ANGRY SALAD – Angry Salad

Angry Salad’s self titled release (and swansong) from 1999 is a re-recorded and re-sequenced version of their ‘Bizarre Gardening Accident’ full length from two years previously.  By this point, eight years into a ten year career, the Rhode Island band had finally gained a little recognition from the industry after years of hard work and extensive touring schedules.  Re-titled ‘Angry Salad’, the Atlantic Records release is, naturally, somewhat of an improvement over the independent release, but the band’s gift for song-craft – and Bob Whelan’s vocal abilities, especially – were always more than evident.

With a heavy use of drum loops, ‘The Milkshake Song’ does not – at least to begin with – do this album any favours with regard to first impressions.  Its mechanical nature adds too much of a throwaway air.  Listen beyond that, though, and you’ll find a great pop number bristling with energy.  Its ringing guitars have a strong presence, while the lyrics bring a strong sense of reminiscence.  Dress that up with a sharp production and sharper chorus and ‘The Milkshake Song’ screams “summer hit”.  It was not.  Once you can get past those drum machines, ‘The Milkshake Song’ is a more than reasonable opener, but in some respects, it sets the listener up with a misguided idea of what follows…

The poignant ‘Rico’ – a track recorded by the band three times in total – captures the Angry Salad “sound” in a near-perfect four minute nugget, as well as highlighting their knack for a well-phrased lyric.  A warm bass and melodic guitar riff that’s tailor made for radio – kind of Matchbox Twenty-esque, but harder – would have been enough to ensure this number stands out, but the lyrical content concerning a man who lost his life in a car accident gives this a real sense of poignancy.  Angry Salad’s deep storytelling is in a style which Matchbox Twenty (and so many other similar bands) could only dream of writing.  The fact that Bob Whelan is able to deliver sad lines regarding loss (“It’s coming back to me in my dreams; bad news never sleeps, bad news never heals”) alongside more flippant lines like “you don’t make snow angels with your face down” while making  everything feel so natural is rare talent indeed.  Even sadder than ‘Rico’, ‘Saturday Girl’ recounts the thoughts of a hospitalized teenager after a misadventure with drugs.  Once the life and soul, she’s now comatose in a hospital bed watching car lights streaming past her window, dreaming those lights belong to her friends who’ve come back to take her back to her old life.  This heartbreaking tale is given a suitable send off, with clear ringing guitars and an emotionally fuelled vocal which, in another world, would have suited Counting Crows man Adam Duritz.

Rather more uplifting – but ultimately throwaway by comparison – is a top-notch cover of Nena’s 80s hit ’99 Red Balloons’.  In the second half of the 90s and beyond, a few punk bands gave this well-worn tune the once over, but none of their energy could match the great version featured here.  The lead synth translates exceptionally well into a jagged guitar riff, which Angry Salad use to their full advantage.   Since they don’t really deviate too far from any other version of ’99 Red Balloons’, there’s little else to add regarding the bulk of their performance.  Listen carefully during the fade-out, though, and you’ll catch Bob Whelan amusingly name checking a few other German exports: “autobahn and sauerkraut, Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine”…

Bringing the band’s rockier tendencies to the fore, ‘How Does It Feel To Kill?’ opens with an acoustic guitar and piano intro followed by an electric guitar riff shamelessly lifted from the KISS classic ‘Detroit Rock City’ (not just inspired by – it actually is the ‘Detroit Rock City’ intro replayed by Angry Salad!).  This then transpires into a no nonsense rocker – all crashy rhythm guitar chords and slightly distorted lead guitar lines.  The trebly ringing sounds are put in their place by some well arranged, wordless harmony vocals across the chorus and a somewhat out of place bridge which, surprisingly, reinstates the piano and guitar last heard during the intro.  In honesty, it’s more than a bit cut ‘n’ paste (especially once you factor in a few funky hard rock riffs), yet somehow Angry Salad make this hotch-potch of sounds work in their favour.  Another upbeat track, ‘Empty Radio’ contains some top lyrics (“I was kneeling before the parts on the floor / Of the radio I took apart to find Elvis”), and a great tune, but it’s real stroke of brilliance comes via a stupidly, stupidly infectious hook, as the band fill musical passages with catchy “woo-woos”.  Sure, it doesn’t sound so special on paper, but in reality, they’re possibly the most effective set of “woos” since The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ thirty years earlier.  Those combined with a great jangly guitar riff should be enough to keep you listening.  It’s a shame this wasn’t enough for Atlantic Records to keep listening and give the album a decent promotion.

