With more lineup changes in over 30 years than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands, everything old is new again with The Saints. Now a pared-down trio, their latest album is brilliantly experimental yet solidly punk.
A band lumped into the same iconic category as the Sex Pistols and the Ramones -- and by Bob Geldof, no less -- carries some pretty heavy weight to their resume. Moreover, of the three influential punk bands, the Saints are the only ones who are still performing.
While the Sex Pistols were the poster boys for the angry, anti-establishment sector of punk, bedecked in spikes and anarchy signs before they became accessibly up for grabs at the mall, the Ramones were the happy-go-lucky outcasts who were yes, anti-establishment, but had no intentions of staging a monarchic or governmental coup. While the Saints shared much more in common with the Ramones, they could be considered their older, wiser, and slightly mopier brother. Not as buoyant as the Ramones, yet nowhere near the angry drunkard status of the Sex Pistols, the Saints' music was somewhere in the middle.
Right out of the gate, EMI (the record label who inspired a rather unflattering Sex Pistols tune) had planned to market the Australian band as a lower-hemisphere version of the Pistols, attempting to dress them in ripped denim and studs. Uncomfortable with the intended and overly stylized image, the Saints did their own thing fashion-wise, preferring to let their music sell the band itself. While in the beginning, the Saints favored a more straight-forward style of punk very reminiscent of possessing elements of the Clash, they later leaned towards new wave and pop with a hint of R&B occasionally rounding out the package.
When you've had as many lineup changes as the Saints, your musical influences are bound to find themselves switching up from time to time. While the Saints are still recording and touring, the band's lineup has changed considerably, with the sole remaining original member singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Bailey as the only common denominator. During their 33-year career, the Saints have seen no less than eight rotations of the turnstile in the band's ever-revolving lineup.
Yet another roster change preceded the recording of Imperious Delirium: In the middle of a world tour, the band's lead guitarist made an abrupt departure. That left Baily and the remaining members, drummer Pete Wilkinson and bassist Caspar Wijnberg, to finish the tour on their own. Following its completion, the now-trio holed up for three weeks and cranked out Imperious Delirium with this new, streamlined incarnation of the band.
What could have proved disastrous, actually worked out rather nicely, with Imperious Delirium standing as Exhibit A testimony to the resiliency of the Saints, who still sound as raw as ever. Baily's voice hasn't changed in almost 30 years, still retaining the discontented ring of youth to it in spite of the band's venerable status as elder statesmen of punk.
The disc kicks off with "Drunk in Babylon", lulling the listener into a false sense of hangover with its gently picked arpeggios before kicking in with growling, hammering punk guitar. The Saints' melodic cacophony closes out the tune and then brings it back full circle, ending on an uncharacteristic calm.
"Drunk in Babylon" is only the first of several musical and thematic dichotomies on Imperious Delirium. The buzzing "Declare War" has Bailey's voice taking on the timbre of the late Jim Morrison (or even the Lizard King's 21st Century replacement, the Cult's Ian Astbury) and holds a message that can be applied to either a dysfunctional relationship or the world's current tumultuous state.
In keeping with the beautiful incongruity, there's the strange and seemingly impossible concept of the punk ballad, as laid out by "The Other Side of the World". With lyrics chock full of melancholy and longing such as "The tyranny of distance / Is a cold mistress / I want to be with you tonight / And as I think, therefore I am," it's as beautiful as an oxymoronic punk ballad can get.
Not to be ignored is the tremendous musicianship of the current incarnation of the Saints. The trio plays around with unexpected countermelodies on "So Close" as a piano plunks out one half and a searing guitar riff pounds out the other. Bailey also accomplishes the rather impressive feat of making his guitar sound almost like a saxophone on the solo and coda of "Getting Away With Murder".
For every leap of brilliance, there are bound to be a few steps backwards. "War of Independence" is overly ambitious, clocking in at five minutes long and sounding like a reject from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Bailey's vocals sound very strained, although, granted, part of the beauty of being a grizzled punk veteran is not having to sound like Andrea Bocelli. Nevertheless, the track comes off as an ill fit, even among the garden of varied and pleasantly thorny roses on the disc.
The Saints' experimentation works very well on the bulk of the album. Tracks like "Learning to Crawl" are highlighted by faint whispers of blues-by-way-of-punk drum work that shines on the song's breakdown, the high hat cymbals crashing and working their way into a beat frenzy. On top of all that is a guitar sound fuzzier than a Muppet, keeping equal pace with the drums and erupting in a dissonant, buzzing blur capped with a literal stroke of brilliance, a perfectly imperfect spur-of-the-moment decision by Bailey to scrape the pick against the strings, hesitating midway and then following through with unbridled fury.
In the midst of all of the experimentation, there are moments like "Drowning" that switch gears to straight-forward, traditional punk, but fits in nicely. With the exception of a few middling tracks, Imperious Delirium resurrects the Saints for a new generation and shows the youngins how it's done.