THE FALL – The Fall Sound Archives Vol 4 – Reformation! Post TLC

Most Fall fans would have put good money on the fourth release of Cherry Red Records’ “Fall Sound Archive” series filling one of the gaps between #2 and #3 with an expanded release of 1980’s ‘Grotesque (After The Gramme)’ or following the excellent ‘Hex’ related box set with a vastly expanded edition of the excellent ‘Perverted By Language’. Few would have predicted things would take such a huge left turn by jumping ahead to an album that kick-started the final phase of the band’s long career. Almost as unpredictable as Mark E. Smith himself, The Fall Sound Archive Vol. 4 takes a massive leap and gives fans a broad look inside the many cogs and workings of 2007’s ‘Reformation Post-TLC’.

2003’s ‘Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country On The Click’ and 2005’s ‘Fall Heads Roll’ included some the very best Fall material since 1993’s ‘The Infotaiment Scan’. With some already strong numbers lifted further by a spirited cover of The Move’s ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ and the incendiary ‘Blindness’ (featuring the best bassline ever), ‘Fall Heads Roll’ would be an especially hard act to follow. Work on a follow up began before everything turned sour on a US tour in 2006, resulting in most of the band being fired/quitting [delete as appropriate].

In some ways, 2007’s ‘Reformation…’ had a lot riding against it. It had nothing to actually prove – The Fall had long been about frontman Mark E. Smith and whomever he wanted in the band that week and the fans would buy the end product, regardless – but there was almost no chance of it sounding like ‘Fall Heads Roll, Part II’, thus destroying the momentum yet again. A new band was quickly assembled and it was this act that inspired the title: “Reformation” referring to The Fall having a rebirth and (in Smith’s own words) “TLC” referring to those ex-members being “traitors, liars and c*nts”. It was certainly destined to be an angry period of productivity, even by MES’s usual standards. There was also every chance that something created in the spur of the moment could be awful, but considering the circumstances in which the new band got literally thrown together and how the sessions were a second stab at a new album, things turned out better than expected. In fact, the first half of ‘Reformation’ is excellent.

The trio of tracks that open the record are as good as anything on the previous few albums.
‘Over! Over!’ is a storming piece of garage rock which, although uncredited, is actually a souped up cover of a 1968 track by The United States of America. In The Fall’s hands, the main riff stays intact, but gets played far more intensively. The fuzz bass on the recording is immense, and with Smith’s signature drawl replacing the original’s light, female hippie-ish vibe, it becomes a tune that’s absolutely loaded with menace. As the first official studio-based insight for the new Fall, it sounds like a statement of intent. Although that sounded great, it’s got nothing on the title track which rivals ‘Blindness’ as the most perfect latter-day Fall workout. Across six minutes, a repetitious bassline churns; guitars throw out piercing notes that sound like The Ventures tuning up and Smith offers many barbed and fractured phrases. The vocal performance doesn’t necessarily resemble his best – by this point, he’s almost a brilliant self-parody – but the way everything locks together presents something close to a perfect snapshot of The Fall’s sneering, grinding machine. The same approach is taken for ‘Fall Sound’, but with the band now playing at speed and Smith trading a drawl for a near unhinged bark, there’s a genuinely fractious feel to the performance. Exciting, certainly. Dangerous, quite possibly. It doesn’t break new ground after ‘Fall Heads Roll’, but it more than allays any fears that the hastily assembled new Fall might not cut it.

Things then take a dip with an ugly and ill judged cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘White Line Fever’ – a drunken country ramble could never compete with the best of ‘Reformation!’ – and the disjointed ‘Insult Song’ which, although probably beloved by some of the band’s most ardent fans, could never be considered easy listening. The tribal drumming and cold, discordant guitar sounds feel like a direct call back to a couple of ‘Hex’s most obtuse moments and in doing so, set up false hope for a classic track. Across a reasonably directionless six minutes, Smith mumbles and growls as if possessed. His rambling tale recalls a time the band members left him in the desert, which might have felt entertaining as it was being captured for posterity, but it’s genuinely unsettling. The vocal sounds like it’s emanating from someone who could turn on you at any given moment and an already unnerving style is made worse by an early appearance of the obtuse growling noises MES would bring to prominance during the recording of 2011’s ‘Ersatz GB’. Recorded in one take, he later claimed the whole thing was improvised on the spot, which would certainly tally with his repeating the phrase “white line fever” as a reference point. At best, it’s the kind of Fall track you’d play twice and then skip. At worst, it could trigger night terrors.

