“Animal Liberation” Compilation (1987)

Quick disclaimer – I’m not making any kind of political statement in posting about this record, which was a partnership between PETA and Wax Trax! Records. I bought it because I like some of the artists who contributed – Chris & Cosey, Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Nina Hagen, and Shriekback in particular. You have to admit, the lineup is pretty solid.

While contemporary articles indicate that most of the songs were written specifically for Animal Liberation, many were included by the artists on studio releases or singles prior to 1987. It makes sense that indeed they were written for this comp, which makes sense given that all thematically touch on animal rights, but clearly they weren’t intended only for this record. Others used their song sometime after 1987 – Chris & Cosey’s “Silent Cry” wasn’t put out by the duo until 1990 and Luc Van Acker included “Hunter” on an album in 1992. As near as I can tell the one track that is unique to Animal Liberation is Shriekback’s “Hanging Fire”. Note too that the UK version of the album includes some different tracks, removing Captain Sensible and adding The Smiths and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The collection of bands is interesting, covering indie rock, new wave, electro, and industrial. While sonically enjoyable, I find that I can’t quite detach myself from the lyrics sufficiently to get into it. Again, this is in no way a comment on the message itself, but more recognizing that it’s a bit of a distraction when it comes to just trying to sit down and play a record. Oh, and the lyric insert contains a pretty gory full color photo of a dog used for animal experiments, so don’t say I didn’t warn you about that.

Shriekback – “Knowledge, Power, Truth and Sex” (1984)

I’m not quite sure how to classify Shriekback’s 1984 release Knowledge, Power, Truth and Sex. With six songs it feels too long to be an EP, too short to be an album. I guess it doesn’t really matter, since the only important thing is the music, right?

Knowledge, Power, Truth and Sex is an interesting mix of songs. Some of it, like “Mercy Dasy,” is pretty standard pop fare. But then we get things like “Achtung” with it’s funky bass and it’s brief transition mid-song into a rap number before coming back to the funk, and that’s followed by the dreamy duet of “Hubris”. And that’s just side A. The B side is a bit more stylistically consistent with some beat-driven jams suitable for the dance floor, a touch IDM-like and solid from start to finish.

Shriekback – “Tench” (1982)

Tench was the first album by the UK’s Shriekback, a six-song record that falls into the gray area between being an EP or a LP. I first stumbled onto the band due to its inclusion in the brilliant Sherwood at the Controls, Vol. 1: 1979-1984 that came out last year, and a few nights after hearing them for the first time ran across copies of a couple of their albums at a record store in, of all places, Oklahoma City. I’ve kept my eyes peeled ever since for any more of their early stuff, so I was quite pleased when I found Tench in the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba Music the other day. It was a no-brainer.

These songs are a bit of trip even without the Adrian Sherwood treatment. “Sexthinkone” is probably the most well known song on Tench, with it’s funky bass line and deep, melancholy vocals, but for my money I prefer songs like “All the Greek Boys (Do the Handwalk),” which is like some kind of post-punkish, slowed down Pet Shop Boys tune, all moody and echoey and dark. The pace picks up a bit with the B side opener “Accretions” (♠) with it’s dance-floor-ready bass, and the bass line stays funky as hell on the more restrained “Mothloop.” It wraps up with the odd “Here Comes My Hand-Clap” which feels more like a concept for a song as opposed to a completed work, but there it is, leaving you wondering.

(♠) Note that the track order is different depending on which version of this record you have. The US and French versions have the sides flip-flopped compared to the UK and Dutch releases, so what is side A on the UK release is side B on the US.

Shriekback – “Oil and Gold” and “Big Night Music” (1985 & 1986)

I got turned onto Shriekback while sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City listening to the comp Sherwood at the Controls Volume 1: 1979-1984. Their funkiness hit me right between the eyes and I made a mental note to be on the lookout for their stuff. And it was only a few days later while digging in the New Arrivals section at Guestroom Records in Oklahoma City (work travel is glamorous…) that I came across a copy of their 1985 record Oil and Water. Serendipity. Then a little further into the bin I found 1986s Big Night Music. Winning.