The rock numbers are good, but once you’re acquainted with Angry Salad, it becomes obvious it’s the more reflective moments which show the band in their most positive light.  While not as perfect as ‘Rico’ or ‘Saturday Girl’, ‘Red Cloud’ has a great atmosphere.  Most of this is down to Alex Grossi’s guitar work which is full of muted chords working in near perfect harmony with Hale Pusifer’s understated drumming, lending the arrangement a strong vibe of mid-80s U2.  This is strengthened to the nth degree with a big key-change and chorus which sounds unavoidably like ‘The Unforgettable Fire’.  Rather than sounding like total plagiarism, it’s actually really flattering and Whelan’s lead vocal finds a perfect balance between big notes and breathiness – possibly his best ever performance.  “And what Red Cloud wants, you can’t give back…

The only track on ‘Angry Salad’ which could be considered filler is ‘Scared of Highways’, but even then, the track is better than most similar bands could care to write.  Granted, a lacking chorus puts this in the weaker category of Angry Salad’s output, but the musical arrangement has some really strong moments – namely the subtle, vibrato edged guitar during the bridge section and Brian Holland’s fantastically busy bassline, which fills as much musical space as possible throughout.

Angry Salad manage to pull off something very difficult with this release: they combine wonderfully heartfelt, emotional songs alongside numbers which feature elements of quirky song writing and humour, without said humorous moments ever cheapening the whole package.  The whole album is a joy (even the weaker moments), and it’s an absolute travesty it has often languished in bargain bins across the US, destined for a life of relative obscurity.  Do yourselves a big favour and seek it out – and soon.

September/October 2011

DAG – Righteous

dag

It was the summer of 1994. It feels like yesterday, yet it feels like so long ago. One of my best friends had just opened a record store. I met new people, some of whom I still think about now, some of whom have been forgotten. It was there I met my girlfriend (I don’t remember that though; and she wouldn’t become my girlfriend until over a decade later). And it was there, I first heard this monster album by Dag. It became an in-store favourite for a long time.
So, why is that relevant? It’s relevant since this is one of those albums which always makes me think back to the first time I heard it…

Looking like Pearl Jam, replete with plaid shirts, Dag found themselves signed to Sony at the tail-end of the alternative rock boom. At that record store, we thought we knew what to expect as we put the disc in the player. We were very wrong. Instead of retro riffing, we got funk. Lots of funk.

Although featuring a few harder edges than than the 70s funk played by black musicians for largely purist funk audiences, the Parliament-Funkadelic influences are still very much there on this album – and not too sugary. In that respect, Dag went against the then current mainstream and opted for retro of another kind…and they were heroes for doing it – at least in that record store. As far as I know though, the album buying public remained apathetic.

Two of the album’s highest points, ‘Sweet Little Lass’ and ‘Your Mother’s Eyes’, feature a swagger and grubbiness on loan from Prince and George Clinton. Throughout the album, bassist/vocalist Bobby Pattison performs like a hero, but his brilliance is particularly evident during these two songs: his vocals are soulful; his bass playing has a solid groove and strong presence. ‘Sweet Little Lass’ is driven by a slightly distorted, dirty rhythm. Its grinding heaviness is instantly captivating and should appeal to listeners who enjoy the pre-disco vibes of Parliament and Funkadelic. ‘Your Mother’s Eyes’ is a little lighter, although still heavy on the funk. Pattison’s vocals are lighter too and the end result provides a decent snapshot of Dag’s best traits – even with a keyboard making odd squonking noises throughout.

