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SHADOWPLAY: A Post-Punk Overview – Soviet Soviet “Fate,” The Callas “I Am Vertical,” For Against “Box Set”

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soviet soviet

Hailing out of Pesaro, Italy, Soviet Soviet have a ‘waste no time’ ethos on new album Fate (Felte). Picking up resolutely from where 2011’s EP compilation Summer, Jesus left off, opening track “Ecstacy” hits the ground sprinting with a post-punk grace, Alessandro Ferri’s drums in nimble thunder mode, bass and guitar crashing in all melodic and deft, singer (and guitarist) Alessandro Constantini, in accentless English, presenting like a teenaged Peter Murphy. At the mid-song vocal bridge – and the guitar race toward the end – a sort of somber rambunctiousness presides, the band exuding a cool confidence that inspires by its very sound. Indeed, a vaulting hookery anchors all ten of the tracks on Fate and it’s easy to hear why Soviet Soviet got plucked from the crowded bustle of Bandcamp and given a general, label-backed release. It’s also the case that, for a listener like myself that’s hopelessly addicted to this template sound (think that gloomy delicious Joy Division sound pumped up with a chrome adrenalin), every song on here could have been named “Ecstacy.”

“Introspective Trip” nearly bursts from its own tightly-contained tension, Constantini’s guitar in a constant ghostly shimmy, the whole band piling atop one another for the last minute and a half, cacophony disguised as melody and vice versa. “Further” furthers the relentless joy of assault and may be the album’s most immediate track though that’s probably a ridiculous assertion since any track picked blindly could lead to that claim. “Gone Fast” trawls the lower extremities of sound with a (pardon the vague adjective) killer guitar hook, “No Lesson” drapes you in an intensified cathedral grandeur from the first beat, “1990” takes Hooky’s bass (in actual fact it’s Andrea Giometti) and feeds it some working man’s stimulants and just takes off from there and on and on we go.

In post-punk terms you’re not going to find a lot of variance with Soviet Soviet – like many bands in the current wave there’s not much of a taste for experimentation nor the influx of, say, funk – but with a sound and vision this focused and muscular, this deeply satisfying, such concerns, for the time being anyway, get left behind in the pure throbbing rush of blood to the head and the heart.

A constant curtain of shimmer attends this record but it’s punctuated by the dark and it shudders as if someone heard The Sound deep inside their most utter Soundness and thought ‘That’s just not heavy enough.’ The Italian (gender-inclusive) Savages? You won’t hear me say that but anyone that does ain’t that far off.

the callas

Skip across the Ionian and the approach is decidedly more diverse. More Teutonic in nature than Hellenic (whatever that would be – anyway, there aren’t any bouzoukis involved), art-punk noiseniks The Callas, acerbically helmed by brothers Aris and Lakis Ionas, who, after negotiating successful careers in more visual media are branching out into audio, have, with the help of Grinderman Jim Sclavunos, produced a relentlessly satisfying debut in I Am Vertical (Inner Ear).

Indebted nearly as much to American strains of urbanized garage rock (the Iggy-fied abandon of “I Wonder”) and avant post-punk (the Pere Ubu-esque outburst halfway through the well-named “Anger”) as they are the machine pulse tendencies drifting down from the Nordic region of their own continent and/or the deeper aggro UK energies of, say, the Stranglers, the band are at their most riveting when it all gets mashed together, which is pretty much all the time. The Fujiya & Miyagi-meets-Television throb of “East Beat” is perhaps the clearest example, the motorik subdued but insistent, the brothers and keyboardist Annita sounding like Berliner art terrorist refugees taking refuge in the Athenian version of the Lower East Side. But then there’s “Black Leather Books,”  where Nico joins JJ Burnel as he retools Euroman Cometh for the darkest-hearted club set this side of Burial, the Crampsian cabaret of “Disaster,” the clomp and off-balance march of withering opener “Lustlands,” drummer Marilena laying down a don’t-fuck-with-me beat that, umm, can’t be beat and that henceforth prevails through the rest of the album.

