formed back in 1989 out in the sticks somewhere near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and few people know what happened in the first few years. I'm not one of them, quite conveniently. Appearing on the radar circa 1992 with a few demos recorded with nearby Sunderland legend Frankie Stubbs in his bunker, it wasn't until 1993's Simple was punched out and promptly snapped up by some of the jockeys on BBC Radio 1, who would support the band for a number of years (although the public never caught on), that they broke through. The eponymous track doesn't sound that spectacular at first. Lead singer Adam Lee's drums sound a bit laboured, and his stout, chunky vocals don't quite have the power here, and the backing vocals provided by the McQueen brothers are present throughout almost all of the three songs provided. At this point I should mention that retrospect taints my opinion because a re-recording of the song a few years later proved superior sonically. The melodies present are decent, but not particularly special, and it's a relatively seething track that could have benefited (and eventually did) from a more venomous Adam Lee. Still, nobody said being a lead singer and drummer was easy. "Simple" will grow on you, but it’s superseded by "On My Way", a slightly slacker version of which was present on the demo recorded in Stubbs' bunker. It's not lyrically much happier, and still contains hints of aggression, but it's much brighter on the whole, and the pop melodies that set the band apart from just any other band are in force here. A tuneful vocal refrain in front of a brief bass section and then a solo style guitar see out the end of the song. The final song on this release gives us the first of many incarnations of "Meaning". It's perhaps the least exciting, but not the least interesting, mainly thanks to the bluesy guitar strokes in the chorus. Lyrically more interesting than the other two, and lacking percussion, at least this form of "Meaning" stands out as different from the others. Stubbs liked it so much that he recorded a more standard electric guitar and drums version with Leatherface, which was released on their Little White God single, complete with the same Lost Boys quote, albeit half-sung by someone else. I don’t really like these tape quote things, it’s like having someone interrupt every single time you listen, and causing you further grief when strangers give you even stranger looks for telling these fictional characters off for interrupting. “On My Way” is the strongest track, but “Meaning” highlights a more creative band.

The next year, we were presented with Great Fire. A shining example of the band’s knack of producing a brand of music that was rather uplifting but with a veiled anger, “Great Fire” also sees Lee’s voice break out from the backing vocals a bit more as they improved. Clocking in at over four minutes, it’s much longer than anything on Simple. The opening salvo gives some big guitar and some big drums. The verses are standard fare, but the chorus has a more interesting melody to it. Some chugging guitars and complete instrumental breaks break up the song well. The last minute or so is more of an extended outro, and although some of the lyrics are repeated, the delivery isn’t, and the musical changes prevent it from actually dragging on. Following on from the subtleties of “Meaning” on the last release is a full-blown acoustic, replete with extra strings. “Biscuit Barrel” is sullen, but quite excellent. The lyrics are fairly bland, as they frequently were with the band, but this is the first time Lee really shows off his vocal power. His voice is chunky, but it finally really stands out in the choruses, and not just because of the lack of instrumentation and supporting vocals behind it. A nice outro is spoilt by a Western-style quote. Stop interrupting, Hoss!. “Meaning” returns in a more standard power-pop formula, and compared to the original it definitely packs a punch, if being a lot less crafty in doing so. It won’t go down as the best version for many, as the Leatherface cover version is much more interesting, although the song doesn’t really suit Stubbs’ vocal style. Still, the chugga-chugga in the post-chorus gives this one something different. The single is rounded off with a live, early version of “Down By The River” that didn’t see a studio recording until the band’s stylistically shifted Self Made Maniac. Just a guitar and some harmonised singing to start with, the rest joins in after a minute. As live recordings go, the quality isn’t too bad, and the effect-laden solo gives the song a bit of distinction, but it’s not breathtaking. The right tracks are definitely on the A-side here.

