For much of their career, For Against have been treated like an oddity. See, they’re from the Midwest (from Lincoln, Nebraska, to be precise), but they sound like they’ve been mainlining albums from Factory and 4AD constantly for the twenty-four years they’ve been together. That’s long enough to fully inhabit the weird blend of post punk and proto-shoegaze those two labels suggest instead of just aping the surface feeling. Given the vast windswept expanse of this music, that it should be considered odd that such a chilly, dour, sometimes muffled sound should come from Nebraska has always baffled me. So it’s rolling hills and endless plains instead of a rainy island—have you ever spent winter in Nebraska?
It’s not as if For Against have ever tried to downplay their sound; Shade Side Sunny Side boasts an impressively stark cover of Section 25’s “Friendly Fires”, and if that doesn’t guarantee their gloom-rock credentials for you then I don’t know what you’re holding out for. Tellingly, if you don’t know Section 25 (I didn’t), it’s easy to take “Friendly Fires” as an original; the Joy Division-esque drumming and insistent but low key bass grumble fit in nicely with a song like the opening “Glamour”, which similarly seems to be born out of a desire to show a group like I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness how it’s really done.
The sweeping introduction to “Glamour”—rolling toms, far away guitar feedback, Jeffrey Runnings repeating in his febrile and guileless voice, “You can only get so far with your je ne sais quoi”—leads into in a more conventionally rock chorus, which shows off one of the most distinctive aspects of For Against: Runnings’ lyrics. He’s not as bad as, say, Paul Banks (who certainly sounds like a For Against fan), but when you’re rhyming “bloodstream/icecream/daydream” in the chorus to the first song you’ve clearly got, uh, a “dictinctive voice.” When, on the lovely and restrained “Why Are You So Angry?”, Runnings moves from talking about spirits haunting you to make clear he’s talking about “spirits that are distilled” (that phrasing!), you wince a little. It’s the combination of dark reserve and occasional heartfelt gaucheness that makes For Against loveable rather than just admirable. Runnings, like Bernard Sumner, is determined to get his point across and doesn’t care if you think he sounds a bit dorky sometimes when he does it.
This might be disastrous if Runnings’ bass playing and the rest of the band didn’t back him up. Original guitarist Harry Dingman III (gone since 1988) returned to the band, after Steven Hinrichs left in 2002, and if the churning middle sections of “Glamour” alone don’t prove he’s only improved in the interim his howling, cataclysmic work near the end of the piano led “Game Over” make you glad he’s back. With long time drummer Paul Engelhard, this is arguably the best lineup of For Against (whose only constant member since inception has been Runnings) and one we’ve never had the chance to hear before. It’d be nice to have Hinrichs back again but with Dingman the band are making some of the densest, heaviest music of their career and it’s a good fit with both Runnings’ lyrics of doubt, betrayal and loss and the band’s lengthy, knotted songs.
Things are never actually fun in For Against’s world (the key lyrical moment here is when Runnings sighs out “what a terrible idea that was” through watery effects on the gently insistent “Spirit Lake”), but they make their icy gloom appealing in a way nobody’s really managed since the Comsat Angels packed it in. It’s good to know they’re out there, getting better with age, staying true to their sound despite geographical isolation and maybe even (we can hope!) tricking some kids into picking up some post-punk the next time they’re looking for Against Me! or Rise Against.
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// Notes from the Road
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