Much better ‘My Door Is Never’ instigates a fabulous, bass heavy groove and its simplistic hook is a welcome reminder of the early 80s Fall. Without trying too hard to shock or surprise, MES lets the music do most of the talking and the results are an easy match for ‘Over! Over!’, before the brief ‘Coach & Horses’ takes a wide sweep into something much closer to an indie-pop jangle. The drums are really sedate and the once grinding bass noises are reduced to a warm but still serviceable sound. It’s down to the guitar to pick up any slack and the decision to channel something that sounds like a cross between The Byrds and The Vaselines certainly gives a welcome melodic contrast to everything that’s gone before. In some ways, it’s so un-Fall-like that it’s hard to imagine where it even came from, or how/why MES thought it would be a good match for his oblique vocal and lyrical style… Whatever, it adds something else enjoyable to the first half of the original LP.

Unfortunately, its second half wanders almost aimlessly, weighed down by almost pointless ambling noise (the ten plus minutes of the listen-twice-and-never-again ‘Das Boat’), the grinding but uneventful ‘Systematic Abuse’ and Poulou’s clanky, demo-like ‘The Wright Stuff’. These three tracks do almost irreparable damage to the original album, but thankfully, the heavy twang of ‘Scenario’ (home to some superb bass playing), the angry post-punk noise of ‘The Bad Stuff’ and sprawling and angry ‘Systematic Abuse’ ensure it’s not a completely front-loaded disc. None of these tracks will necessarily give you any real new insights into The Fall – whatever the line-up – but all resemble solid tunes. The way overdriven guitar riffs collide with Poulou’s repetitive keyboard loops on the latter easily set up something that could become a tour-de-force in the live set. Although it is fairly predictable, it’s also a great deep cut.

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The 2020 “Fall Sound Archives” reissue of ‘Reformation!’ adds two discs of alternate and demo material. Disc two features single edits, alternate versions and a couple of mixes used for the original vinyl edition which provide small variations on the widely circulated “CD mix”. As a whole, this disc presents a slightly different look at the bulk of the album as opposed to being a hugely revelatory archive of treasures. For the keener Fall fan, it’s disc three where the real meat can be found.

A collection of a dozen “rough mixes”, you might expect something of a Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices “recorded on a portable cassette player” quality. However, they aren’t actually that rough. They lack MES for the most part, but audio-wise, The Fall have actually let rougher sounding recordings loose into the world as part of finished studio albums! The packaging and sleeve notes give no indication as to where the recordings originated (at least not beyond a rather prosaic “2006”), but it’s a fair bet to suggest these were the final attempts at recording new material by the ‘Fall Heads Roll’ line up before the well-documented split. The main reason for this assumption is that the ‘RP-TLC’ line-up were barely out of the starting blocks by the time they recorded “the album proper”, but more tellingly, a garage rock instrumental entitled ‘The Boss’ takes pride of place near the front of the selection. ‘The Boss’ was played thirteen times throughout the ‘FHR’ tour – a version from Manchester closes the ‘1976-2007’ box set – but was dumped once the new line-up was in place. It’ll never be the most essential Fall tune, but it’s good to have something approximating a studio recording of it.

Of the other key material, instrumental run throughs of ‘Reformation!’ and ‘Over and Over’ present a band with plenty of fire – the fuzzier bass sounds on both is very welcome – while a vocal and keyboard free, guitar heavy early take of ‘The Right Stuff’ (still sans W) is actually a thousand times better than the thin, uninteresting (semi)tune that ended up in the middle of the completed album. The brilliantly angry ‘Song 2/3’ eventually morphed into ‘The Bad Stuff’ with the addition of a mumbled voice, electronic effects and a much dirtier sound, but here, in its much purer state, it really conveys all the excitement of this line-up. ’60s Wack’ throws out buzzing keyboard noises against a mid-tempo garage rock riff, making it easy to hear where MES’s voice would have pulled everything together, even if it gives no clue as to what his chosen lyric would be. Similarly, ‘Blonde’ works a hard, 60s twang and delivers the kind of mid-tempo groove that would have given Mark free rein to grumble for as long as he fancied.

One of the only tracks from this selection of recordings to feature Smith, ‘Systematic Abuse’ shows that at least one number was near completion before heading off to America in April. Already stretching across eight minutes, this early take is surprising in that the lyrics closely resemble the final album version. The big difference, essentially, comes with the mix. Whereas the album take often sounds muddy, compressed and claustrophobic, the music here has volume, depth and a genuine feeling of tension. Instead of sounding so much like the bulk of The Fall’s output post-millennial output, this shows early signs of something that could have retained the kind of punch heard on 2000’s ‘The Unutterable’ or even 1996’s oft-critiqued ‘Light User Syndrome’. Overall, for the bigger Fall fan, this is all interesting listening – pretty much the highlight of the reissue, considering very little of it appears to have crawled out officially.

