This Heat was founded in 1975 by drummer and all-American hero (who happens to be British) Charles Hayward, previously of Gong and Phil Manzanera’s Quiet Sun. But nothing in his previous work could have prepared listeners for the aural onslaught of his work here. The Velvet Underground is an obvious precedent, as is the work of certain progressive artists on the weirder side of things: King Crimson, Peter Hammill, Henry Cow, and especially the krautrock masters. But This Heat reprocessed these influences into a unique voice that is still leaving its own ripples in experimental rock 30 years on. This Heat’s small catalogue is one of the main missing links between those artists and post-rock, noise-rock…in fact, just about every kind of experimental rock to emerge since 1980 or so.
Personnel: Charles Bullen: guitars, clarinet, viola, vocals, tapes. Charles Hayward: drums, percussion, keyboards, vocals, tapes. Gareth Williams: keyboards, guitars, bass, vocals, tapes.
Remember the nutacular post-apocalyptic 1959 Cold War epic “On the Beach”, in which Fred Astaire gasses himself in his garage? Much of the movie centers around a search for the source of a lone telegraph signal coming from somewhere in bombed-out San Francisco. I doubt that’s the specific image This Heat were going for with the isolated beeps and bloops that open and close this album, but it may as well have been.
The two and a half years of recording that went into this album (Feb. 1976 to Sep. 1978) may be primarily associated with the punk rock “revolution”, but no band from that era was more politically confrontational than this bunch of prog-rock refugees. This is progressive rock in the best sense of the word. It simultaneously drags music kicking and screaming into the—what, 67th century?—and remains brutally in tune with its own time (and, 30 years later, with our time.)
The crazy thing about This Heat’s work is how little it has dated. Where Kraftwerk’s Pong-era synths and drum machines from this time sound a bit quaint nowadays, the largely technology-independent tape-spliced beats on “24 Track Loop” are as timeless as experimental music gets. The swirling, shimmering proto-post-rock ballad “Not Waving” could almost pass for something off of Kid A if the analogue tape didn’t seem to audibly strain against the weight of sound pressing down upon it. (Even the lyrics are Radioheadesque, with Hayward murmuring something about how we should please not rescue him from slowly freezing to death somewhere in the middle of the ocean.) This is not simply ‘intriguing’ avant–zen-garden music for later songwriters and producers to pore over. This is music that fulfills its own promise.
The band goes for the throat with the opening “Horizontal Hold”, a guitar bulldozer that makes way for the delicate “Not Waving”—bringing to mind the one-two of King Crimson’s debut. But This Heat mostly avoid Crimsonian bombast in favor of a constant dull ache. Possibly the album’s crowning achievement is “The Fall of Saigon”, a beautifully oppressive funeral dirge with a guitar solo that segues seamlessly into the final computer bleeps of “Testcard”.
Perhaps incorporating some punk influence, this second outing is noticeably more song-oriented than the first. The band spends less time stretching out into extended grooves, and more time playing something that could possibly be categorized under “guitar rock”. Mind you, we’re still talking about the sort of territory occupied by Pere Ubu and The Pop Group, not the Ramones. Sometimes it’s just a fake-out, like on “Paper Hats”, a multi-part track that starts as a bludgeoning rock song, slams into an industrial free jazz break, and then finds equilibrium as a radioactive funk jam. But “SPQR” is an almost straightforward post-punk anthem set in a decaying Roman Empire.
The band continues its admirable refusal to repeat itself: no song here sounds like any of the others, or, for that matter, like any song on the debut. “Shrink Wrap”, actually a remix of opening track “Sleep” is a brief percussion/chant freakout that precalls the Animal Collective. “Radio Prague” takes a Suicide beat, some creepy strings, and creates a sort of fuzz bassline out of twiddling a radio knob to the rhythm.
The core of the album is the penultimate sequence of “Makeshift Swahili”, “Independence”, and “A New Kind of Water”. “Swahili” is a wild noise-rock blowout built around a bludgeoning riff and what sounds at times for all the world like a death metal growl, with vast droning keyboard chords hanging over the whole thing like the Hindenburg. “Independence” sets Thomas Jefferson’s call to revolution to a “world music” backing—or the melted remains of world music, found in Hiroshima at ground zero. The haunting, malformed melody and crescendo of perfectly mismatched fragments breathe new life into the song’s tired but still powerful words. “A New Kind of Water” could be a less apathetic refugee from the Daydream Nations sessions, driven by some invasively syncopated work from the ryhthm section. After that trio, the spare “Hi Baku Shyo” is a bit of an afterthought, but I suppose it works as a comedown while the credits roll.
The fangirls and boys will forever disagree about which of the two albums is the best. The debut is a bit more coherent; Deceit is a bit more exciting. But it’s clear that they are both essential to anyone with a passing interest in avant-rock.