There are moments when I’ve been reminded of Maggie’s Dream (another favourite which somehow fell through the cracks), especially on tracks like the wah-wah drenched ‘Home’ where the funk is still very much at the fore, but rather more subdued than the Clinton-isms displayed elsewhere. ‘Lovely Jane’ is closest in spirit to Jamiroquai (who, of course, were million sellers in the UK with their Stevie Wonder obsessed acid-jazz-funk grooves), but even Jamiroquai, in turn, would have been at odds with the then-current musical scene. Dag employ more guitar work in the overall mix than you’re likely to find on an early Jamiroquai or early Brand New Heavies disc. In fact, the track features a blistering guitar solo, which is surely another aspect culled from Parliament and ‘Maggot Brain’ era Funkadelic…after all, they were never shy of using a guitar to add some serious chops where necessary.

The title track has a wah-wah cop show style guitar played against parping horns (making their first obvious appearance) and it’s hard to hear it without imagining seventies blaxploitation movies about coke-fuelled law-enforcers with huge facial hair. The funkiest thing on the album (and possibly one of the funkiest things ever recorded) is ‘Plow’, which revisits a dirty bass and solid groove – but the real star is Doug Jervey, whose clavinet work really carries the song and gives an obvious nod of approval to Stevie Wonder. Fantastic stuff. ‘As’ features a James Brown horn sound and a groove he might have enjoyed during his Popcorn years, although far looser and not carrying the intensity he may have managed. Throw in an edgy horn solo and you’ve got Dag at their most sassy. Play this before or after ‘Plow’, then repeat as often as is necessary for best results.

The album only carries one dud and even then it’s only the high standard of the other stuff which makes it so. ‘You Can Lick It (If You Try)’ is more Prince meets Morris Day than anything. Although solid, if there’s a contender for “most likely to get skipped track”, this is the one. The music is straight out of one of Prince’s “romantic scenarios”, and although the lyrics aren’t anywhere near as suggestive as his one-time dirty mind (pun intended) could muster without trying, it’s the high vocals which make this one a little grating if you’re not fully prepared.

In short, though, you need ‘Righteous’ as it’s, uh, righteous. It should be cheap somewhere by the time you’ve finished reading this.

September 2007/July 2010

SLEEPER – Smart

sleeper

Although the exact date has been forgotten, I first heard Sleeper on a John Peel radio show on a Saturday night sometime in early 1994. On that same evening, he also played tracks by other relatively unknown bands Ash and Hopper. I knew that night that at least one of those bands would become fairly big. I was right on two counts. It never really happened for French band Hopper in the UK; their first album, ‘A Tea With D’ can be found occasionally in bargain bins, but frankly, they never sounded anywhere near as appealing as they had when Peely played them on his radio show. Ash, of course, became big starts with their pop-punk influenced brand of indie rock, while Sleeper became one of the most popular bands associated with the Britpop scene.

Sleeper’s debut album ‘Smart’ appeared in early 1995, following on the coat-tails of three earlier singles (‘Alice EP’, ‘Swallow’ and ‘Delicious’). A great combination of indie rock jangle, attitude and a curious sexiness – courtesy of Louise Wener’s breathy vocals – made it one of the must-have albums of the era. Granted, it’s unlikely to be remembered as fondly as Blur’s ‘Parklife’ (a strong contender for being the Britpop generation’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’) or those early Oasis discs, but with its relative simplicity, ‘Smart’ hits the listener square on from the start.

The opening track – and breakthrough single, peaking at number 16 on the UK chart – ‘Inbetweener’ combines Sleeper’s two guitar sound (Wener on jangly rhythms, Jon Stewart on lead) with enough bounce to get things moving. Stewart’s discordant lead guitar parts linking the verses provide the ideal contrast to the pop sheen lurking throughout the song. Lyrically, the song regards a boyfriend who’ll clearly “do for now”, laying the foundations for the themes of relationships and sexual undercurrent found within a number of the album’s songs. A video featuring Dale Winton (then the host of a crappy morning quiz, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, popular with skiving students) helped the song get extra exposure. That sexual undercurrent becomes more of a raging torrent of grubby feelings during ‘Swallow’ – a tale of conscience, adult relationships and ex-boyfriends, to which Wener’s vocal style adds weight to its seediness. The rest of the band (faceless to most of the world) settles into a jangly groove, which on the surface sounds like the standard indie-rock of the times. If you listen more closely, the guitars are severely multi-tracked: behind the main slightly heavy-handed jangle, there’s a counter-melody with sharp edges. By the song’s end, it’s like a mini wall of sound.

