[14 April 2011]
If Pete Frame drew a family tree of this experimental band, founded in 1971 in Germany, he’d face a challenge. The newest release comes with a respectable pedigree, including founders Jean-Hervé Péron on bass and Zappi Diermaier on drums, joined by Gallon Drunk guitarist James Johnston and vocalist-keyboardist Geraldine Swayne. The original band, which lasted officially until 1975, reformed in the early 1990s. It now has another wing, performing and recording under the same name. Despite or because of the complicated lineup and intricate changes, this trans-European quartet sounds impressively fresh and entertainingly bold. If Public Image Ltd. could have (should have?) continued with their own early innovations, inspired by Faust, then post-punk, combined with krautrock, Can’s tribalism, Velvet Underground-influenced noise collages, and Patti Smith’s free-form poetic jags would resemble this resurrected ensemble.
This is the fourth record from the Péron-Diermaier wing, as the band reinvented itself as a new group in 2004. They play with the fury of punks, the depth of post-punk, and with the imagination of psychedelia. Something Dirty roams over the terrain of the past 45 years, rooted in the mid-1960s avant-garde, the late 1960s/early 1970s progressive and acid-rock movements, and the reactions of punk and its aftermath. Each track feels organic, so each remains distinctive, providing a rich range of moods.
The rousingly titled “Tell the Bitch to Go Home” opens with a homage to Peter Hook’s descending bassline from Joy Division’s “Shadowplay”. This anchors a danceable propulsive krautrock tune that like the best of that genre I wished would never end. “Herbstimmung”, as its name implies, feels more pastoral in the manner of compatriots Popol Vuh, yet stays edgy, as it adds a disturbing buzz. The title track completes a strong introduction based in assertive songs, with chiming guitars recalling New York’s Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. Yet, it adds Diermaier’s tribal drumming to drive the clanging chords with a brutal beat as French male vocals chatter and mutter. Voices enter on “Thoughts of the Dead”, as its spooky, spectral vibrations hang amidst spoken word fragments.
This sense of articulated, yet half-cloaked messages lingers with “Lost the Signal”, which dives into a shadowy swirl of stuttering guitars, and hesitant, disjointed keyboards. Swayne’s squawking, restless voices combine with Johnston’s guitar. They wander where John Cale and Nico once lurked.
Three short tunes keep you guessing. This band rarely hints at when a song may end, as these glimpses open darker corridors. “Je Bouffe” wakes up the dead with a punkish yell full of French spatter, and its squalling assault accompanies a demented waltz. “Whet” does just that with a bit of gothic dub. Its distorted feedback continues into “Invisible Meeting”. This may be a sexier song, depending on your preference for a nightmarish delivery of Swayne’s whispers, miked very close for maximum effect. She ends an impatient litany with a sigh and “Are you OK?” which may be a sign of surrender or dominance.
The ghosts of PiL return with crashing guitars of “Dampfauslass 1” and of “Dampfauslass 2”: the first reminds me of PiL’s “Four Enclosed Walls” with its pummeling rhythm section; the second sustains this jittery sensation with droning slashes of guitar dumped over a martial beat. “Pythagoras” searches for its own pulse, with shards of sound collapsing into angry guitar, again over a basic, annoyed drum roll.
“Save the Last One” offers only a snippet of violin recalling traditional French folk, but “Le Sole Dorée” extends the Francophone connection into a melodic buildup that begins with Swayne’s chants and then builds up into an breathy, passionate, erotic burst of “Go, go, if you go like this let you go”. This plays well as a spinoff of bands earlier energized by Faust and krautrock, such as Moonshake and Quickspace. It concludes this strong, inventive, and unpredictably diverse album as it began, with a wave of insistent mechanical clatter that shelters remote revelations and exposes a restless heart.