In the same way that Live December 2004 gave hope that Throbbing Gristle would do justice to their reputation in the live arena, the TG Now EP of 2004 offered significant reasons to believe the band could break valid new ground in the studio too. Now tagged onto the reissue of the Part Two: The Endless Not, TG Now was an appetizing return from a band that had toyed significantly with the idea of what an artistically valid record release might be. Was it the ongoing intellectual and visual concept of the “Annual Report”; the release of an album consisting of multiple alternate live takes of songs entitled “Slug Bait” and “Maggot Death”; the documenting of every live show; the inclusion of field recordings (computer noise, answer machine death threats, the band’s most successful single played with the fast forward button held down) and solo tracks by each band member to break up flow; the release of an unexpurgated live studio session; or the self-bootlegging of studio cast-offs.
The EP’s opening statement, “X-Ray”, squeezes time like a concertina. Three decades of music are compressed within its subtle instrumental confines. First, it plugs directly into the medical textures present on 1981’s Journey Through a Body — Throbbing Gristle’s final studio recording. Second, there’s a strong echo of the whomp of Aphex Twin‘s 1992 banger “Didgeridoo”. Third, there’s the post-millennium crispness and precision associated with various strains of modern techno. The pummeling beat at the center of the track drives through a thicket of cricketing and chirruping electronic phrases.
“X-Ray” segues directly into “Splitting Sky”, an intense mood piece in which several layers of detail weep and shiver over a circling rhythm that sounds more akin to suction than it does to bass. That’s before disintegrating completely into the tactile sound of struck matter and a grind of data processing. P-Orridge’s voice hovers in that terrain where it is as much an instrumental texture as it is a vocal performance. H/er capabilities as a vocalist have always been overlooked, the talent for conjuring mood through the thoughtful selection of a striking and atypical approach to delivery. Here, s/he intones a series of cracked and disjointed images with the desiccated throatiness of black metal, through effects that make h/er sound like a loquacious corpse testifying to years spent dreaming beneath six foot of hard-packed earth.
There was legitimate doubt whether Throbbing Gristle could return, after the innovations they had helped pilot in the 1970s had been twisted into numerous distinct genres, and still offer something original that wasn’t merely derivative of what the band had once been. “Almost Like This” was a triumphant rejoinder. The EP’s centerpiece, it represents a dramatic blossoming of the tongue-in-cheek promise of 1979’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats. P-Orridge is reincarnated as a gorgeously weathered industrial chanteuse offering up the performance of h/er life, working every idiosyncrasy of h/er voice to realize a result that is lovelorn, sickly, and beautiful.
The song hits the bullseye on Throbbing Gristle’s sweet spot, offering up eerie detail such as “you fit me like a shrunken glove”, where something tender meets something fetid and fixational. Musically, the matchbox shake of a drum machine has the relentlessness of Coil’s Hellraiser soundtrack work, while the xylophone chimes and sluggish bass bring it right into the final Black Antlers-era of that band. There’s even a section where amp noise calls Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” to mind before improvisational strokes of guitar rip, bleat, and sputter across the track. There’s lurking potential for the song to cut loose into noisy terrain, but the choke-chain is gripped tight until a sliver of release is permitted in the final minute.
Each song on the EP up to this point sounds like the identity of one, or maybe two, band members were dominant. The closer, “How Do You Deal?” is the most fully realized collaboration between the reunited members of Throbbing Gristle. It feels like a near-live manifestation of their sound with a wealth of detail built around a stalking bass riff. Ping-pong clicks ricochet back-and-forth. Guitar strings are mangled, throttled and scratched at. Gurgling effects call to mind the non-verbal moments before speech, and stray samples boomerang in and out of range. Everything rises to chaos and then shudders to a close.
From start-to-finish, there’s a sense of restraint at work that makes it feel like you’re trapped in a near pitch-black concrete pen, with a starved and half-crazed dog straining against its leash mere inches from one’s face. Charting a course that subverts lazy expectations, the band refuses the predictable path of aggro-noise as a shortcut back to relevance and attention. It doesn’t, however, mean they had crafted a flawless return. In their original incarnation, Throbbing Gristle mainly worked at pop song lengths in the studio and, while accepting the modern appetite for lengthier musical suites, all four tracks could do with having a third of their runtime lopped off. The problem is twofold. The songs all run at the same stolid and unyielding tempo. Also, each one sets a destination in the first 30 seconds, then unspools without any major kink or twist. It drains a little tension from what is otherwise a very solid addition to the Throbbing Gristle catalog and a powerful first year back among the living.