It’s very fitting that the reunited duo of Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto have released their new album, Buzzkunst, under the name ShelleyDevoto. After all, that’s the way the pair’s co-writing credits appeared when they first wrote together in the seminal punk band Buzzcocks some 25 years ago. And, while the “kunst” in Buzzkunst is German for “art”, you can’t ignore that it sounds a lot like . . . well, the opposite of “cocks”. So, is this some kind of god-awful punk rock reunion à la the Sex Pistols’ Filthy Lucre Tour, you may rightfully ask? If you’re an avid Buzzcocks fan, you may recall Devoto’s statement upon leaving the group in February 1977, in which he let fly such scathing gems as “I don’t like movements” and “What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat”. Suffice it to say that he’s not the type of fellow who would take a reunion lightly and that, no, ShelleyDevoto doesn’t sound a damn bit like the Buzzcocks, and not very much like Devoto’s post-Buzzcocks bands Magazine and Luxuria.
Instead, Buzzkunst floats in and out of the realms of electronica, techno, industrial, and ambient. This may seem surprising, but keep in mind that Shelley and Devoto met through an electronic music society at school, and both incorporated synthesizers into their post-Buzzcocks recordings. Instead of sounding like they are trying desperately to stay current, then, ShelleyDevoto simply sound like they are revisiting some of their influences and marrying them to harder, more contemporary sounds. Shelley, who continues to write wonderfully lovesick guitar-pop for Buzzcocks, must have had a field day exploring his artier inclinations in the studio again, especially with such a formidable collaborator. Devoto proved himself a brilliant lyricist in the 1980s, and although he abandoned his music career a decade ago, his talents have hardly diminished. Few others could create danceable songs touching on such heady topics as mortality, identity, man’s relationship with nature, and the fruitlessness of creative life, and citing such influences as Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The real shocker, though, is that a number of the tracks on Buzzkunst are instrumentals. “Strain of Bacteria” is like a sonic painting of a barren landscape slowly warming under the first rays of the rising sun; or, to be less poetic about it, the song sounds a lot like those cool Eno-assisted instrumentals on David Bowie’s Low. An avant-jazz saxophone bit by Londoner Harrison Smith punctuates the pseudo-industrial tone of “On Solids”, whereas “God’s Particle” is harder-edged and “Wednesday’s Emotional Setup” practically has pop hooks.
Hopefully, Buzzcocks, Magazine, and Luxuria fans will approach this material with open minds because, while it lacks the visceral punch of those bands’ work, Buzzkunst proves that Shelley and Devoto still have a lot to offer their fans — and each other.