All good Fall reissues come with live material representing the era and that remit-ah is filled here by a reissue of the audio from 2009’s ‘Last Night At The Palais’. As a record of the band’s two bass players period, it’s an unnerving listen. The opening rendition of ‘Senior Twilight Stock Replacer’ gives no hint of the chaos that is about to unfold, however, taking the interesting approach of acting like a warm-up. Stripped back to its basic groove, with the band shouting the title repeatedly for a hook, it’s easy to imagine this building tension within the venue, especially since MES appears to be absent. Announcing his presence with the usual bellowed “We are The Fall!” at the track’s end, Smith seems to be at least twelve pints down before the evening has barely begun. His general state of mind comes through more than clearly as the band launch into a really tight take on Pacifying Joint’ which he approaches in an alarmingly casual manner. He yells and slurs – even more so than is typical or expected to the point where the title represents the only audible lyrics.

Crashing into the still brand new ‘Fall Sound’ without a word, MES appears to adjust slightly, occasionally bothering to remember some of the lyrics, but at other times choosing to make weird whirring noises and to shout offensive disability slurs. “It’s a cry for help”, he drawls, somewhere around the halfway mark, as if to critique his own performance – something that could further derail itself at any second. Something that should have been a highlight, ‘Blindness’ is blighted by Smith going so far off track from the original lyrics it is positively frightening. With even more disability slurs thrown into the crowds ears and several mumbled nonsenses throughout, his performance is really, really hard to take. ‘Theme From Sparta FC’ hovers between average and threatening; ‘The Wright Stuff’ sounds nearly as pointless as the album take and ‘Over! Over!’ fails to match its studio counterpart, instead coming across like everyone wants to get off stage as soon as possible, or at least before Mark breaks something…including himself.

So will all the chaos and horror MES seems hell-bent on delivering, what exactly is good about this show? Certainly enough to make it worth hearing. There’s a really spiky and powerful cover of the Zappa/Mothers classic ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ which channels Smith’s love of old sixties garage rock noises and it’s something The Fall manage to deliver in a simple but effective way, with a clanging guitar in the left speaker channel offset by a brilliantly fuzzy riff in the right – and it’s good to hear MES treating the material with far more respect than his many of own compositions on this night. ‘My Door Is Never’ shows the band in a really favourable way. Between a spot on heavy bass groove and the near perfect recreation of a late 60s garage rock sound, it shows how the some of the current material had just as much muscle as some older Fall sounds, but also acts as the perfect demonstration of this line-up’s power. Even Smith appears to be taking things a little more seriously. The souped up rockabilly of ‘White Lightning’ suits the occasion perfectly, with the musicians working up the kind of stupour which Smith’s most raucous attitude can’t even damage and ‘Reformation!’ comes with a genuine ugliness that is thrilling.

There are dozens of Fall live albums in circulation, and from an audio perspective, ‘Last Night At The Palais’ is one of the very best sounding gigs in the band’s forty year history. This line up of the band can be experienced playing their arses off throughout; the repetitious grooves have a definite air of menace and everyone is really on point. It’s so frustrating that MES is in an especially destructive mood on this occasion – it’s almost like he sets out to sabotage the recording, knowing it’s due to appear as an official release. Still, if you’re a fan, you’ll already know there’s a theory that if you never experienced The Fall at their worst, you probably never saw them at their best. Whether you choose to be amused or completely horrified by this audio document will be a subjective matter.

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Housed in a four panel digipak (similar to Cherry Red’s Kim Wilde deluxe sets from January 2020), this reissue’s four panel digipak certainly doesn’t rival the ‘1982’ box for any kind of visual beauty, nor is it as durable as the clamshell of the ‘Dragnet’ 3CD set. The new sleeve notes are welcome, but aren’t especially as in depth as other areas of The Fall’s catalogue have been afforded. A fairly no-frills package, it doesn’t entirely convey deluxe, but in some ways, that only seems to match the more ramshackle content this time out. Moving so far forward in The Fall catalogue after the seminal ‘Hex’ presents a really bold move, but then, this really isn’t a reissue to be approached by anyone other than the most obsessive fan. However, between the beginning and end the original studio record, the brilliant Zappa cover during the live show and a selection other interesting curios along the way, these four discs offer at least two discs of great material. Hit and miss as it may be, this is almost certainly the final word in The Fall’s 1997/8 cycle and as far as deluxe reissues go, it retains a certain kind of ugly charm.

Read a review of the ‘1982’ box set here.
Read a review of the ‘Witch Trials’ and ‘Dragnet’ reissues here.

February/March 2020