Since I first discovered the Fall‘s 1982 masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour, the accolades have streamed in, all re-enforcing what I already knew, making one more bit of writing on this record a challenge. Easily among the Fall’s top two releases, and arguably one of the finest slabs of controlled noise of the post-punk era if not the entirety of rock’s increasingly canonized 20th century, the album continues to kick up new dust 40 years on. That there still isn’t a 33⅓ book on it (or any Fall record for that matter) only serves to show the limitations of certain editorial decisions.
There’s a good argument to be made that the Fall only truly gelled after every last original band member had exited save poet, barker, front person, and bellicose dictator Mark E. Smith. By spring 1979, any sense of democracy ended when original guitarist Martin Bramah exited, making room for another lefty, guitarist Craig Scanlon, as well as bassist Steve Hanley, possibly the most underrated practitioner of the electric four-string in history. For 19 years, he provided drive as well as melody and is as responsible for the brilliance of the band’s best music as Smith himself. Marc Riley was initially brought in as a bassist and moved over to guitar and keyboards.
With Smith, this trio of players formed the band’s core for the next three and half years and quickly made some of the Fall’s most ground-breaking music. Beginning with the out-of-tune raggedness of 1979’s Dragnet, the Riley-Scanlon-Hanley team produced four studio and three live LPs, an EP, and a number of singles. As ever, live gigs tended to focus on not-yet-recorded material instead of featuring whatever their new album was at the time. As a result, some of the songs on Hex had been played as early as 1980.
One of the more critical ingredients to Hex was the presence of two drummers. Original percussionist Karl Burns split as soon as the band’s debut was recorded at the end of 1978, only to be replaced by Mike Leigh, who quit less than a year later, making way for Steve Hanley’s 16-year-old brother, Paul. Burns returned for the tour, unable to play US clubs during the band’s 1981 venture into the States due to his age. And while Paul resumed kit duties, by the end of that year, Burns was setting up his drums alongside Paul’s, a configuration that lasted for the next three years.
Before this happened, however, the Fall did a short tour of Iceland, and the country’s moon-like landscape certainly had some sway over the band. Two tracks (without Burns) were recorded there. “Hip Priest”, with its burlesque club, chord-less build-up, is well known, in part due to its use in Jonathan Demme’s film Silence of the Lambs.
Yet, it’s another track, “Iceland”, apparently conjured on the spot, which sounds like little else in the band’s catalogue. It’s an improvisation centered around Scanlon plunking a repeated two-note piano lick, Riley on minimalist banjo plucks, the Hanley brothers ever so subtly commenting on bass and drums, and Smith providing whatever bits of guitar there are to be found. The Fall created something as pretty as it is pensive. Lyrically, it’s clear the island nation and its volcanoes and lava fields made an impression on Smith, as he spouts lines such as “Cast the runes against your own soul / Roll up for the underpants show / And be humbled in Iceland.” It sounds like a band amazed at their ability to bounce off each other and their landscape, as they feel each other as players instead of reacting to a central riff. Except for one aborted attempt, they never touched this song live.
Parts of Hex weren’t recorded in a studio; instead, they were played live on stage in a theater-turned-concert venue called The Regal, a half-hour north of London. The drummers’ kits faced each other as the other three players stood between them, and Smith recorded his vocals from a room upstairs. Part of the reason this record packs such a wallop is due to this environment.
“The Classical” wastes no time setting up a thick, knotted bass rumble as drums ping off each other. Smith wails bruising, repeated insults as guitars crash and churn like metal shredded through a cheese grater. Smith dances over the wreckage, mocking any concept of key or tonality. “I’ve never felt better in my life,” he snarls.