The first and arguably best of the singles that the Drum released in 1995 was Barrier. A powerful opening salvo gives way to a light, simple verse, but the blistering pre-chorus brings the energy right back into the fold, and the chorus keeps it up. After the second wave, the song begins to evolve, and some great vocals kick in at a higher level that hadn’t been sustained on the band’s previous singles with the exception of “Biscuit Barrel”, and it’s great to hear a little dexterity used to enhance a standard China Drum song. The song clatters out with more energy than it started with after four exhausting minutes. “Brain” is a little more laid back, but follows a similar pattern for the most part. It does get a bit moody once or twice, though, and after one last charge, the song ends on a bit of a downer, with the bass actually getting a little audio space from the massive guitar. Another fine track, if not quite as fantastic as the title track. As with “Great Fire”, both “Barrier” and “Brain” appear to be longer by extension rather than by design, but again, neither of them sound as protracted as they are thanks to some smart crafting. That goes out the window for the second half. An amusing little voice-over introduces us to “One Way Down”, half the length of the previous songs, less memorable perhaps, but it’s simple, catchy, and puts a smile on your face, which is exactly what a good power-pop B-side should do. If this live version of “Sleazeball” (another one not to appear in studio format until it became a B-side in the Self Made Maniac era) were included on an album, it’d be classed as a horrendous letdown, but because it’s a single, it’s merely a disappointing inclusion. The verse is sulky, but not entirely dull. It’s the lack of anything to hook onto vocally or musically in the chorus, which tries to be powerful but just comes off as noisy and petulant. The last three minutes of it consist of dull noise that seems to completely lack cohesion. Other than this, Barrier was a top release.

The second of the year, Fall Into Place, saw the end of the four minute (genre-relative) marathons that shone on previous singles, as well as the first real signs of recycled material. “Fall Into Place” is a good song, but it’s very by-numbers. Palm-muting in the verses, harmonising in the chorus, reining it in for the middle eight, you’ve heard it a million times. An impassioned vocal delivery and unusually deep vocals in that middle eight are the only things that set it apart, suggesting that it perhaps wasn’t singleworthy. “Simple” appears, and it’s the exact same version that was taken from the Simple single, as was “On My Way”. The live version of “Barrier” is decent, but doesn’t match the studio version. Fall Into Place threw up different second-half tracks on the vinyl and compact disc releases, and I’m not sure what the live version of “Great Fire” on the vinyl sounds like, but it can’t be that bad given that “Barrier” was decent enough. “Cloud 9”, the other vinyl-specific track, was originally released on a compilation before Great Fire came out, and was produced by that man Frankie Stubbs. It features a different intro to the version made for Goosefair, which distinguishes it, but otherwise it suffers from the same flatness that “Simple” did. Around this time a few compilation EPs were released, one called Rolling Hills And Soaking Gills (after a “Meaning” lyric) with seven of the supposedly best previously released tracks (“On My Way” and “Brain” were inexcusably omitted) and “Fall Into Place” as the focus track, sharing the same cover art. The other was confusingly also called Barrier, and this extended play omitted “Fall Into Place” and had different cover art and "Barrier" moved to the front of the tracklist, but was otherwise the same, and released in America instead of Europe.

Pictures had all new content, but didn’t have very much content compared to previous singles. Manic laughter brings us “Pictures”, which is a hostile track driven by bass guitar, piss and vinegar. The band haven’t gone heavy metal here, or down the atonal route of “Sleazeball”, the element of pop-punk is still clear and present, but “Simple” was knocked off its pedestal as the most spiteful track in the canon with a vicious hostility that lacks any respite. In complete contrast, a small slice of acoustic pop called “Last Chance” follows. The vocal delivery is meant to be relaxed, but sounds lethargic. The guitars are charming enough, but the most annoying thing about this version of “Last Chance” is that it’s so short. Barely longer than a minute, and with the way it ends, it just comes across as lazy. A work in progress, it’s a space to watch.

