The Retro Cool of the 1980s
The Chain Gang of 1974 might be the biggest misnomer of a band name to have ever existed. First of all, the music has nothing to do with backbreaking spirituals that prisoners who are cracking open rocks in a field with pickaxes might sing. Secondly, the year 1974 has nothing to do with anything you’ll find on Wayward Fire, either; in fact, the sounds of this one-man band—Denver’s Kamtin Mohager—instead recalls the work of ‘80s synth-pop bands like New Order, the Psychedelic Furs, OMD and on and on and on. Save for one brief snippet on the song “Stop”, which I’ll get to in more detail in a few moments, there is almost absolutely nothing that signifies the ‘70s here in any shape or form. Even Mohager isn’t a child of the Me Decade: he’s just 26 years old. Ultimately, the name is meaningless and Mohager even admitted so much in an interview with the Azltron website: “The band name really has no specific meaning. It was just an idea that I thought sounded cool and would best represent the songs I was creating. I always loved the Raveonettes album title, Chain Gang of Love, and have always been a big fan of Ryan Adams, who regularly spoke about his birth year, 1974. So at the time, I ended up just putting those two ideas together. With time, I noticed James Murphy mentions the year in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”, and the Talking Heads also formed that year. So I guess the band name has gained more meaning with time, but there’s still no specific reason as to why I came up with it.”
What isn’t meaningless is the retro-infused sounds that Mohager has come up with on Wayward Fire. It’s a bright, hook-laden, bouncy affair that takes your face and rubs it in its subwoofer big beats. When it comes right down to it, Wayward Fire is an homage to the ‘80s, in particular the soundtracks to John Hughes films, and it is, in a word, fun. I found myself getting really carried away by this album, wanting to dance to it around the living room of my apartment (I caught myself, though), and it is really infectious stab at revivalist pop music. The Chain Gang of 1974 isn’t the first band this year to make this kind of sound: Sweden’s the Bell mined a similar territory on their sophomore release Great Heat earlier in 2011, just in a more compact form. (Wayward Fire runs almost exactly an hour long, and seven of its 11 tracks are expansive and mind-blowing by clearing the five-minute mark.) However, I have to wonder if my critic-o-meter is broken by wanting to laud this group, because Wayward Fire has been picking up mediocre rankings in reviews as of late. Consequence of Sound gives the album three stars out of five. In Your Speakers gave the disc a grade of 61 out of 100. And the ever-influential Pitchfork assigned a mark of 5.7 out of 10 to the record on the day that I got up to pen this review. I have to wonder then: am I missing something? Is something wrong with me? What am I seeing in the Chain Gang of 1974 that others aren’t?
One thing that the record has been picked apart on is its sheer length—what some critics are calling over-length. “Just about every song could be cut by about a minute,” writes Justin Gerber of Consequence of Sound, while Ian Cohen of Pitchfork goes even further: “[E]very single track could comfortably shave about a minute and a half.” I think these writers are kind of missing the point: when you can write a soaring anthemic hook that Mohager can, what’s wrong with, you know, milking things a little bit? These are songs that rise to the top of the pop heap, the sort of thing you can raise and shake your hands to in a dance club, and they lock you into a sheer robotic groove. The problem, if there is one, isn’t a matter of being long for the sake of being long. It’s that the first track doesn’t really segue into the rest of the record well, and the last track could have been truncated without affecting the album as it is the weak link songwriting-wise: it’s a power ballad. However, what you find in Wayward Fire‘s midsection is quite simply masterful.
I do want to talk about the first song, “Stop”, even though it’s an oversized jigsaw puzzle piece compared to the rest of the LP. It’s a great song, but because it has an acoustic guitar strumming against a thudding, heart-pumping beat—think if early Beck had gone techno—it seems out of place. It is also the only song that directly signifies the 1970s, as there’s a pitch-shifted sample of the chorus from Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again”, which, of course, is taken from their 1977 masterwork Rumours, which, by the way, happens to have a song on it called “The Chain”—not to mention another titled “Don’t Stop”. (Coincidence?) From there, however, Wayward Fire is a big soppy valentine to the 1980s. “Devil Is a Lady” starts out with a gritty chicken-scratch guitar line lined up against a big block-rocking beat, and turns into a slinky death disco-esque track ripped from the pages of early Wax Trax! recording artists with just a bit more focus on the disco end of things. From there, the connection to the ‘80s gets even more literal and mainstream pop oriented. The eight-minute “Hold On” is a mutant cross between Erasure and Depeche Mode, and given its extreme length almost seems like a remix of itself. “Heartbreakin’ Scream” sounds exactly like Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” with an even more upbeat tempo and keyboard stabs that hit like large raindrops on cement. “Taste of Heaven” conjures up the spirit of Tears for Fears in their Songs from the Big Chair-era. Later on, “Ethical Drugs” takes a turn into the Madchester scene, sounding like an amalgam of Happy Mondays and the Soup Dragons.
All in all, Wayward Fire is an assured and self-confident collection of songs that signify nothing more than a rave up and a throwback to a perhaps simpler time. Listening to this record is akin to getting into your most comfortable pair of jammies and sitting in front of your TV to watch classic cartoons with a bowl of sugary cereal in your hands. Quite simply, it’s cool and it knows it. It’s a comforter to those who came of age when this style of music was being played on radio and MTV. Now, it’s possible that if you really scrutinized this album and put it under the microscope, that all of its stylistic references to things that came before makes it little more than a pastiche collection of material and a backwards-looking series of cuts. However, just on a base level, there’s enough to satisfy and move the casual listener, and these songs deserve to worm their way into a DJ’s set during an ‘80s theme night—no one would probably be able to discern the difference. As such, the Chain Gang of 1974 make a case that even synthesized music that was big and glossy did have its benefits, especially when it came to filling stadiums with its oversized melodies. On that front, Wayward Fire is a brilliant examination of the oodles of excitement that gurgled throughout the pop mainstream music scene of some 25 years ago throughout the New Romantic-era of synthesized music. This is a permed, big-hair monster of a record, and even if the band’s name makes no sense and other critics seemed to have turned their nose up to it, I like the nostalgic blast that this record brings forth. Your mileage may vary, but just in terms of painting on a big canvas and close attention to sonic scope, I just can’t get enough (see what I did there?) of Wayward Fire.
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