THE FALL – Fall Sound Archive Vol 5: Imperial Wax Solvent

Following the tour for 2007’s ‘Reformation! Post TLC’ album, The Fall underwent yet another radical line up change. The hastily assembled American band were no more and by the time Mark E. Smith and keyboard player/vocalist/wife Eleni Poulou returned to the studio, they were joined by British musicians Dave Spurr (bass), Kieron Melling (drums) and Peter Greenway on guitar. It seemed, at first, that this was just yet another in a long line of rotating band members, but unbeknown to everyone at the time, this Fall line up was special. It would be the final line up – one that would go on to be the band’s most stable, lasting the next ten years.

That line-up’s first studio album’s strongest moments don’t always generate the same excitement of the first half of 2007’s ‘Reformation!’, or contain anything as jaw dropping as ‘Blindness’ from 2005’s ‘Fall Heads Roll’ and – obviously – the rawness of ‘Slates’ etc. is long gone. That said, ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’ is an album that has many brilliant songs scattered throughout its forty seven minutes and for fans willing to invest a bit more time, it’s rarely less than fascinating – it just doesn’t always have immediacy. In many ways, it often feels like a collection of interesting ideas than a coherent long-player.

From the top tier of material, ‘Senior Twilight Stock Replacer’ is by far the most catchy number with its incessant fuzz bass groove and sloganistic hook. It’s classic Fall, bringing together the repetition of early classics like ‘Rowche Rumble’ and ‘New Face In Hell’ with the fuller sound of more recent Fall output. One listen should be enough to work out why it was road tested as a set opener during the previous tour. Capturing a similar energy, ‘Tommy Shooter’ rattles along with a freight train intensity, recalling a couple of ‘Reformation’ highlights, while Smith’s repetitious bark of “I’ve got news for you!” sticks in the head somewhere around the second listen, making it an instant classic. There’s also room enough for unexpected inventiveness, too, when ‘Can Can Summer’ trades in the rougher edges for a motorik funk like Can and Neu! at their most commercial; a greatness helped no end by dual vocal and an almost unprecedented amount of melody. Smith sounds great as he interjects against a tight rhythm section and a synthy moment tipping the hat to Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ is a great touch. It’s then the penny drops with regard to that title… Better still, ‘Alton Towers’ flaunts a bendy bassline atop a woozy melody that sounds like the theme for a b-movie, while Smith drawls various stream of consciousness thoughts. It’s as different from most peoples’ pre-conceived idea of The Fall as ‘Telephone Thing’ surely had been in 1990, and yet still sounds like The Fall on full power, proving that Peels claim of “always different, always the same” is a great observation.

Also enjoyable, ‘Latch Key Kid’ flaunts a terrific bass line from Spurr – all fuzz and attitude – which contrasted by Poulou’s new wave bleeps sets up the sound of a band with a garage based heart and avant tendencies. The simple tune gives Smith a lot of room for manoeuvre which – rather obtusely – he doesn’t take up, but between his repetition of the title, a melodic counterpart that takes an old rockabilly rhythm and sounds as if it could break into ‘Yes, Tonight Josephine’ at any moment, along with his growling unexpected statements like “I like to relax with tobacco and sugar”, the listener is kept on their toes. This is an oddly unsettling track in that it’s tight, but also incredibly loose. It’s semi improvised qualities suggest the band could go off on a tangent at any moment. ‘Is This New’ exploits The Fall’s ongoing love for old rock ‘n’ roll 45s with a shrill guitar part and a lot of energy and ‘Wolf Kidult Man’ revisits the dirty garage rock vibes of the best moments of ‘Fall Heads Roll’, presenting the new Fall with as much grit and potential as any band to truly understand Smith’s non-linear vision.