‘Delicious’ – the album’s edgiest number (previously issued as a single, though only just breaking the chart with a peak position of #75) – offers enough sexuality and sneering to grab the attention. Musically, its lead guitar riff is one of the album’s sunniest, and instantly perks up something which could have easily been quite ordinary. A closing section changes pace entirely to a slow stomp, which allows Wener to stretch her vocal just that little further. By the end of the three minutes, the band sounds like they’re fit to burst.

‘Poor Flying Man’ focuses on the nineties phenomenon of the LOUDquietLOUD technique of song construction, used to great effect throughout work by Pixies at the beginning of the decade. The verses feature a good use of Diid Osman’s quietly rumbling bass, overlaid by Wener’s hushed tones. The chorus is a crashing contrast, and while Stewart’s guitars add volume, the end result is somewhat predictable; unsurprisingly, this is one of the album’s more overlooked numbers.  ‘Alice In Vain’ doesn’t veer too far from this tried-and-tested formula, but has greater strength due to a more impassioned vocal, slightly edgy solo and muted guitar strings on the verses. Looking at it in terms of a single release, it may not have quite the commercial edge over ‘Inbetweener’ or ‘Delicious’, but there’s enough enthusiasm on board to carry it off. Like ‘Poor Flying Man’, the LOUDquietLOUD approach drives the lyrically oddball ‘Hunch’. A story of a man who “looks like a frog” and “has six arms” and a hunched old woman “the size of a child”, there’s a feeling of guide vocal lyrics, as none of it really hangs together. The crunch on the chorus is enough to lend it charm, but it’s certainly ‘Smart’s most skippable track.

With its lighter quality on the verses and greater use of harmony vocals on the chorus, ‘Vegas’ looks ahead to the slightly modified sound Sleeper would employ on their follow-up album. While lacking the punch of ‘Smart’s best moments, it’s slightly refined tone allows the pop nature of much of Sleeper’s songcraft to shine. A re-recording of ‘Vegas’, featuring a fuller arrangement and Blur’s Graham Coxon guesting on sax (though credited under a pseudonym) was released as the album’s final single, eventually only reaching #33. A sly humour runs through ‘Lady Love Your Countryside’ – its title making fun of a Germaine Greer essay – with tongue firmly in cheek. This story some teens’ day in the country (spent drinking, smoking and spray-painting paradise) provides little variety on the album’s other material. The more demanding listeners among you are bound to note that for all of their brilliance, Sleeper were nothing if not formulaic, although Andy Maclusky approaches his drum kit in a more interesting and rhythmic fashion than usual. The rocky ‘Pyrotechnician’ ensures the album closes with an energetic, positive number. Wener’s vocals have a sense of urgency as they compete against a wall of guitars, topped with Maclusky’s cymbals. While ‘Imbetweener’ is the pinnacle of Sleeper’s ability to write commercial, slightly alternative pop (at least on this debut release), ‘Pyrotechnician’ ranks alongside ‘Delicious’ as one of the greatest examples of Sleeper at their most vibrant.

‘Smart’ climbed to #5 on the UK album chart. It’s success led to Sleeper gaining a great deal of television exposure over the following year and – despite those eyebrows – Louse Wener became the closest the Britpop scene had to a pin-up girl (though, I suspect, after various appearances sporting a school uniform, fans of Echobelly’s Sonya Aurore Madan would like to argue). With nearly all the press attention focus on Louise Wener, the three men in the band became faceless (a fate that had also been the cause of much of Blondie’s internal turmoil a decade and a half earlier). NME, in particular were a little harsh, coining the briefly popular term “Sleeperbloke”, used to describe any men who happened to be in a band where the front-person garnered all the attention.

Sleeper’s second album, ‘The It Girl’ (a title presumably chosen as a tongue-in-cheek response to Wener’s poster-girl status) enjoyed similar success and displayed a slightly more polished sound. By the release of Sleeper’s third album, the largely forgettable ‘Pleased To Meet You’, the fire had all but gone. ‘Smart’, meanwhile, sounds as good as it ever did; an album loaded with great songs and, for people of a certain age, memories of an important musical movement. No collection should be without one.

[A 2CD reissue of ‘Smart’ adds all of the non-album cuts, bar the single version of ‘Vegas’. A 2CD deluxe reissue of ‘The It Girl’ was also released].

