[21 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When a band has been plugging away for more then 20 years, showing enough resolve and resilience to outlast trend after trend in music and emerging with its integrity fully intact, it’s not exactly fair to them for folks to continue to dwell on their early material. In the case of Northern Ireland veterans Therapy?, however, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the impact they had on the nascent alternative metal landscape back in 1993 and 1994, when the trio inexplicably conquered the UK charts, their fourth album Troublegum peaking at number five and yielding a whopping five top 30 singles, led by the brilliant “Screamager”, which hit number nine. These days such astounding success in the UK pop realm by such a band is near impossible to fathom, as the country hasn’t exactly led the way as far as heavy rock goes lately, but for a fleeting moment, Therapy? was not only as cutting edge as they come, but had also captured the attention of fickle mainstream audiences. An ingenious blend of the massive industrial metal riffing of Godflesh, the primal, punishing rhythm section of Killing Joke, and some of the best rock ‘n’ roll hooks since the Buzzcocks’ prime, Therapy?‘s idiosyncratic but undeniably contagious sound on Troublegum was as imaginative as it was ferocious.
Fast forward some fifteen or sixteen years, and guitarist/vocalist Andy Cairns and bassist Michael McKeegan are still at it, and while they’ve since been unable to match the commercial success or critical acclaim of that one breakthrough album, that hasn’t stopped them from churning out the tunes, and their tenth album dutifully offers fans more of what they’ve come to expect. And although the overall power of the churning riffs, deliciously distorted bass, and the lithe beats is emphasized a lot more than the incessant hooks that permeated such nuggets as “Nowhere” and “Die Laughing”, this is still for the most part the same old Therapy?, unrelenting and direct, yet exhibiting the band’s trademark discipline and knack for melody, the majority of the tracks never much longer than four minutes in length. And for a while, anyway, these old geezers sound pretty damned inspired.
In fact, Crooked Timber gets off to a roaring start thanks to a trio of songs that immediately assert that Therapy? hasn’t lost a step at all. With McKeegan’s thrumming bass and Cairns’s discordant riff settling into a tetchy, lurching groove, “The Head That Tried to Strangle Itself” sounds as psychotic as the title indicates. The gut-rumbling, teeth-rattling riffs of “Enjoy the Struggle” might unapologetically hearken back to the heyday of early ‘90s alt-metal (it’s impossible not to hear the neck-snapping sounds of Prong on this cut), but it’s absolutely convincing, not to mention wickedly catchy, centered around Cairns’s stupidly simple, down-tuned riff and Neil Cooper’s swinging beats. “Clowns Galore”, meanwhile, is tremendous, McKeegan’s bassline driving the entire track as Cairns contributes swirling, atonal guitar flourishes, and the longer the track goes, the more it starts to resemble Hex Enduction Hour-era the Fall, right down to Cairns’s vocal phrasing, which has a distinct Mark E. Smith timbre to it.
After that, though, the album starts to settle in perhaps a little too comfortably. Instead of the contagious “Enjoy the Struggle”, the more pensive title track is a curious choice as the album’s first single, the song lacking the immediacy of the terrific first three songs, the overall vocal melody too meandering to hook listeners in. Interestingly enough, despite the presence of some good, heavy tracks late in the album (“Bad Excuse for Daylight”, the excellent “I Told You I Was Ill”), they’re overshadowed by a couple of more experimental moments, one that detracts from the overall album, and one that steals the show completely. “Exiles” attempts to delve into more spacious territory, but its cleaner, melodic sections feel a little too forced, a little too indebted to Killing Joke’s Night Time album. “Magic Mountain”, on the other hand, is a huge surprise. Not only does it completely go against what we’ve come to expect from Therapy?, clocking in at a whopping ten minutes, but it turns out to be a gorgeous progressive rock instrumental, fitting neatly between Coheed and Cambria and Joy Division, and not once does it ever feel self-indulgent, the band’s knack for good, simple pop melodies ironically making this epic song all the better. In the end, while Crooked Timber seems to waver between brute force and textured arrangements, it’s a clear indication that Cairns and his mates have plenty of good ideas left, even though their audience is nowhere near the size as it was 15 years ago. Good on them.