Each of those songs ensures time listening to ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’ is incredibly rewarding, even if some of the remaining material can seem little less appealing. ‘50 Year Old Man’ is the kind of track that’ll divide opinion, since its greatest moments are dragged down by ambling interludes that aren’t necessary. As it kicks off, its furiously repetitive garage rock riffs are genuinely exciting.  After three minutes, fatigue sets in, and by four minutes it really should be reaching a climax, but…nope. At that point the groove falls by the wayside and the main melody is replaced by a weird and disjointed banjo tune that derails absolutely everything. After a couple of minutes, a huge fuzzy ,bass rises and parts of the original melody takes shape once more, only to be played at about half the original speed. It’s here that the newly convened band – clearly enjoying being locked into a groove – sound at their most fantastic, but in terms of all-round listening pleasure it’s hard work as Mark just appears to shout incessantly. He’s not using his familiar drawl for the most part, either, but a newly found sixty-cigarettes-a-day growl – something that would really mature by the time of 2011’s ‘Ersatz GB’. As before, at the point where the track appears to reach (yet another) natural end, it pulls off in another direction bringing in hard guitar chords and another wilful performance from Smith, barking disjointed statements before informing everyone that the fade out is coming. After experiencing the band filling eleven minutes with five different musical ideas glued together, a fade seems like an odd way to conclude things…but The Fall were never predictable.

‘I’ve Been Duped’, meanwhile, benefits from being punchy and succinct, making great use of a simple one line hook that creates a massive earworm and a feeling that the new Fall might just be having a rare moment of actual fun. Its best points are counterbalanced by a flat vocal from Poulou, seemingly afloat in a world of synthesized musical indifference after a great intro, but nevertheless, that hook was always going to be very hard to beat. Similar synth oddness sits at the heart of ‘Exploding Chimney’ tucked away at the end of the album, but it works better from a melodic viewpoint due to being coupled with a distorted proto-metal guitar part, a few cool musical breakdowns and an incessant vocal hook. By no means the best Fall track, it’s always good to hear Mark and band experimenting with weird freakbeat sounds, and this is no exception. Although enjoyable, it fails to reach the top tier of material simply because the half a dozen best tracks are so much better.

A cover of The Groundhogs’ ‘Strangetown’ is a definite skipper. Although Greenway’s interpretation of the Duane Eddy inspired riff is brilliant, there’s nowhere for it to go during a flat five minutes where The Fall bash through a few garage rock sounds, so badly recorded that the final recording has audio dropouts. In some ways, it sounds like a band pretending to be The Fall and really smacks of something that should have stayed in the vault to help ‘IWS’ become a leaner and more effective collection. Also from the file marked “definite filler”, ‘Taureg’ is an electronic experiment where early 80s synths sweep over mechanised beats. Melodically, there are fleeting moments of Smith’s beloved Krautrock pioneers, but if there’s anything this album didn’t need, it was something like a weird OMD b-side causing a massive sag.

It’s fair to say that when ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’ is good, it’s great, but a few odd diversions make it an incoherent experience. That has nothing to do with a new band settling in – as tracks like ‘Alton Towers’, ‘Can Can Summer’ and ‘Senior Twilight Stock Replacer’ more than show, this line-up has more than enough musical camaraderie from the get-go – it’s more a case of being a solid album padded out with three or four tracks that it never really needed.

*

The deluxe edition of ‘Imperial Wax Solvent’ (released as the fifth instalment of Cherry Red Records’ “Fall Sound Archive” reissue series adds two discs of bonus material, the first of which presents the album fans could have had. The most notable thing about the Britannia Row studio recordings that make up the ‘Imperial’ prototype is that one of songs did not make the final cut. ‘Ponto’, a track that graced The Fall’s live set on three occasions (but with differing lyrics), is a brilliantly disjointed affair that borrows the opening chords from ‘Jailhouse Rock’, melds them to jagged new wave bleeps and more of a staccato rhythm, while Mark E. rambles about ice cream, fear and letter boxes. Whatever it was about, surely only he truly knew. It isn’t the greatest Fall song in the world; it sounds like three unfinished ideas jammed together and let out into the wild to fend for itself, but at the same time, it’s nice to have. A couple of other unfamiliar titles were reworked into ‘Imperial’s final selection in a very different format: the spiky ‘Smith & Mark’ had its music reused lock stock for the eventual album closer ‘Exploding Chimney’, but the more complex lyric suggesting the “spectre of knowledge cannot be encapsulated within the confines-ah of the true scale” fell by the wayside…and more’s the pity. ‘Inferior Product Man’, meanwhile, became the three minute garage rock coda appended to the eleven minute ‘50 Year Old Man’ on the final LP. It works so much better as a standalone piece.

