You know that a rarities collection is digging deep when the most famous band featured is the Virgin Prunes.
Nostalgia is a strange beast, especially when felt most keenly for a time and place that one has never really known. A distinct desire to walk the streets of Belfast in 1982 borne of hearing a three-minute piece of music 30 years later is surely not a healthy thing, but any compilation capable of evoking such emotions deserves some sort of credit.
Strange Passion is the year's latest in a string of discs (from various labels) collecting obscure and forgotten '80s music (e.g. Trevor Jackson Presents Metal Dance). Subtitled Explorations in Irish Post Punk and Electronic Music 1980-83, it is also among the more specific — even if, at first listen, nothing stands out as particularly "Irish". There is no Pogues-style incorporation of traditional folk instruments or lyrics addressing the Troubles; nothing here feels particularly heavy with the historical weight of Irish suffering. The only apparent angst is the sort that generally accompanies the obligatory Joy Division influences. Furthermore, the first sounds to register in the listener’s brain are among the collection’s least inspiring: a couple of early ‘80s DIY-type tracks that come across more like the late ‘70s.
But listen more closely. Things get weirder, less predictable, more varied as the disc progresses. One senses how isolation — geographical, cultural, social — feeds into a certain defiance of musical norms, a creative drive toward something not easily classifiable. This is not to suggest that the more unique tracks on Strange Passion could not conceivably have been recorded in London as opposed to Dublin, but rather that Irish national identity asserted itself in their creation, inevitably and by virtue of its own existence. This is why the compilation would be of intrinsic value as a cultural document even if the songs themselves were lacking in interest — which, fortunately, turns out not to be the case; for, to quote Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, “in Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs.”
The Virgin Prunes’ “Twenty Tens (I’ve Been Smoking All Night)” is an unexpected track indeed, equal parts weird and wonderful. Atop an angular but propulsive guitar riff, frantic vocals veer almost uncontrollably across loosely structured verses, sneering in a manner that suggests an even snottier John Lydon. Likewise, Operating Theatre’s “Austrian” is an odd bird of a record — punk-inflected female vocals mirrored by a dissonant keyboard line, followed by more conventionally pretty passages. But the center cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the remainder of the track: the singer doing battle with a male vocalist’s shouted speech, which verges on Damo Suzuki-style gibberish as the woman’s emotions give way to heightened irritation — even as the rhythm section gets unexpectedly dancey (too little, too late, perhaps).
Strange Passion contains post-punk songs that compare favorably with the best of their English counterparts. Oftentimes it’s gloomy (“No Water” finds Peridots in “She’s Lost Control Again” mode), but it doesn’t shy away from more upbeat territory (the happy-sad near-synth-pop of the SM Corporation’s “Fire from Above”), and it ends with an elegant instrumental whose tinkling serenity seems to come from a different universe altogether (Operating Theatre again — “Eighties Rampwalk”). Sound quality is spotty throughout, doubtless a result of contents being culled from original limited-run pressings, but readily excusable given the time-capsule value of the compilation.