Lincoln, Nebraska's For Against was one of those tragically underrated, overlooked bands who deserved more attention back in the late 1980s. Few American bands at the time bridged the gap between early '80s post punk and early '90s dreampop as well as they did, combining the dark-tinged, energetic tones of Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen, with the atmospheric tones of Kitchens of Distinction. The superb 1988 album December remains a minor classic from that time period, but because these guys hailed from Nebraska and not London, and because they weren't signed to an uber-hip record label like 4AD, the band just slipped by, underneath the radar of anyone who didn't happen to listen to college radio. It's a real shame that the success the band deserved didn't come, but remarkably, For Against have proven to be quite a resilient band, slowly but steadily releasing six albums between 1987 and 2002.
The Words on Music label, always the purveyors of quality contemporary American dreampop, are certainly aware of how more people need to be introduced to For Against, releasing the band's most recent album Coalesced in 2002, and now, reissuing their long-lost 1987 debut album Echelons for the first time ever on CD. A collectors' item for years, the original LP versions of Echelons boasted some gorgeous cover art, with each album accompanied by a single sprig of wheat, eventually earning the band and artist Bruce Licher a Grammy nomination for album artwork. There aren't any free samples of prairie cereal crops on the new reissue, but Licher has returned to design the CD artwork, and the end result is a rather stunning, yet modest package.
However, once you've been lured by the artwork, the music is what you're here for, and for the most part, Echelons holds up quite well after all these years. This album is a typical debut for a young band; you hear them feeling their way around, trying to form a distinctive sound by using various sounds of other influential bands. You hear the melodic basslines and propulsive rhythms of Joy Division, the moody, chiming guitars of Echo & the Bunnymen, and for good measure, a touch of the enigmatic, earthy American rock of early R.E.M. Obviously, if you heard this album back in 1987, you probably would have thought it was okay, but sounding like all those other dozens of college rock bands who loved those jangly chords and frenetic 16th-beat hi-hat playing. Today, though, the album has aged rather gracefully, as the more cliched songs are overshadowed by some moments of stark beauty.
"Echelons" is a murky, sinister mood piece that has bassist/keyboardist Jeffrey Runnings crooning ethereally in his smooth tenor voice, "Someone somewhere waits for me," as Greg Hill's nimble drum beats carry the song from a dirge-like pace to a more uptempo, ominous conclusion, Harry Dingman's guitar chords crashing away at the end. The fiery "Autocrat" fits in very well with today's post punk revivalists, such as Interpol and controller.controller, Runnings's bassline and Hill's insistent beat carrying the song, as Dingman slices through the fluidity with sharp, angular chords that add an unsettling, jittery feel to the tune. "Forget Who You Are" is a hypnotic piece that would remind you of the gothic tones of Bauhaus, if it were not for the deceptive, boyish voice of Runnings, which offsets the dark, keyboard-laden arrangement seductively. It's the album closer "Broke My Back" that's the real stunner here, a majestic, grandiose, seven minute mini-epic where Dingman steps to the forefront, providing plenty of beautiful guitar flourishes that echo around the rhythm section like fireflies at night.
Other tracks such as "Daylight", "It's a Lie", and "Shine" are considerably more obvious in their Joy Division-meets-R.E.M. sound, but Runnings' darkly humorous lyrics keep things from getting dull ("I've had this idea/I've had it for a while/Blow this town to smithereens/Yeah that would make me smile"). For Against stumbles briefly on the tracks "Get On With It" and "Loud and Clear", as both song are too by-the-numbers for their own good, but aside from those mis-steps, Echelons is a fine debut, and a must have for anyone interested in the best of American college rock from the 1980s. If you're new to For Against, and happen to like this album, you must immediately seek out the delicate, yet menacing wonder that is December. After that, you'll be wondering why nobody told you about this band sooner.