As for the early version of ‘50 Year Old Man’ itself, it appears much shorter. Shorn of the ‘Inferior Product’ section and with a louder guitar and extra backing vocals applied, it’s much punchier. It’s also interesting to note that the weird banjo interlude is already present, albeit played on Eleni’s synth. The bulk of the rest very closely resembles the final version, but in many ways, is actually superior thanks to more of a live and unmastered quality to the recording. This really pushes the guitars up in the arrangements – something which also benefits tracks like ‘Wolf Kidult Man’, ‘Senior Twilight Stock Replacer’, ‘Tommy Shooter’ and ‘Strangeland’. The Britannia version of the latter actually becomes the definitive take, due to a slightly harder performance and the opportunity to finally hear it without the audio glitches that marred the album recording. …And in the case of ‘Is This New’, the title becomes very apt, as the Dusseldorf recording that appeared on the final album is almost indistinguishable from the Britannia Row take…

Disc three presents an obligatory live recording, this time featuring a full live show recorded at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion in May 2008. A fifteen song tour de force, the set draws very heavily from then-recent material with eleven of the songs taken from the three most recent albums, but in terms of performance, the band sound particularly angry. The sound quality isn’t superb – it certainly doesn’t have the clarity most people would hope for – but it’s better than a good few of the official bootlegs issued by Cog Sinister over the years. It sounds as if it were sourced by an audience member from about half way back; there a fair amount of echo, but the majority of performances come through clearly enough to be easily recognised. Perhaps where it loses out the most is on the vocal side: Smith has presence, but is often fairly indistinct, wavering somewhere in and out a loud rhythm section. This, of course, may not be the fault of the recording itself as the finer points of his performance sounded equally mumbly on ‘Last Night At The Palais’ and that was recorded with all the proper equipment in place.

Looking more closely at what fans are given, there are driving renditions of ‘Fall Sound’ (a little trebly, but reasonably clear) and ‘Over Over’ – and the latter is potentially better than the Palladium performance even allowing for the lo-fi nature of the source material. New songs ‘Wolf Kidult Man’ and ‘Can Can Summer’ add definite highlights. The rough and ready recording makes ‘…Summer’ sound like a weird homage to Sonic Youth, while ‘Wolf Kidult Man’ sounds especially threatening with Greenway’s guitar offering an incessant buzz and Eleni’s stabbed keys occasionally sounding like an electrical fault. Through it all, MES barks and slurs, almost like he could go off the rails at any moment. Surprisingly, he’s more focused on the material than at other shows from this period – obviously keen to give audiences the new songs in a sharp and direct manner.

There’s time enough at this gig to wind back the clock too, and performances of ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ and ‘Wings’ sit comfortably enough between the newer songs. What’s clear from this gig though, is that MES does not care for nostalgia-ah; the performances aren’t treated with any kind of reverence and its almost like they’re there because he merely felt like dropping them in on this night and certainly never as any kind of audience pleasing treat. With more enthusiasm applied to the new songs, The Fall are clearly forward looking; always ready to progress to that next challenge, ready to excite and confound their fans, who equally aren’t looking for an easy ride. You’ll own hours and hours’ worth of bootleg quality Fall CDs already, but with the band riding off the back of an invigorating new line up and some great material, this show is certainly worth hearing.

The alternate version of the album might not be quite different enough to the more casual observer and the live material is definitely of bootleg quality, but for the Fall completist, this triple disc reissue still manages to be a great deluxe set. If you liked ‘Imperial Wax Before’, you’ll definitely want this…and if you felt a little indifferent to the single album, this definitely makes it worth a revisit. By taking slightly incoherent album and placing it in a much broader context, it provides a satisfying and complete experience.

Read a review of the deluxe reissue of ‘Reformation! Post-TLC here.

September/October 2020

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