The turn of another year saw the release of Can’t Stop These Things. Like Pictures, it has deceptively innocent cover art concealing an abrasive title track. It’s not quite as venomous, and the vocals in the chorus fly higher than anything on “Pictures”. The pounding drums are a stronger feature here, and the longer restrained section allows more tension to build, making “Can’t Stop These Things” a stronger song overall. The infamous cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is here. I didn’t think the song was that great, although having listened to the original song, I learned what all the fuss was about. They steamrollered over the original, making the song heavier with the addition of guitars and such, and yet making it much more upbeat. After this almost pranksterish cover, “Drown It” is much more grown up, and therefore only available to people who bought the CD. The music almost stops entirely at times, and even the palm muting part sounds more adult thanks to a sullen tone throughout that deceives the listener into believing the song has a slower tempo than it actually does.

Last Chance was the final relevant single release, done more or less concurrently with Goosefair. A space worth watching indeed, “Last Chance” is back, with electric guitars, a better vocal performance, and an infectiously bouncy nature. Power-pop at its very best. There is a small hint of aggression, they haven’t gotten too carried away with daisies and sugar lumps, and the same applies to “Walk”. Not as ear-grabbing as the title track, but just as packed with melody, it’s a far cry from “Pictures” and “Can’t Stop These Things”. “Cut Them Out” is a bit more attacking due to the drum track and the increased tempo, and a little variety makes it a stronger track than “Walk”. “Careful With That Chieftain Adam” is a strange instrumental, combining some tribal drumming with some almost latin acoustic guitar work and some cheery whistling. Of course, this fun, almost childish cut is unsuitable for the vinyl record purchaser, and was omitted from the 7” along with “Cut Them Out”.

And finally, the one record that I wanted to review, and I’ve already reviewed about two thirds of it. It’s a favourite, but given how frequently I’ll need to refer back begrudgingly to previous releases, you wouldn’t believe me. “Goosefair” isn’t exactly a new album, but there is enough new material for it not to be a greatest hits type compilation, and it’s arranged rather well. The production here is great, everything sounds crisp and clear. “Can’t Stop These Things” is a fitting way to open Goosefair, and it’s the exact cut taken from the single. “Cloud 9” is reworked, and while the introductory guitar is a bit simpler, the slicker production suits it to a tee, and the power of the song is realised. “Fall Into Place” is taken direct from the single version.

Next up is “Situation”, a new song! Nope, wrong again, one thing we can’t control is how the band aren’t bothered about adding up the songs taken from somewhere else, meaning that the loser is originality. Having said that, this version of “Situation” is almost completely reworked musically from the version that was recorded in Frankie Stubbs’ bunker four years earlier, and it’s a jaunty song with a strong drum track, memorable back-end refrain, and the unusual distinction of the verses outgunning the chorus. “Simple” is given similar treatment to “Cloud 9”, with a faster tempo and better vocal delivery. “Biscuit Barrel FMR” has gained electric guitars, and three mysterious letters. I’m not a huge fan of either, because although the song comes off quite well in this format, the acoustic version just suits the song better. Also because I don’t know what those damned letters stand for and it makes me feel like I’m being left out of a secret message or internal joke. How excluding. At least there’s no weird voice-over in this version.

“God Bets” is actually new, and is, funnily enough, one of the weaker cuts present. The guitar stays more in the highs than the middle, leaving space for the bass guitar, but neither does anything brilliant, and the song treads a space between sulky and annoyed and comes off as not enough of either. It’s not a bad song, but it just falls relatively flat on the record. “Pictures” flexes its muscles and shows its predecessor who the boss is in this re-recorded format that nevertheless sounds very similar to the original, although the extra slick helps marginally. “Find The Time” is also new, and threatens to go down the same path as “God Bets”, but some catchy melodies and a neat pre-chorus pull it a few notches above.