“Jawbone and the Air Rifle” splits the difference between a relentless riff and a truly goofy chorus, as Smith tells the story of a luckless rabbit hunter in a graveyard. Much of Hex is heavy in the truest sense of the word, but not at all like the faceless churn of the final version of the band, who put out workhorse, predictable slogs over the Fall’s final decade. Instead, guitars spin in unison and then splinter into obtuse angles. The keyboards, especially on “Hip Priest”, echo the blips and whooshes John Cale perfected on the Velvets’ “Sister Ray”. The medley of “Fortress/Deer Park” rides a wave of thundering panic, primarily due to Riley’s wavering organ drone.
The ten-minute edit of the much longer “And This Day” is likely the most unhinged assault the Fall committed to wax. Based around a niggling, sinister organ riff from Riley, the drummers seem to dance around their kits as guitar licks move in and out of a witches’ brew of noise. Smith has a tough time getting over the din as he asks, “who are the translators?” In Paul Hanley’s book on the making of Hex, titled Have a Bleedin Guess, he claims, “we were literally making it up as we went along… we kept battering the single riff like our life depended on it.” Scanlon saw the track as “an instrument to pummel the audience with.”
This lack of intuition makes this album and this band at its height so amazing. They didn’t sit around talking theory at the pub. Instead, they likely described guitar chords by explaining where they’d placed their fingers on the neck. But the music was opened up by the process. Note the eight-minute “Winter”. It rides a single note, tamped into place by Steve Hanley and the drummers, while Riley’s keyboard is free to wander, sounding a bit like Jerry Harrison on the first Modern Lovers album. Meanwhile, Scanlon seems to stumble into gorgeous, melodic fragments and Smith delivers lines such as “entrances uncovered, street signs you never saw”. It turns out Smith had Burns and Steve Hanley re-record their parts, which causes them to teeter in and out of tempo with the rest of the performance, something that only enhances the song. “Winter” is the Fall being beautiful, even if the lyrics address a mad child embodied by the spirit of an alcoholic.
According to Smith, he’d intended this to be the band’s last record for what is likely a revolving cast of reasons. Meanwhile, they’d broken away from Rough Trade for a then-unknown upstart UK label, Kamera. When Smith broached the idea of putting together an hour-long single LP, the label said, “go ahead”. Yet, gig details from the time of this record’s March 1982 release show setlists featuring material that would come out on their subsequent two LPs, suggesting they were far from done. But then the Fall always dispensed with the current record by the time it came out. Whatever the case, the band does play as if this might be it, and “And This Day” in particular shows it.
Aside from “Iceland”, the record has a few other experiments, one of which is” Who Makes the Nazis?” a song that started as a riff Smith played on a plastic guitar, which became Steve Hanley’s jittery, harmonic bass throb. The drummers underpin the riff with a pounding kick drum. The song has a build so subtle as to nearly escape notice, as guitars stab like ice picks and a backing voice groans. Meanwhile, Smith compares arguably the most contemptible group of people to have walked this earth to longhorn cattle.
The Fall went on to create a string of incredible records after this one, with Brix Smith eventually taking Marc Riley’s spot and helping to tighten the group’s sound, hurling them as close as they ever got to mainstream success. There’s no question that 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grade is every bit as good as Hex in its own way, and records just before and after it are all incredible too. However, Hex is the one earlier release whose importance Smith has acknowledged many times in interviews, including one I conducted with him in 2004.
Hex Enduction Hour‘s stature as their most relentless statement has only grown over the decades. Yet even before the flood of hindsight-based praise, it’s tough to imagine the Butthole Surfers’ double-drum flailing or the post-hardcore sludge of the Jesus Lizard without Hex Enduction Hour’s barbed wire throb. There’s certainly no Fall album that constantly sounds like the group is dissolving and re-integrating so simultaneously. And it’s this ability to not quite coalesce around the riffs they create that allowed them to skirt between existing categories instead of hardening into them.
There’s nothing heavy in a metallic sense here, nor could they be considered rigidly punk. One hears the Velvet Underground here and there, and Can’s attention to pulse may have shadowed them. However, more than anything, Hex dismisses the notion that the Fall were merely Smith’s hires at any given time instead of a band unconsciously creating new foundations for hundreds of other groups to pursue.