[5 February 2009]
In the rarely seen press pieces with the rarely interviewed post-punk band the Lines included in the liner notes of Flood Bank, Acute Records’ second and last compendium of their material, bandleader Rico Conning goes to lengths to dismiss the singles that preceded their two full length albums Therapy and Ultramarine (the two of which comprise the whole of Flood Bank). “The material was alright, but everything else went wrong. There was no production—it sounded like a demo,” Conning said. While this is a somewhat unfair assessment, it illustrates the confidence that the band had in their new material, and with good reason.
Listened to back-to-back, Flood Bank and 2008’s singles compilation Memory Span comprise a startling evolution, even if the infrequently-touring band only recorded two CDs’ worth of material in six years. The relationship between the wiry garage punk of their debut single “White Night” and the forlorn ambient goth-pop of Ultramarine‘s “Ursa Major”, to take one example, seems to be in name only. Unfortunately, the band’s reckless and relentless pursuit of aggregate sound reformation, which produced a fantastic array of music, had the undesired effect of alienating the bulk of their fanbase every time it seemed to be growing.
In all likeliness, modern ears will be kinder to the Lines. The elaborate post-punk production aesthetics championed on the band’s two full-lengths have floated into the dynamics of today’s music by osmosis, thanks in no small part to the success of the staff on those albums. Though production on Therapy and Ultramarine is credited to the whole band, it’s clear the stars of Flood Bank are bandleader Rico Conning (who went on to produce work by Swans, Wire, Renegade Soundwave, and others) and the two engineers Eric Radcliffe (who would late produce Depeche Mode, Yaz, and the Lines drummer Nick Cash’s concurrent band Fad Gadget) and John Fryer (future member of This Mortal Coil and engineer for just about every 4AD band, Nine Inch Nails, White Zombie, and much more). The confrontational Therapy and the more pensive Ultramarine are studio albums through and through, expertly mixed and intimately constructed long-players that shine bright, even considering the sonic era from which they emerged.
It’s odd, then, that albums so astutely assembled should be de-chronologized track by track to make a cohesive single album, as they are on Flood Bank. The reconfiguration overseen by Conning is a surprising success, making for a far more consistent and delectably expansive listen than Memory Span, and a brilliant alternate history narrative. Its charms are evident by the end of the second track. Opener “Come Home”, which also kicks off Therapy, rides in on a force-sped, tightly wound 60 Minutes tick to which Cash’s drums immediately attach themselves. The urgency of the beat never acquiesces to the whims of the listener as anxiety builds, odd blocks of sax and off-key piano splatter over the persistent bassline, and the interchange between tension and resolution is denied in favor of Reich-ian minimalism akin to Chinese water torture.
This build is complimented perfectly by its adjacent tune, “Stripe”, which commences Ultramarine. “Stripe” is a hot slab of funk bass and vaguely eastern ethereal twang guitars that sounds like A Certain Ratio possessed by the Cure. Its eerie loops collapse the solicitude left by “Come Home” into a hazy aura of mystique that allows the rest of the album to breathe even in its most claustrophobic moments (of which there are a decent amount).
The aforementioned Factory Records stalwarts A Certain Ratio, particularly their Sextet album, are probably the easiest reference to equate with the Lines’s rhythm section, their driving compositional force. But the band transcends mere genre participation by giving over their worldly tribal drumming and dub-funk basslines to oddball synergies. Generally speaking, the weirder the experiments get, the better they are.
Best is a trilogy of songs from deep in the heart of Therapy. They are segregated here for Conning’s purposes, but two of them—“Instincticide” and “Bucket Brigade”—appear side by side to form a powerhouse of krautrock jamming. “Instincticide” exhibits all the discipline and tautness of a proto-math-rock band, complete with a drill whistle to reinforce the track’s military precision. “Bucket Brigade” is its polar opposite, high BPM and fastidiously laid out like “Instincticide”, but oddly disjointed—vocals, bass, drums, and kitchen sink all a half step away from harmony with one another. The trumpets in the bridge cluck like rabid chickens. Mumbly, drunken horns stumble with the audacity of a Contortions cut minus the jagged, assaultive staccato spurts. Wailing voices come from nowhere as if bewildered by the experience. It’s one of those unique moments that shows up frequently, but always unexpectedly in the forward-thinking music of this era. “Disenchanted”, third in the experimental trilogy, is just as propulsive, but sounds infected with insects. It ends the album on a disquieting note.
Elsewhere, the Lines widen their breadth. “The Gate” is cemetery gates gothic, with a spaghetti western-on-dub vibe. The fevered screams, sampled wild Cerberus-dog barking, and blaring horns that haunt the mix create a dense atmosphere that is far more environmentally full-bodied than anything that came out of the Bauhaus or Skinny Puppy camps around the same time period. “Tunnel Party” elicits more screams, but this time it’s ecstatic African chanting in a manic dance music that seems to be the ace the Lines pulled out of their sleeve only once.
And then there’s the slower, balladesque tunes, melodic enough to rival their new wave peers, but often more abstruse. On “No Hiding”, Conning utilizes the peculiar strategy of shouting his sung vocals over a quiet song. Though bellowed, the vocals are taken back to a distance throughout the track, as if he’s hollering them to us down a hallway. In less capable hands, this may have been a charmless gimmick, but Conning unifies his aesthetic perfectly with the pretty chord progressions of the verse in a feat of studio wizardry. “The Landing”, which sounds like the flying saucer pad the title alludes to, uses as its main instrument Slinky Pop Toobs. You know, those bendy plastic tubes you had as a kid that you whirl around your head to make a high pitched noise. Without a kitschy stretch-mark in their stern faces, the Lines somehow wound up making the song one of the best in their career with Slinky Pop Toobs.
The Lines still leave no indication as to why they eventually called it a day, but it’s perhaps to their greater benefit that they quit while they were ahead. A work record this squeaky clean could never hold up, not even for a band as immensely talented as the Lines. Instead, Acute has assembled a very approachable, yet always challenging package of material that spans only two discs, yet contains multitudes.
As a bonus, be sure to download “Respit”, the final track from Ultramarine excluded for time purposes, available for free on Acute’s website along with a few other b-sides. It outdoes Avey Tare almost 25 years in advance by making a backwards-masked song (a remixed version of “Stripe”) that’s actually listenable.