August 2010/October 2010

THE WILDHEARTS – Earth Vs. The Wildhearts

eath vs

Back in 1993, I bought a copy of the debut EP ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ by The Wildhearts, a band which bought together the talents of vocalist/guitarist Ginger (previously a member of Newcastle’s premier retro band The Quireboys) , CJ (previously with The Tattooed Love Boys) and Dogs D’Amour drummer Bam Bam. While their EP wasn’t a great opening statement, it showed promise – namely in it’s opening number ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. That spark of gold was enough for the release of their forthcoming full-length album to be met with some excitement.

By the time The Wildhearts re-entered the studio, Bam Bam had returned to the (then recently reformed) Dogs D’Amour and had been replaced in the drum stool by Stidi (who’d played drums in a fledling lineup of The Wildhearts a few years previously), and the resulting demos are allegedly the same recordings released as the finished album.

From the outset, ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ suffers a similar problem to the EP, in that The Wildhearts seem to be unable to settle upon a core sound for their material. The resulting music hovers somewhere between punk, metal and power pop. While it could be argued that the fusion of these styles gave the band a unique sound of their own on the album, its eleven songs can be frustrating and brilliant in equal measure. Ginger is capable of writing a catchy chorus, but those moments of sing-along brilliance are often overshadowed by heavy handed sludginess.

This is something clearly obvious on the opening number ‘Greetings From Shitsville’. A hard rock guitar riff drives the verses in a direction in which the song never quite feels comfortable, until crashing headlong into a brilliant multi-vocalled chorus which could only be described as power pop (albeit an edgy example of that musical subgenre). It sounds for all the world like Ginger had two half finished ideas and then melded those together, hoping for the best. Once you’ve thrown in a heavy chugging guitar riff during the bridge, it means ‘Earth Vs…’ begins with an almost Frankenstein creation that’s lucky it works at all. ‘Everlone’ fares better all round…although the sledgehammer riff during the opening bars doesn’t instantly inspire confidence. When the vocals arrive, The Wildhearts settle for a groove that rests somewhere between hard rock and punk – a sound which dominates most of their best work. The chorus is fairly catchy and the use of backing vocals is great. On the negative side, clocking in at over six minutes, it’s far too long. After the track reaches its natural end, it features a coda containing almost two minutes of guitar-based meandering, followed by a crunchy guitar riff to close. There’s a definite feeling of this being bolted on after someone decided those bits of music were too good to waste.

Released as the first single from the album, ‘TV Tan’ features ringing guitars, a little bit of 80s glam and just enough bounce to keep it going. Like ‘Everlone’ and ‘Shitsville’, the chorus is a solid one, but without its even better pre-chorus, it would never have worked. The pre-chorus is essential in this instance, since the vocal doesn’t really scan on the song’s verses, despite trying its hardest… The pre-chorus is another moment which captures The Wildhearts’ distinctive punk-hard rock fusion perfectly; as with ‘Everlone’, Ginger’s voice sounds best when CJ is on hand to sing a counter harmony, no matter how ragged. When ‘TV Tan’s strongest elements come together in such a way, it becomes the natural single choice.

‘Shame On Me’ has a spiky riff coupled with a decent vocal performance. While the dual vocals highlight The Wildhearts’ sing-along qualities, the guitar work is from a rather more straight-up metal school of playing. Interestingly, between the metallic riffing, the guitar solo has a bluesy edge. It’s a great, but fleeting moment, which once again makes it hard to understand the creative process here: how did the band decide on that particular solo for this song? It almost stops ‘Shame On Me’ in its tracks.

‘Suckerpunch’ has all the subtlety of a juggernaut. Distorted vocals collide with a Motorhead style speed riff, as the band tear through an almost breathless three minutes. Its ferocity is given a little respite during the chorus, which makes good use of gang vocals, but its anger sounds mostly contrived – and the end result presents a not very natural sound for The Wildhearts. A similar argument could be made for ‘Drinking About Life’, which combines a late 80’s Metallica style riff and a bunch of shouting to create something which lacks longevity.