My entire opinion of Shriekback was based on the sound of one song, “Mistah Linn He Dead,” so at least a minimal amount of research was in order. Two of the band’s founding members were keyboardist/singer Barry Andrews (formerly of XTC) and bassist Dave Allen (formerly of Gang of Four), so already it was obvious that they had some legit musical chops. It also explained that crazy, funky-ass bass that hit me right after the needle drop on Oil and Gold‘s “Malaria,” a funk-fest that was sort of a blend of Depeche Mode and Oingo Boingo. The album is a very danceable brand of post punk, a bit dark and with a wandering bass, but with a generally uptempo pace, the major notable exceptions being “This Big Hush” and “Faded Flowers” with their slow, rich flows. The other high point, in addition to “Malaria,” is the almost militaristic march of “Hammerheads,” an aggressive, driving number that will make you want to get out of your chair and stomp around the room.

Big Night Music picks up right where Oil and Gold left off, with he very post punkish “Black Light Trap,” before taking more mainstream turn with the typically new wave “Gunning for the Buddha.” This isn’t a major stylistic leap from its predecessor, but it definitely sounds like a band evolving into a different direction, a bit more poppy, a bit less danceable. Actually it might even be headed a bit toward the dreaded “adult contemporary” territory. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s still a decent record and the musical talent of the ensemble is obvious. This was the last record to feature Allen on bass as he departed to work on other projects, though he did make a return appearance on 2003s Having a Moment.

Based on these two records, I think if I pick up more Shriekback it will be the older material – their more post punk songs are the ones that appeal to me more.

“Sherwood at the Controls” Compilation (2015)

My first exposure to the On-U Sound record label was purely accidental. I’d heard that KEXP’s DJ Masa had sold a considerable chunk of his record collection to Silver Platters, and that the local Seattle-area indie music store was setting up a special section featuring his vinyl at their downtown location. I swear I looked through every record in the surprisingly large section, one that probably measured a good 30+ feel of shelf space… and I doubt I recognized more than 10 bands/artists in the whole thing.

After considerable use of my cell phone, though, I picked out enough stuff to walk to the front counter with a stack of maybe 12-15 records. Eddie was working the counter that day, though I didn’t really know him yet at the time, and he looked at me with a smile and said, “I love that On-U Sound.” I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, not even realizing that the half dozen or so 12″ records in my pile by Gary Clail, Tackhead, and Barmy Army were all on the On-U label. I laugh when I think about that now.

I was at that same branch of Silver Platters a few weeks back when I ran across the newly released Sherwood at the Controls, a two-record compilation of Adrian Sherwood-produced tracks from the early 1980s, which is relevant to my story because Sherwood was the founder of On-U Sound and a member of Tackhead. Despite the fact that I only recognized a pair of the performers spread over the 14 tracks (The Slits and The Fall), buying it was an easy choice.

So tonight I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Kansas City, with a belly full of BBQ and an overwhelming desire to avoid checking my work email, which as it turns out is the perfect time to put in the earbuds and listen to Sherwood at the Controls. I’ve actually been playing the download of the album (the vinyl comes with a download card) quite a bit over the last few weeks, but this is the first time I’ve done so with earbuds – and it makes a tremendous difference. Sherwood’s production style from this period (and, frankly, later periods as well) is heavily influenced by dub, using lots of effects and reverb to change post-punk and new wave songs into something wholly different and alien-sounding, something jungle with it’s emphasis on bass and percussion and trippy with it’s post-production. Right from the opening horn, that gives way to some funky-ass bass at the start of Medium Medium’s “Hungry, So Angry,” you know you’re in for a bizarre experience. From the echoed percussion of Maximum Joy’s “Let It Take You There” to the Nina-Hagen-meets-dj-flugvel of Nadjma’s “Some Day My Caliph Will Come” (I absolutely postiive MUST track down the album this came from, 1984s Rapture In Baghdad), it’s like musical ping pong being played inside your skull. And I love it.

One of the album’s high points comes about half way through, with the instrumetnal “Mistah Linn He Dead” by Shriekback, an early techno-dub track that still sounds fresh today over 30 years after it was recorded. And that’s followed by a reggae-funk dub song by Voice of Authority, “Running (Feeling Wild),” the most traditional dub number on the comp. Things take a heavy, heavy turn for the downright strange by song #10, “Third Gear Kills” by Annie Anxiety aka Little Annie, which reminds me a little of The Doors’ “The End” in terms of its nuttiness, and Annie sings more than a little like Jim with her husky voice. The last four songs all more closely resemble traditional reggae dub as opposed to the post-punk and new wave influences of the earlier ones, a perfect way bring Sherwood at the Controls to a close

Adrian Sherwood’s production style resonates with me, as do the types of bands and artists he chose to work with. I need to start paying a bit more attention to these types of labels that have a unique sound, and I’m definitely going to start looking for more On-U titles.