Bad Elephant Music, 2013, CD & DD album, 40m 1s
£5.99 DD £10 CD
It used to make a certain amount of sense to refer to The Fierce And The Dead as a post-rock band, and they have indeed been known to make use of that term themselves; I feel they’ve moved on, however, into some kind of a post-post-rock phase. Leaving aside my irritation at contemporary culture’s tendency to append the prefix post- to anything and everything, it’s a good enough term to describe a particular form of predominantly instrumental, texturally inclined music that employs the resources of rock; it’s a term with currency, pointing to an established set of stylistic practices, and to some relatively well known bands. Spooky Action is far too original and individual an album for me to feel comfortable lumping it into a category possessed of such clear generic conventions, but more to the point, any implication that this band has somehow put rock behind them is utterly invalidated by the beautifully filthy, atavistic thunder that comes crashing out of the speakers when I press play. This is music with real shape, with a distinct rhythmic skeleton, rather than the sweeping textural soundscapes that term might imply; the album is bursting with riffs, and they embody a diverse range of musical ideas and influences, most of them far too outlandish to drift past in the semi-ambient manner of their absorbing and atmospheric debut Part 1. We are lucky enough to find ourselves in something of a golden age for forward-looking rock music, in which the long maligned genre of progressive rock has begun to achieve something of the recognition it deserves, its definition expanding to include much that is innovatory, but that might not be stylistically aligned with the conventional notion of prog. TFATD has been embraced by this newly heterogenous scene, which is very much to its benefit, given that there are still a lot of very conservative ‘progressive’ bands around, and that these chaps are some of the most intrepid explorers in rock music.
So what to do with rock noises, if you don’t have singing? How do you structure these pieces of music that it no longer seems appropriate to refer to as songs? Well, the tunes on Spooky Action are all roughly song-sized, and for the most part, they’re built like songs as well, with layers of repeated phrases in the short term, and strophic repetitions of differentiated material giving them a readily apprehensible shape. This also provides a structure on which to hang a narrative, and this music is rich with developmental variation, its dramas unfolding in the ebb and flow of its dynamics, in the transformations of its ensemble textures, and the compelling, oblique emotional landscape of its harmonies. Melody is also an important component of the sound, more so than in earlier TFATD releases, although its phrasing is confined to the compass of the riffs from which the pieces are built, rather than soaring above the arrangements in a conventionally hierarchical, field-and-figure manner; this serves to emphasise the ensemble nature of the sound, its collective focus, something which would, incidentally, have been much harder to achieve with a vocalist hogging the listener’s attention. What’s really important to this music, what it’s made of, in the same way that a vintage Land Rover is welded together from big lumps of steel, is riffs. Short ostinatos, laminated in a variety of ways, within predominantly homophonic or contrapuntal textures, with screaming lead guitar extemporisations (like the freakout that concludes ‘Chief’, and with it the album) a distinct rarity. The way that sections succeed one another episodically, each tending to repeat a single, relatively short idea, calls to mind the live-looping practice of guitarist Matt Stevens’ solo work; the melodic colours are also reminiscent of his compositions, but this record’s sound is probably more distinct from his own than any previous TFATD release.
The rhythms drive hard, but the phrasing is frequently asymmetrical, and often sounds like an odd time even when it’s in four; this should be no surprise to anyone that’s familiar with the band’s earlier recordings. Meter is always worn on the sleeve; this is not a band to phrase freely and fluidly across whatever time signature they may be employing, but one that builds everything around a particular stress pattern (until they drop it in favour of a new one). Of course there are exceptions, for example in the title track, where the four voices of the band drift apart into a broad spatial texture, anchored by a lyrical bass figure, but on the whole the rhythmic content of the arrangements could be tapped out by two or three limbs. Like the crusty doom/sludge/noise bands that the hairiest moments of the record recall, this is a music of commonality and communality, the sound of several people getting something done together. There’s brass on this record (yeah, I know, give someone a budget for an album and suddenly it’s all steel drums and male voice choirs), but it’s democratically integrated into the heft of the mother-riff, rather than sounding like an optional extra, or offering commentary on a melody that could do perfectly well without it. Yes, the music could do perfectly well without it, but the brass adds a meaningful additional dimension, one that contributes directly to what for me is the central location of Spooky Action’s artistic content, the succession and juxtaposition of its ensemble textures. Melody and harmony are also a part of that affective parade, rather than a separate discourse floating above it; their palette extends well beyond the parameters of standard diatonic harmony, but its internal logic is always stronger than any sense of transgression. There is an abundance of tension, but it largely stops somewhere short of atonality, although extensive use is made of symmetrical modal materials. The band are at pains to make it clear what they’re getting at, and to bring the audience along for the ride.
On Spooky Action, The Fierce And The Dead never forget that their musical utterances are acts of communication; although their whole schtick will be enough to turn off some potential listeners straight away, because they don’t like loud things, or they like to hear a ‘nice’ tune, or they want to know what the ‘songs’ are ‘about’, for avant-garde music (and I’m willing to stand toe-to-toe with anyone and argue that that’s exactly what this is), this is extremely accessible. There is no compromise on artistic vision or methodology, but neither is there any deliberate attempt to exclude the non-believer; devoid of any obfuscating hipness, this music invites the world in, offering it the opportunity to participate in feelings and experiences that are novel, and sometimes challenging, but that are also ecstatic and liberating. I’ve talked about the relationship between this music and Matt Stevens’ solo material, which may give the misleading impression that his is the dominant voice, but this is a music of four voices, and the overwhelming sense is one of solidarity; each band member is distinct in their contribution to the arrangements, and they are equally absorbed into the whole of the sound. Their mutual enthusiasm for what they’re doing is infectious, and in sharing that enthusiasm the distinctions between performer and listener are elided, as they were in early punk music, or as they are in the psychedelic roar of the sort of crust-doom bands I referred to above. If there is a voice that stands out, it’s Kevin Feazey’s bass, which frequently blazes the first trail into the territories the band are keen to explore, blasting a path through the vegetation with grinding, abrasive overdrive, or testing the waters with a repeated fluid, lyrical phrase. Overall, the combination of subtly eerie tonal materials with heavily kinetic ensemble riffing makes for some… well, for some very spooky action indeed.
There are many great bands around at the moment, making startling and unexpected use of the materials they’ve inherited from the tradition of rock, a tradition that is now both deep and broad, and gifted with an all encompassing set of emotional possibilities; but I can think of few that are forging new materials, that are expanding the language of rock, in quite the same way as The Fierce And The Dead. It’s easy to generate new language if you don’t care who can understand it, but the beauty of this racket is that anyone who’s willing to make the effort will be able to get it. Because they are not virtuosos the band are not distracted by the temptation to simply flash their chops; and the result is creative rigour, in every moment, a determination to do something interesting, original and exciting with every bar of the music. These are four extremely creative and forward-looking artists, and I’m convinced that the music they’re making is something that’s going to stick with a lot of people for a long time; for myself, I know I’ll always feel lucky that I happened to be paying attention when TFATD were doing their thing. This is (and I’m very selective in my use of this particular term) top whack malarkey.