Written by: Dave Cantrell
When forced to chase it down, both for my own satisfaction – the issue had nagged at me for decades – and to buttress a 35th anniversary review of Entertainment!, why the almost preposterous burst of creative energy that defined the relatively brief post-punk era always felt, to me, more vital and enduring than the unbridled, seemingly unparalleled psychedelic years, when boundaries were being expanded/trespassed/blown apart at a breakneck speed, I arrived at modernity, of thought, of theme, of emotional states, In essence the difference between escapism and its unrelenting opposite, it’s a distinction the verification of which one need look no further than the Velvet Underground, a band that, by repudiating with utter (real, effortless) cool the entire hippie ethos (for want of a better phrase), and replacing it with the unapologetic grind of urbanized reality, experimentally disaffected and wildly feral at the same stroke, assured not only guaranteed cultural anonymity in their own time but as well an untouchable legacy as the most timelessly influential band of all time, one that begat Television (among an infinity of others) that in turn begat, well, just about every-fucking-one that has ‘post-punk’ attached to their Wiki profile. Further distilled, the conclusion, reached via thunderbolt epiphany working on that Gang of Four piece, is that this music never ages. Its shadows and notorious monotonic tones are, in fact, various shades of Dorian Gray.
Thus we arrive at Bleib Modern, a Berlin-based band driven forward by one Philipp Läufer with the assistance of Vinz, Leo, Peter, and Tommy, and whose name, roughly translated, means ‘Stay Modern.’ Antagonism, the band’s third album, has just been released by both Third Coming, Black Verb, or Manic Depression depending where you are, and it’s a powerful affair. Bleak in its contours, unapologetically dark in mood and lyric, the record is also, in a ‘not-despite-but-because of’ fashion, joyous. In a sense quite similar to the way many of us receive great pleasure and satisfaction reading heavy Russian literature, there’s something oddly uplifting in Läufer’s exploration of life’s deepest depressive depths. To some if not most, I’m sure, that’s lunacy, an inflicting of self-pain like some kind of emotional cutting. But speaking for myself – and, I suspect, most of us out here in the moaning, wind-blown trenches – it’s quite the opposite. The honesty is simply exhilarating. Miserablism? Possibly, but really, have you been paying attention lately, or ever? The willingness of this community of artists worldwide to continue refusing to shy away from, in ways as artful as any, the true scheming motives of human behaviour, be they personal, political, or social, is something I never cease to marvel at, never cease to be grateful for. Like any of us, I don’t live exclusively within these confines, but it is where I feel I live most fully.
Rich in texture, beguilingly adroit with the genre’s menu of tropes, Antagonism wanders its netherworld with an unflinching stare, guided by Läufer’s lugubrious-yet-tremulous baritone that can, in the same syllable, sound both accusing and vulnerable, working forward from the slowly burgeoning – or, one might say, awakening – dirge of opener “Gray Dawn,” through the likes of the (slightly) more aspirational-sounding “Nothing” with its synthy choruses of guitar, “Mirror”‘s dark expansive goth-folk full of ache and yearning, the pulse-y momentum of “Mindless,” its early psycho tremelo guitar ceding ground to the purer urgent tones of McGeoch-era Banshees, “Blue Avowal”‘s moody atmospherics, the thing brilliantly glinting with doom and apprehension, to the beautiful fatalism of last track “Sunless” – more acoustic in the service of dramatic tension – that suggests with some persuasive force how amazing it would have been had Leonard Cohen stepped up to the Gun Club mike post-JLP, the album presents, intuitively at least, as a song cycle of sorts, an allegorical day-in-the-life of the post-punk mythos made flesh. It’s nothing of the sort, of course, but it’s testament to Bleib Modern’s power and delivery, their epic ease of touch in terms of melody embedded in jaw-dropping dynamics, that a thought like that would naturally occur in the first place.
Oh, and consider this: listening to this record the first time through, thinking about those issues back there in the first paragraph, I came upon this line from “Nothing:” “I’ve been called by midnight shadows,” which I first heard as ‘I’ve been cured…,” which, whatever way you hear it, seemed emotionally, incisively accurate, and I could not have stated it more concisely myself.
Since we’ve already discussed the marvelously unlikely turn, relative to past endeavors, of former BTS bassist Brett Nelson toward the shadowed glories of synth-injected post-punk, let’s begin instead with the persuasive likelihood that no 2017 ‘rock’ album’s first track will jump out with the force of attention of the above-linked “Animals.” As announcements of intent go, the staccato’d, pulse-pounding, precise roar of that opener could not be better designed to attract neck-snapping turns of the head. That it addresses the sad, forever true fact that while we may well, as humans, too often act with an animal swagger, it’s those acts that ensure we’ll never attain the grace embodied by those creatures we’ve supposedly evolved beyond, is, as they say, a bonus. It’s also reflective of the intelligence riffing throughout this small but essential self-released debut.
All eight tracks on Riddelvoid snap with a taut efficiency. Even when they’re foregrounded by a sunny pop keyboard intro like “7th Song,” creeping alien radiowave effects as on “See Me,” or closer “R.L.L”‘s approach of a lightly modulated but still-eerie extended synth chord, the songs find impressive-to-epic purchase sooner than later (“7th Song” becoming nervous, racing, almost Feelies-like, “See Me” polyrhythmic, somewhat math-rocky and intense, the instrumental “R.L.L.” heavy and unsettling, overtaken by a dark hypnosis, the relative mundanity of the voice mail from “Boise school food and nutrition services” that’s leaked here and there into the mix only bringing into sharper focus the hanging dread and anxiety.) Elsewhere, immediacy reigns, sharp pop reflexes honing the crisp but bruising musicianship to a glinting edge, “No Home” especially brimming with a hook-laden naturalism. Undergirded everywhere with a deft and knowing post-punk élan, Riddelvoid, to put it simply, is simply a shockingly good record.