Taking something that sounds like a cross between New York Dolls and mid-70s Rolling Stones, mixing it up with a suitable sneer and a pinch of metal in the guitar solo, ‘Loveshit’ represents a track where the band sound their most at ease. A definite nod to Ginger’s past in the Faces-obsessed Quireboys, it’s a pity The Wildhearts never explored the bar-room rock avenue farther on this album. Unlike a couple of the other more feel-good tracks (‘Everlone’ especially), which were weakened slightly by incorporating too much of a kitchen sink mentality, it’s ‘Loveshit’s simplicity which makes it work. There’s definitely weight in the old argument that sometimes less really is more… A confident trashiness also sits at the heart of ‘Love U Till I Don’t’, with a chorus vocal of shameless ‘la la’s. The trashiness doesn’t last though, since eventually The Wildhearts’ metal tendencies get the better of them, leading to some incredibly unsubtle riffing. While the metal moments are never The Wildhearts’ strongest musical trait, it’s not terrible – and Stid turns in some decent drum fills.

A heartfelt and tuneful vocal lies at the heart of ‘News of the World’ and its chorus is one of the best on ‘Earth Vs…’ In this respect, it captures what was so good about ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes’. It brings nothing new to the album, but there’s a great deal of pleasure in hearing the vocal arrangement used so well. The chorus/gang vocals aren’t any different from the type previously heard on ‘Everlone’, but it is best remembered that the more time The Wildhearts spend concentrating on this poppier end of their music, it means more time they’re not muddying otherwise great songs by throwing in metal guitar riffs… This number isn’t guilt free in the padding out department though. It could could have been a brilliant (and very commercial) piece of chorus driven hard rock, but manages to completely fall apart near the end, when it decends into workmanlike chugging, followed by a call-and-response vocal section that feels like it has no place here at all.

‘The Miles Away Girl’ is the album’s greatest track, without question. There’s a power pop maturity at play throughout most of the song which could be compared to early 90s Cheap Trick. It really captures the (often lost) potential behind The Wildhearts’ craft. The gang/backing vocals are excellent during a really infectious chorus; all the instruments sound crisp and even the band’s tendency to use a musical motif where it’s unwarranted doesn’t spoil the end result. While a metal section during a bridge seems a little misplaced, this is balanced by a playfulness elsewhere, as The Wildhearts tease with a musical moment not too far removed from late sixties pop. A similar playfulness can also be found during ‘My Baby Is a Headfuck’; a track which incorporates bits of glam metal, pop punk, a reworking of The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’ and a raucous guitar solo played by Mick Ronson. Listening to these two songs, it’s easy to spot those moments when the band members really gelled.

With a fluctuating line up, The Wildhearts continued to tour and release albums; however, none gained the praise of their early works. ‘Earth Vs…’ in particular, has become somewhat of a cult album. Even though Kerrang! voted it their best album of 1993, as good as it may be, it’s unfocused at best. Over the years, it’s an album I’ve had a love-hate relationship with…and probably will always continue to do so.

[A 2010 2CD reissue of ‘Earth Vs The Wildhearts’ contains a bonus disc featuring the ‘Mondo Akimbo A-Go-Go’ EP, the four bonus tracks from the ‘Don’t Be Happy…Just Worry’ compilation plus all the non-album b-sides from the ‘TV Tan’ and ‘Shitsville’ singles].

Watch clips from Donington ’94 at the links below:
Suckerpunch
Greetings From Shitsville
Love U ‘Til I Don’t

Watch the complete live at the 1994 Reading Festival, with Devin Townsend on guitar at the links below:
Caffeine Bomb
Everlone
Greetings From Shitsville
Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes
Suckerpunch
Drinking About Life
Shut Your Fucking Mouth
Liberty Cap
My Baby Is A Headfuck
Love U ‘Til I Don’t

July/October 2010

TERRORVISION – How To Make Friends and Influence People

terrorvision

Watching Terrorvision playing in a small tent at the 2010 Sonisphere Festival feels a bit like having your mates come and play at a particularly rowdy summer party. By the time Terrorvision take the stage, sometime after 11pm, that evening’s main attraction, Alice Cooper, has finished performing his morality play – soundtracked by so many of his classics – and left the stage. Normally, after the headliner has vacated there’s little more to see, but for this particular festival, the small Bohemia stage has been set to go on for a few hours longer.