“(Had A Good Idea On) Monday” almost veers towards a ska vibe at first, but that soon passes, and we’re left with a catchy new song. Hooks galore, and a more upbeat nature much needed at this point. “Last Chance” takes the jovial road even further, and is taken directly from the single. “Take It Back” is the spiritual closer to Goosefair, and is a great song. A quiet guitar soon gives way to a more standard formation. The verses are a little bland, but the rest of the song is great, especially the bit in the first chorus where it slows right down for a few lines. After fifteen seconds of feedback, what feels like an acoustic bonus track is upon us. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s “Meaning” again, and finally at its best. Percussion-free, a fuller acoustic guitar, and decent vocals make a good song great. “Better Than Me” brings back the electrics in a slow, gloomy fashion that doesn’t really befit Goosefair. It’s not a bad track if not a great one, and just about gets away with it by being in a sort of half bonus part of the album. Nothing short of twenty-seven minutes of silence is part of the track, before the appearance of the hidden bonus, “Wuthering Heights”, from the Can’t Stop These Things release. There is, of course, a slew of Japan-only bonus tracks that I’ve already discussed and don’t care to mention again.

Of course, the greater amount of writing that the circumstances surrounding this album have caused me warrants another diatribe. No lyrics in the packaging? What’s that about? We’ve all come to expect it, at least in full lengths, but no, sometimes you just don’t get any. It’s not clever, and it’s not helpful. Lee’s vocals are quite clear, but that’s not the point. This album goes one step beyond the regular threshold of annoyance though, and scattered around the colourful pictures of the actual goose fair are random lyrics. Most of them aren’t even from the album! There’s one from “Can’t Stop These Things”, but most of them seem to be taken from “Great Fire”, one of the few songs I thought they’d managed to leave alone and keep out of Goosefair, but no, those canny fiends found a way. All I can say is, get over the annoying way in which the songs kept being put out, and enjoy some top notch pop punk that went under the radar thanks to all that Britpop nonsense that was being churned out at the time.

Personal picks – Barrier, On My Way, Last Chance (electric), Meaning (acoustic), Drown It, (Had A Good Idea On) Monday, Biscuit Barrel (acoustic), Pictures (new), Great Fire, Brain
Picks for others – Last Chance (electric), Can’t Stop These Things, Take It Back, Simple (new), Cloud 9 (new), One Way Down, Situation (new), Meaning (acoustic), Walk, Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush cover)
Relative Weaknesses – Sleazeball, God Bets

Tracklist

Simple
01 – Simple (old)
02 – On My Way
03 – Meaning (half-electric)

Great Fire
01 – Great Fire
02 – Biscuit Barrel (acoustic)
03 – Meaning (electric)
04 – Down By The River [Live]

Barrier
01 – Barrier
02 – Brain
03 –

One Way
Down
04 – Sleazeball [Live]

Fall Into Place
01 – Fall Into Place
02 – Simple (old)
03 – On My Way (Cloud 9 (old) on vinyl)
04 – Barrier [Live] (Great Fire [Live] on vinyl)

Pictures
01 – Pictures (old)
02 – Last Chance (acoustic)

Can’t Stop These Things
01 – Can’t Stop These Things
02 – Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush cover)
03 – Drown It (CD only)

Last Chance
01 – Last Chance (electric)
02 – Walk
03 – Cut Them Out (CD only)
04 – Careful With That Chieftain Adam (CD only)

Goosefair
01 – Can’t Stop These Things
02 – Cloud 9 (new)
03 – Fall Into Place
04 – Situation (new)
05 – Simple (new)
06 – Biscuit Barrel FMR (electric)
07 – God Bets
08 – Pictures (new)
09 – Find The Time
10 – (Had A Good Idea On) Monday
11 – Last Chance (electric)
12 – Take It Back
13 – Meaning (acoustic)
14 – Better Than Me…Wuthering Heights (the latter a hidden track internationally)
Japanese bonus tracks
15 – Cut Them Out
16 – Walk
17 – Careful With That Chieftain Adam
18 – Drown It
19 – Last Chance (acoustic)
20 – On My Way
21 – Wuthering Heights