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Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

Photo: Courtesy of XO Publicity

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

This Heat
This Heat

Independent

21 August 2020

This Heat, the innovative trio of Charles Bullen, Charles Hayward, and Gareth Williams, were not short of humor. Naming themselves after a 1976 UK heatwave, they chose a former cold storage room as their studio rehearsal space. Their records harnessed inspirations of the moment while slipping deftly into the gaps between genres and labels. They also left surprisingly little studio documentation for a band that was in existence for the best part of six years: two albums and one EP, a relatively limited selection of posthumous additions including a live disc, radio sessions, and a slim EP of rarities. It's as good a time as any to rediscover – or make first contact – with one of rock history's most significant and influential bands. Their recordings were released on digital formats for the first time late this summer.

This Heat's self-titled debut is less an album, more a compilation documenting and memorializing two-and-a-half years of activity – in various locations – between early 1976 and the autumn of 1978. It is reminiscent of some of Can's posthumous compilations, or a more tightly edited and organized Methodology '74/'78: The Attic Tapes – the Cabaret Voltaire box-set where they showcased the building blocks of their later sound. While often seen in the light of punk or as the connective tissue between punk and Krautrock, This Heat also shared significant territory with the industrial scene's early innovators.

For a start, This Heat's approach to the LP evinces more than a passing familiarity with the 'cut-up' methodology, evangelized by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and a substantial influence on industrial fellow travelers. The album starts (and ends) with "Testcard", which is reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle's "IBM" composition: the former a brief sample of electronic spluttering, the latter documenting the internal clatter of an early computer. The album works through a series of sonic or thematic couplets – the most prominent being "Testcard" and "Horizontal Hold"; "Not Waving" and "Water"; "Rainforest", and "The Fall of Saigon" – rather than a clear front-to-back progression. It's no accident that the album's initial two songs and final two songs connect: television as technical content, as physical engagement, as a visceral connection to the ignominious finale of the world's then-most-televised war.

After the relatively low volume level of the opener, it's quite a jolt to be hit with "Horizontal Hold". Early televisions often required manual adjustment as the picture's clarity would disintegrate, or the image would roll and flicker – the horizontal hold is one of the controls that allowed a viewer some small remedy. The song mimics this: at first, a chunky guitar riff and slave-ship drum pattern grind and churn, then they halt, with a strangled guitar scratch and keyboard hum taking over. Again and again, the track makes these cuts and shifts, throwing you off balance, grappling for control, then losing it once more.

"Not Waving" takes its theme from a Stevie Smith poem published in 1957 and is sung with a chilling blend of surrender and discomfort: it's essentially a diary entry narrated by a drowning man. "Twilight Furniture" is the record's other vocal highlight but folds in the domestic and the political with its Burroughsian metaphors of the interchangeability of words and war ("typewriters aimed and loaded, fountain pen and a .35"), the interweaving of man and machine ("shuttered eye, metal eye"), and of omnipresent domesticated control. Instrumentally it is dominated by percussion, a continually simmering patter pierced by sparse guitar chords fired aloft before falling into the void.

Immediately after "Not Waving", and given its title, one might expect "Water" to continue in the vein of obvious watery sonics. Instead, it's a far more imaginative and less literal endeavor. Various timbres of metal chime until Hayward's tumbling drums build to continuous roiling. Then everything drowns beneath a fanfare that might be bowed or scraped metals or might be electronic. "24 Track Loop" – paired with "Twilight Furniture" in its focus on percussion – builds from doomy clockwork, then focuses on an upbeat hi-hat heavy drum rhythm spiked by matching electronic tones that bounce away from the original. The 'real' and the 'artificial' dance around one another, providing interest.

"Diet of Worms" is perhaps the harshest piece on the record: a series of high-pitched tones with an underpinning series of organic slides provided by breath or hand, it's as deathly as its title might suggest. If someone had played this to me and said it was another installment of Throbbing Gristle's 'Maggot Death' compositions, I would have been readily taken in. The piece runs directly into "Music Like Escaping Gas", which lurks in the same ugly terrain, alluding to its title as a burr of electronic bass expands over a lyric that isn't so much sung as it is breathed. The words conjure up a brooding paranoid politics, the use of human tinder to fuel industrial pyres, the skies filling with dangerous chemicals burnt as a tribute to national GDP.

"Rainforest" is a three-minute instrumental tantrum, and its intense shifting textures provide a breath of air and a nod to the lungs of the planet. It runs right into "The Fall of Saigon", where the band cleverly evade cliched audio orientalism by pointing to the way popular impressions of the Far East were shaped by entirely western forces. Gongs circling, double taps on wooden blocks, the continuous clang of steel, and a surreal quavering chant – the song could readily soundtrack the dénouement of Apocalypse Now. That isn't spoilt at all when the piece is suddenly ripped by an anti-solo that mocks the 1970s primacy of lead vocal/lead guitar. In a brilliant reveal, the guitar reaches such a pitch it suddenly merges with, maybe becomes the source of "Testcard".

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