As Tony Wright beams “We’re Terrorvision from Bradford”, I’m transported back in time, having last seen the band at the 1997 Reading Festival and fronted by a seemingly worse-for-wear frontman (four years before disbanding – eventually reforming to play sporadic live dates in 2005 and beyond); earlier memories of seeing them headline an NME sponsored night at the London Astoria also come flooding back – remembering the extremely pumped audience bouncing in unison to ‘Oblivion’ and the building (by then not the youngest, or indeed safest, of London’s venues) feeling like it’s floor could give way under the immense enthusiasm of a crowd caught in a moment of togetherness. I’d seen Terrorvision at other times too, but the details of where and when aren’t so clear now.

At the late night Sonisphere show, Terrorvision are surprisingly on the ball and as a result, I’m thinking about listening to them when I get back home (something which has happened to me previously while watching them playing). As always happens after seeing Terrorvision live, their second album, ‘How To Make Friends and Influence People’ makes it’s inevitable journey into the CD player and I come crashing back to Earth, since, although brilliant in its own way, the album never sounds quite urgent enough.

Recorded in New York with producer Gil Norton at the helm – then best known for producing albums by Pixies and Echo & The Bunnymen – Terrorvision’s second album, ‘How To Make Friends and Influence People’ features Terrorvision as a far more confident and musically varied unit compared to their debut. As the staccato chords build tension behind ‘Alice What’s The Matter’ and Wright begins his slightly shouty delivery, the opening of Terrorvision’s second outing promises we’re about to embark upon a fun journey – and despite that lack of immediate energy of their live set, the album’s not short on fun moments. It’s immediately obvious that ‘How To Make Friends…’ stretches beyond Terrorvision’s previous works and despite some rather silly lyrics which appear to have been thrown together for the sake of simple rhymes, ‘Alice…’ gives the album a confident opener and at under three minutes it’s brevity made it a deserved hit single for the band.

The ultimate party anthem, ‘Oblivion’ – scene of much live energy – lumbers out of the speakers like something that’s slightly low on batteries. The structure of the song is great and Wright delivers its fun lyrics with a suitable amount of enthusiasm and Mark Yates’s guitar work alternates between rhythmic choppiness and an almost old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll twang; however it struggles throughout, since the drum work just doesn’t cut it. You can almost imagine drummer Shutty sticking out his tongue as he plays, concentrating hard and trying to keep a steady pace. The mid-pace of ‘Middle Man’ makes the track one of the album’s highlights. Shutty doesn’t have to struggle here; the band’s love of seventies rock shines through – and combining a great guitar riff with a memorable chorus, Terrorvision hit their goal square on. The addition of some gentle orchestration adds a bit of sophistication (okay, sophistication Terrorvision style) and each of its winning elements ensures that ‘Middle Man’ holds its own. Rather interestingly, it’s not a case of Shutty not being able to hammer out a fast rhythm, since he drives ‘What The Doctor Ordered’ at full pelt, against something that occasionally resembles a Metallica riff. Rather heavy for Terrorvision – possibly even heavier than most of previous album ‘Formaldehyde’ – at just over two minutes, there’s no messing with its combination of punk speed and metal riffs.

‘Stop The Bus’, at first, isn’t as instant as some of the album’s tracks, but another simple, classic Terrorvision bouncing riff, slightly sneering lyrics and hard bass line from Leigh Marklew means it’s not without charm. It was never going to have the longevity or ‘Alice What’s The Matter’ or ‘Obliviion’, but what it lacks in good time spirits, it makes up for with musical ability. The slightly harder sound is far more in keeping with Terrorvision’s earlier work and the guitar solo shows more focus than some of the others on the album. ‘Discotheque Wreck’ has the amount of punch the studio recording of ‘Oblivion’ really should have had. Another tough, bouncing rhythm combined with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about a bloke in a nightclub who’s hopelessly out of place but still thinks he’s cool make it classic Terrorvision. A chugging guitar riff and a spirited vocal make it decent enough, but once they’ve thrown in a reference to ‘Do You Love Me’ by The Contours – while sporting huge grins, no doubt – and it’s a winner.

