Across their years together, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton produced a relatively concise video accompaniment to their music and art, all on equally compact indie budgets. While the result forms an enjoyable “Greatest Hits of Arab Strap” selection, it’s more than that. The group developed a talent for allowing the visuals to exist alongside and in sympathy with the songs, rather than being slaved to the concerns of the lyrics or the movement of the music. The result is that it’s possible to watch these videos as short vignettes capturing an incident or concern, not just as illustrations of the songs.
As a sidebar, this was going to be a neat 10 videos… But then Arab Strap released a brand new video “Here Comes Comus!” just days ago — perfect timing. Viewing in combination with our piece on the artwork of Arab Strap, one will likely see themes repeated here.
Here Comes Comus! (2021)
It’s either a mark of changing times or a joke aimed at corporate nannying, that this video starts with a warning. “Here Comes Comus!” is a modern take on a 1634 masque by John Milton. It dwells on the contest between enlightened self-control versus slavery to base urges, a struggle the video presents in a brutal fashion.
A man accepts a leash and is led through an array of violent and abasing delinquent kicks. He’s so much under control that he’s chauffeured through the final sequence. The video rewards repeat viewing given its numerous detailed touches. Distant elements move closer, foreshadowing likely fate as the character spirals. A cross reflects in the light of a puddle as an ambulance passes the end of an alleyway. At the film’s mid-point they become a giant neon red cross symbolically barring entry to an ambulance station. At the film’s end, they return as flashing lights attending an accident.
Similarly, the face of an early victim is glimpsed but then only seen in trickling bloodied close-ups that dehumanize him completely. Later, two further victims are made to strip but also to cover their faces making them fleshy, yet impersonal.
Compersion Pt.1 (2020)
The most artful video created for Arab Strap, “Compersion Pt.1” plays out as animations of merging human forms with detail slopping in and out of bodily features. A framing at left and right lends a certain disorientation by recoloring or moving separately to the core images.
There’s a joke at work in the tag “(Censored Version)” in the video title given not a word of the song is retracted. Instead, it’s a pointed comment purely focused on the visuals themselves. The animation work smoothly morphs and twists in ways that are distinctly sensuous. The trick, however, is that we actually see nothing other than kisses and stroking hands, that’s all. The impression of carnality is entirely within our own minds, the site of most erotic experiences.
Incidentally this might be the only time ‘villanelle’ has been used in a pop song, I’d be willing to take that as a bet.
The Turning of Our Bones (2020)
Inaugurating the return of Arab Strap, the band play on the theme of the dead resurrected. In the hands of the Forest of Black creative agency, the video is a feast of pre-CGI-era old-school horror footage of graves, zombies, dead rising, and blood-soaked bodies. It’s not uncommon, in the visual lexicon of Arab Strap, to cherrypick from bygone eras of cinema. This trait imbues art with a certain timelessness as elements float free of their original position in narrative time.
Visually, it’s pornography of bodies reduced beyond base flesh to internal organs with an autopsy dissection sequence repeating throughout the video. In a further nod to the band’s past visual references there are two specific interludes where female nudity and display are knowingly, or unknowingly, observed by undead witnesses.
A montage of footage from the film A Woman in Winter and directorial choices ensure that this never ends up looking like a bland film trailer. Instead what we see is an appropriately dark set of visuals matched to one of Arab Strap’s most energetic tracks.
There are three particularly impactful sequences. In the first, the female protagonist is captured in near-still shots that contrast starkly with the hail of sound descending all around. Next, a bedroom scene is chopped into a staccato series of micro-second-long moments that make each half-glimpsed human movement stutter and malfunction. The finale is similarly awesome with fireworks sucked back into the sky to impersonate the vast curves of distant galaxies.
Incidentally, a read of the film synopsis at the British Film Council’s website provides the quote “What happens to a relationship when love becomes an obsession?” No wonder Arab Strap wound up connected to this.
Dream Sequence (2005)
What’s impressive is that the video treatment for “Dream Sequence” is the only time Arab Strap came close to a traditional ‘live performance’ default video format. They still couldn’t bring themselves to be so ordinary.
Prioritizing easily overlooked detail above the grand scale wide-lens action more egotistical bands dwell on, the film plays out in extreme close up. The result is that it pulls attention away from the musicians and directs it toward their instruments. Middleton and Moffat also refuse ordinary popstar ‘all eyes on me’ portraiture. The video uses Arab Strap’s regular aesthetic of lopping off images in strange places or at odd angles.
Emphasizing the unreal aspect of proceedings, a loop of piano footage bookends the video, while stark shots of a female face — another common Arab Strapism — slide in and out of the video, in and out of the shadow, seemingly from reality into a dream.