Shriekback

“Big black nemesis / parthenogenesis / no one move a muscle as the dead come home.”

Album Year Rating
Tench EP 1982 2.50/pi
Care [U.K.] 1983 2.54/pi
Care [U.S.] 1983 2.58/pi
Jam Science 1984 2.60/pi
Oil & Gold 1985 2.49/pi

Shriekback is a band that is in some ways better than it deserves to be. Like so many acts, they simply didn’t have it in them to produce more than a couple memorable melodies per album. What they did have was a certain kind of rare artistic common sense. At their peak they created music which was sonically adventurous, atmospheric, and rhythmically sturdy. This gives even their less brilliant material a sort of default charm, and it means that their albums hold up better than those of most of their contemporaries.

You’ll recognize keyboardist Barry Andrews from XTC, but you won’t recognize much of his style. The carnival is over, and the crisp 80s synths have arrived. The band’s other refugee is Dave Allen from Gang of Four, and he provides the band with a dependably solid foundation. Carl Marsh fills things out on guitar, mostly sticking to subtle rhythm work. Oh yeah, and someone programs the drum machines, I guess. Probably Marsh, since he sure isn’t spending a lot of time on his own supposed instrument.

Lineup: Barry Andrews: keyboards, vocals. Carl Marsh: guitars, vocals. Dave Allen: bass, vocals.

TENCH EP

1982; Rating: 2.50/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Sexthinkone [A]
  • 02 A Kind of Fascination [A−]
  • 03 All the Greek Boys (Do the Handwalk) [B]
  • 04 Accretions [A]
  • 05 Mothloop [A−]
  • 06 Here Comes My Hand Clap [i]

Given a chance to play around in the studio for their first EP, our heroes decided to do just that. Witness “Here Comes My Hand Clap”, which simply cannot be described as anything but an “experiment”. “All the Greek Boys (Do the Handwalk)” is similar, though perhaps slightly more song-like. Actually, there’s a simple formula to both sides of this piece of vinyl: start off with an great experimental pop song, follow it up with a murkier, more experimental pop song, and finish off with a thing so murky and minimalistic that all trace of “pop” has been removed. Still, two out of three ain’t bad, and those song songs are actually pretty great. All it really takes to make me happy is a good bassline, and a couple of these songs even have more than that! Like that half-submerged xylophone solo on “Sexthinkone”. What’s the deal with that, eh?

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CARE [U.K.]

1983; Rating: 2.54/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++ / Total: 2.48/pi

  • 01 Lined Up [A]
  • 02 Clear Trails [A]
  • 03 Hapax Legomena [i]
  • 04 Petulant [A−]
  • 05 Lines from the Library [A−]
  • 06 Brink of Collapse [A−]
  • 07 Sway [A−]
  • 08 Into Method [A−]
  • 09 Evaporation [A−]
  • 10 In:Amongst [i]

Okay, remember how Tench had two great songs, two good songs, and two experimental nothings? Well check this out: Care has two great songs, six good songs, and two experimental nothings. That’s sort of an improvement, or something.

The experimental nothings are “Hapax Legomena” and “In:Amongst”, if you want to know what song titles to have tattooed on the inside of your rectum. I won’t list all the other titles, except up at the top of the review where I normally list them. But I will comment briefly on the hilariously off-rhythm drum machine in “Lines from the Library”, which is like a psychiatrist deliberately hanging the painting in his office at a funny angle just to fuck with people.

Oh yeah, I might as well mention the great songs, too, cause they really are pretty great. “Lined Up” is the Hit Single, and it resembles “Accretions” from Tench except more so. “Clear Trails” has got a very simple, minimalistic kind of groove to it, but it’s just so irresistable that it makes me warm inside even though it’s got this cool cold frosty atmosphere.

The rest of the songs are good. Yeah, I told you that already. But I should emphasize that they are actually good, and not just mediocre “fuck-this-review” good, I truly actually enjoy listening to all of them. Remember that always.

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CARE [U.S.]

1983; Rating: 2.58/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: ++

  • 01 Lined Up [A]
  • 02 Clear Trails [A]
  • 03 Accretions [A]
  • 04 My Spine (Is the Bassline) [A]
  • 05 Into Method [A−]
  • 06 Brink of Collapse [A−]
  • 07 Petulant [A−]
  • 08 Sway [A−]
  • 09 Lines from the Library [A−]
  • 10 Evaporation [A−]

Care also came out in a special United States of America version. Usually that kind of shit irritates me, but actually, the Usanian version is pretty much objectively superior here. They just pulled out the all-but-nonexistent “Hapax” and “In:Amongst” and replaced them with fine non-LP single “My Spine (Is the Bassline)” and Tench survivor “Accretions”. Thank you, anonymous record company asshole.

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JAM SCIENCE

1984; Rating: 2.60/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: +

  • 01 Hand on My Heart [A]
  • 02 New Home [A]
  • 03 Achtung [A−]
  • 04 Partyline [A−]
  • 05 Midnight Maps [A−]
  • 06 Mercy Dash [A]
  • 07 Under the Lights [A−]
  • 08 My Careful Hands [A−]
  • 09 Suck [A]
  • 10 Hubris [A]

Another year, another album of mysterious, quasi-gothic synth-pop. Two singles and a bunch of other stuff. Actually, this album is a noticeable advance over Care. There are no more ultra-minimalistic throwaways, and in general, the album is louder and fuller.

The aforementioned singles are “Hand on My Heart” and “Mercy Dash”, and they’re…great. How the hell is one supposed to differentiate a bunch of catchy arty uptempo synth-pop tunes with vague lyrics and basically zero distinguishing features? Do you want me to describe every “atmospheric” echoey sound effect? DO YOU WANT ME TO CRY? All I know is, they sure are fun to listen to. There are basically three surprising things that happen on the entire album: the rap break on “Achtung”, which is thankfully not too embarrassing; the totally over the top “Suck”, which begs for a low blow but is just too gleeful to hate; and the (gasp) ballad “Hubris”, which is actually quite catchy in its quasi-moody way.

SUCK SUCK SUCK!

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OIL & GOLD

1985; Rating: 2.49/pi

Composition: + / Lyrics: + / Production: ++ / Innovation: ~

  • 01 Malaria [A]
  • 02 Everything that Rises Must Converge [A−]
  • 03 Fish Below the Ice [A]
  • 04 The Big Hush [C+]
  • 05 Faded Flowers [A]
  • 06 Nemesis [A]
  • 07 The Only Thing That Shines [C+]
  • 08 Health and Knowledge and Wealth and Power [B+]
  • 09 Hammerheads [B]
  • 10 Coelocanth [A−]

I guess they were pretty happy about how “Hubris” turned out, cause there are four of them wispy ballady things here. This is a problem, because you can’t just get away with any old melody when you’re peddling near-rhythmless stuff like “The Only Thing That Shines” and “The Big Hush”. Only “Faded Flowers” lives up to its predecessor.

“Nemesis” is the dancefloor goth anthem, and the band’s best known song, and it really sounds unlike anything they’d done before, a big, brash pop song with prominent guitars and an uncharacteristically straight verse/chorus structure. In fact, “brash” is an adjective that could be thrown at most of the stuff on here. As with “Suck”, some might find tracks like “Malaria” really annoying, but I like ’em. The only other real dud is “Hammerheads”, which has interesting production but musically is a bit of a tossed-off rehash.

Still, the filler level is more than reasonable for a minor 80s synth-pop act, and as always there are a few great songs here. Just don’t try to stay awake through all 6 minutes of “The Big Hush”.

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