The middle of the album presents a huge curve-ball in that the fun rock elements of Terrorvision’s sound take a back seat, as the band tinker with a few more rather grown up styles: For ‘Still The Rhythm’ a sparse arrangement featuring twangy guitar gives Wright’s vocals plenty of room during the verses, while the band bring a rock element to an almost non-existent chorus. A bridge section is also uncharacteristically shouty. The verses work well, but combined with those other elements, ‘Still Is The Rhythm’ is the album’s weakest point. ‘Ten Shades of Grey’ combines an almost fifties doo-wop sensibility with a couple of bluesy edges – Yates’s guitar solo making good work of a wah-wah pedal at first, before descending into a handful of long, seemingly un-connected notes. His wah-wah steps to the fore of ‘Stab In The Back’ which has verses echoing the funk scene of the 90s, while the chorus – although not lyrically memorable – rocks in a simple but effective way that makes me think this could have roots dating back to the sessions for ‘Formaldehyde’.

Following that, it’s business as usual, as Terrorvision turn up the fun with ‘Pretend Best Friend’ (arguably the best of the albums five single releases). Tapping into a memorable riff, sounding not unlike a hard rock version of the theme tune to “The Munsters”, it respresents one of the few times that ‘How To Make Friends…’ captures the real essence of a Terrorvision live performance. Coupling this with a lounge jazz element – complete with flugelhorn – on the pre-choruses, the great contrast shows that someone in the band isn’t short of great ideas; it’s just a shame that in various places on this album they struggled to arrange the songs in a manner which brings out their best qualities. ‘Time O The Signs’ employs some decent funk chops but doesn’t end up being too memorable, despite one of Wright’s most urgent vocals and a great groove in places. It’s possibly a case of bad album sequencing – it’s hard to follow ‘Pretend Best Friend’.

The slow pace and orchestration of ‘Some People Say’ (the closest the album gets to an epic rock ballad) lends a sense of moodiness lacking elsewhere. Wright’s vocal is one of the album’s best, capturing the spirit of the arrangement very well, pushing his voice beyond it’s usual flippant rock shoutiness. Not sure what Mark Yates was thinking though: he’s chosen a completely inappropriate guitar solo, comprising of discordant notes – heavy on the whammy-bar. The pace and mood may be right, but the style is very misplaced. Since ‘Some People Say’ has a melancholy vibe – something generally not associated with Terrorvision – you’d hope he would have managed something a little classier.

Closing the album, ‘What Makes You Tick’ employs a huge guitar riff in a style which, again, displays an obvious love of seventies rock. Wright seems fairly at home vocally with the increased volume, although it sounds as if it was a slight strain on his limited vocal skills. A multi tracked vocal on the chorus is a nice touch (presumably used at the suggestion of producer Gil Norton) since it balances out the simplicity of the hard rock riffing. The track threatens to build to a climax but stops short of a big crescendo, resulting in only the multi-tracked vocal being left. This is, in fact, the same multi tracked vocal that appears briefly at the beginning of the album, before the proper opening of ‘Alice What’s The Matter’; I assume it was designed so they’d (almost) link up if the CD was left on repeat… Sadly, this idea (used to fantastic effect on Pink Floyd’s album ‘The Wall’), goes straight out of the window since someone in the band/at the record company decided to include a bonus track on the CD after several minutes of silence. As far as “hidden” bonus tracks are concerned, this one is a complete non-event, since it comprises six minutes of distorted voices (presumably over a telephone recorded on a Dictaphone). Supposedly, parts of it feature Wright and the chaps on the wind up with a few New Yorkers, but the sound is so poor most of the words are inaudible. Aside from a mention of Jimi Hendrix and a woman unhappy with her recent hair appointment, it’s near impossible to make out any of it.

‘How To Make Enemies…’ isn’t an especially coherent listen, but what it represents is an album brimming with decent ideas and brilliant choruses. The arrangements could sometimes do with a bit of work, but generally, it’s easy to see what the band were attempting to achieve musically with each of the album’s thirteen numbers, even if things don’t always work out perfectly. On record at least, Terrorvision never bettered it (the subsequent album, ‘Regular Urban Survivors’, contained brilliant singles coupled with instantly forgettable album tracks). Now, if only they could have captured the extra pace and spark of their live show on record, they really could have been on to something…

August 2010