One empathizes. No, wait, that’s not right. To empathize is to feel a deep twinge of emotional familiarity with the plight of another, and really, as regards this band, it’s difficult to think of many that have had such a mercurial journey, the retelling of which varies so wildly depending on who’s doing the telling. There might be subtle variations but the tale of Modern English derives from one of two distinct, dueling narratives.
Out of what’s most surely the more numerous camp comes a storyline that depicts a British band of some obscure origin stunning the MTV-saturated hordes the world over with their titanic¹ hit “I Melt With You” in 1984 that was ultimately such an overshadowing pop moment that it relegated them, in many minds, to the status of one-hit wonders. It’s a recap that, should it be uttered within earshot of a member of the other, more astute (read:geekier, more obsessive, trainspotter-like) camp, would be met with a scoff of dripping scorn and dismay, the unconscionable ignorance just displayed almost too much to bear. Though shaking with a hot indignation that any of you reading this are only too familiar with, this more enlightened² camper would somehow summon the wherewithal to hiss out the words “Mesh and Lace.”
And therein lies the rub.
Modern English’s debut album emerged in what might reasonably be considered the post-punk era’s most pivotal year, 1981. Ian was dead, the surviving members of JD were already plotting their escape from the martyr’s graveyard, Talking Heads had recently abandoned taut and angular for the broader reaches of funk and world pop, their fear of music apparently vanquished, the Slits were slipping in that pool of primal mud, turning to Creedence for inspiration while Ari headed for the hills of Jamaica. Even the Pop Group were in a bit of a flounder, directional needles spinning wildly. Thus appeared Mesh and Lace, tottering with a confident, muscular mystique on the fulcrum between 1979’s roaring vast and varied certitude and the coming wave of high-waisted invaders soon dubbed New Romantics. To many aficionados the album is the culminating amalgam of the post-punk aesthetic, faultless with its deeply shadowed melodicism, production so full and empathic the record as a whole settled over you like a bright grey echoing manna falling not from heaven but from some sublimely dark-hearted unknown gods from across the Atlantic. No sound or bellowing whisper on the thing is out of place and every track’s a stand-out, ringing it out as an unquestionably verifiable ‘instant classic,’ a status that’s never diminished despite the fact it – naturally, in pure commercial terms – tanked.
Flash forward thirty-plus years and the band find themselves touring the US in the summer of 2016, playing that long-abandoned masterpiece front-to-back to adoring reception in mid-sized venues across the country, a successful jaunt that had the not-unexpected effect of prompting the four-of-five original members – Robbie Grey, Gary McDowell, Steve Walker, Michael Conroy – to grab the reins offered in that moment of resurgent creative optimism and head back in to the studio. Hence Take Me to the Trees, arriving in it Vaughan Oliver-designed cover that couldn’t be more 4AD (but that’s OK) and sounding…sounding…
…well, at the risk of seeming overly pithy and succinct, it appears a vote was maybe taken and a decision was made to hew, not unappealingly, mind, but perhaps a touch too closely, to what would commonly be called, in 2017, the ‘latter-day Wire template.’ Now, that’s not something I’d expected to hear nor have to say right out in the open like this but, really, the resemblance is rather uncanny. Past first track and single “You’re Corrupt” that, beyond its over-obvious, just-this-side-of-anodyne lyrics that have Grey addressing a certain Mr World, could be late period Comsats with a delicious fuzz-bass hook, the band slides with some consistency into a Newman-Lewis trance that, while short on the intrigue and existential paranoia of the pink-flagged crew, is not, again, an altogether unpleasant place to find oneself.
“Trees,” with its disaffected but still somehow hopeful shuffle, manages that sullen radiance of a Red Barked Tree, “Moonbeam,” twisting around a spiky exotic guitar figure, has exactly that subtle under-drive we’ve come to expect from 21st c. Wire albums, while the effecting “Dark Cloud” shares a thematic thread of DNA as it explores the anonymity of modern identity. I mean, maybe it’s just the co-production from Martyn Young and the band privileging, as it does, a steady democratized throb of elements, and of course it doesn’t help – or hurt, depending on one’s view – that Robbie Grey’s range and timbre are, by this point, so close to Colin’s here as to suggest twin larynxes separated at birth, but the resemblances really are rather eerie, to the extent that even when the record strays from the silver and lead pathway, as on skeletal, Morricone-tinged “Come Out of Your Hole,” your brain will still be unable to not hear the similarities (especially as they immediately return to the slithery tech groove on “Flood of Light”).
Look at it as a decent – and consistent – comeback album from Modern English (though, sorry, nowhere near as breathless as Mesh and Lace), look at it as an album of unreleased Wire tracks circa 2014, look at it as some blurry concatenation of the two, but however you parse it you’re likely to end up more pleased than disappointed. We think.
¹ – the ‘none-more-ideal’ adjective given how that ‘smash hit’ was the iceberg that sank their career, or at least their reputation.
² – yes, yes, how far the bar to enlightenment has fallen but in this age it’s suggested we take our sages where we can find them.