Throbbing Gristle: The Taste of TG

[1 July 2004]

By Stefan Braidwood

In many ways, I’m the perfect person to review this “taste” of a band who’ve been cited as influences by everyone from the Future Sound of London to Nine Inch Nails, as I’ve been hearing good things about them for some time but could never quite get over my distaste at their name. From the off, however, things took a slight dip for TG: not only is the cover art garishly hideous, like a fetishistic take on The Passion of the Christ whilst the photographer was on LSD, but the CD refused to play on—and indeed crashed—my computer, causing me to spend long enough swearing at the bloody machine for my pizza to acquire a fashionable shade of black in the oven downstairs. My mood was not improved by the impression that TG would probably find this amusing.

This collection of tracks spans seven different albums’ worth of material by the important collective, including several live tracks, but chronologic jumbling along with TG’s tendency to record their music live, performance-art style, mean that there is no real sign of progression; rather they seem to have stayed true to their brooding atmospherics, simple yet infectious grooves, mordant humour and vocals (either spoken or screamed but never really sung), whilst exploring them in different ways over time.

On “Dead on Arrival” warped piano flourishes roll in and out, something distorted echoes wetly, and a noise somewhere between a punctured balloon and a paper comb played at the top of one’s lungs roars and squeaks whilst the track’s percussion plods steadily on in the background, welded to a nonchalant bassline. “Hot on the Heels of Love” instantly calls to mind Kraftwerk, but then TG bring in seductive female whispering, a seesawing slice of vocoder and the delicate tones of what might be a treated glockenspiel, whilst slightly discordant noises and electronic stabs aid and abet on the fringes, adding to the wandering collage. In general, the music doesn’t so much develop as expand slightly over the frameworks of steady grooves, unsettling little sonic tweaks and additions leaking through onto the tracks before they end, usually abruptly.

“We Hate You (Little Girls)” and “Cabaret Voltaire” are the terrifying but unmistakable sound of Digital Hardcore being born, wild, enraged screaming echoing shockingly out of electronic sludge, distortion and bleeping. Aphex Twin was also undoubtedly listening during that period of his that would birth those accompanying nightmarish videos. Of course, “Cabaret Voltaire” was taken as a name by another influential group who would play an excellent contortion of rhythms and grooves around two decades before a washed-out “electroclash” would become a trendy scene that focused more on attitude than the music itself. But that disgruntled story will have to wait for a different retrospective, should they ever get their dues.

“Exotic Functions” tones down the yowling a little and introduces an Asian slant, with small variations on simple melodic patterns getting picked up and carried forwards by the suddenly accelerating track, whilst “Zyklon B Zombie” takes the dark cries suggested by the title and buries them, distant and distorted, behind driving, hypnotic bass guitar and something that resembles an out-of-control laser gun from a bad ‘80s sci-fi series (stop me if I’m getting tautological), resulting in a deep track that bizarrely calls to mind African tribal chanting. “Walkabout” dilates pleasantly over tilting keyboards but doesn’t really go anywhere, “Hamburger Lady” is little more than four minutes of shredded, incomprehensible monologue over the droning of sampled passing traffic, whilst the closing “His Arm Was Her Leg” starts out with the vocalist dedicating the track to the city he was born in (Manchester, in whose legendary The Factory this song was recorded live in 1979), sounding sad and alone, before massive waves of bass, synth, and percussion writhe in, pulsing and wrestling as they bury him. Clearly, this an evocation of the intimidating underbelly of a city that would prove to be so influential in dance music’s history, whether dark or joyous.

Judging by the tracks on offer here, Throbbing Gristle made music that was as significant as it is intentionally eerie, unnerving, and innovative. Rather than cause everyone at their shows to start a band, like the Velvet Underground or Uncle Tupelo, they seem to have reached their tendrils far and wide through the realms of electronic music, quietly easing open cracks for the darker subconsious to seep in through, infecting artists world-wide. For all that, their quieter moments hide some music of beautiful fragility, though I have to say that I found my taste of TG to be daunting and impressive rather than enthusiasm-inducing. Whilst their significance should definitely be acknowledged, the average listener will probably decide that their descendants are much more appealing; that some things born in the shadows can remain there.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/throbbinggristle-taste/