It’s by now a cliché that some of the most trenchantly brilliant music emerges from grim, edge-of-desperation cities that have become economic disaster zones (the London and NYC of the mid-70’s two obvious examples) and with 27.3% unemployment (a staggering 65% among youth), bubble-popped pensions, years of misplaced austerity measures and an overall, seemingly permanent, sense of teetering on the brink of systemic chaos, Greece, and specifically Athens, would appear to be fomenting exactly those conditions, and consciously or not, The Callas give off an energy that reflects the simmering collective despair gripping the world’s original democracy. Explicit inside “Disaster” (this city looks like an angry mouth) and, of course, self-evident in the screech of “Anger,” even when the band are relatively tongue-in-cheek, as on the choppy poppy “I Hate You But I Like You” or more broadly circumspect as during the enigmatic pound of the title track, a serratedness stitches the edges of their sound. These songs are red of tooth and raw with the sort of feral impulse that comes from being backed into corners and thrown scraps. The brothers Ionas may themselves not have their backs up against the wall – though it’s safe to assume nearly no one’s dancing the prosperity two-step over there right now – but this fierce and impassioned record they’ve created is surely giving voice to those that do.

One wonders what size iceberg I Am Vertical is just the tip of – and the Shadowplay desk has every intention of following that lead as 2014 dawns with but dim promise over that ancient land (we’re already looking at this lot) – but in the meantime, we fully recommend catching up to one of 2013’s most visceral debuts.

for against

Back over here on this side of the Atlantic we have Captured Tracks to thank (again; we seem forever in their debt) for dropping a long overdue box set of For Against’s earliest recordings into our laps just before Christmas. If, like your faithful scribe, you missed them first time around, take a moment to gently chide yourself then let it go and make amends, as this trio from the ‘of all places’ city of Lincoln, Nebraska produced some of the richest home-grown post-punk fare to ever grace our fruited plains.

The three LPs in the set (and it is vinyl only, limited to 1000 copies) represent the original core trio of the band once various other iterations fell into the ditch (the name actually derives from Four Against One when they still believed they were going to be a quartet and had dumped the moniker Glue). Coalescing in 1984 from the tatters of local scenesters Cartoon Pupils and Hymn to Joy, the threesome – Harry Dingman III, guitar, Gregory Hill, drums, and bassist/vocalist/lyricist Jeffrey Runnings – managed a single in 1985 (“Autocrat”/”It’s A Lie”) before woodshedding for over a year then delivering debut album Echelons in 1987. For your writer, this is where the chiding begins. I could have used this record in 1987, but then hell, I could use a record like this in any year and 2013 will do as well as any other.

Signing on without hesitation to the postpunk-dotted style line, “Shine” does exactly that if in a rather shadowed manner, its shimmer troubled like a silvered Victorian mirror that nonetheless reflects light and does so radiantly. Buoyed – as is this collection entire – by a sonorous, deeply sympathetic lead bass line seductively luring us both into and out of the darkness, chased along by a rolling rattling chime of guitar and some explosive, pinpoint drumming, the track hooks you helplessly in to their orbit where you’ll stay for the next forty minutes or so (the classic LP length, it bears mentioning).

Displayed generously on this debut record is, for want of a better phrase, a spacious density, which makes no sense perhaps unless you know the band. Atmosphere is clearly important to For Against (and yes, “is” – the band, by most reports, remains active), a fact demonstrated not the least on “Daylight” with its refrain, amidst a tapestry of brightly murked gloom, that’s all there is inside this place, this space, and brought to its finest hone on the title track wherein one layer of hypnotic, pulsing haunt gets layered over another, the thing by its burgeoning end obtaining opus status.

Central to any band’s sound, of course, is the character of its singer’s voice and in the trebly, clear vocals of Jeffrey Runnings we have a curious instrument. Somehow simultaneously matter-of-fact and prickly vulnerable, pitched up in a flatter, midwestern Richard Barone range, it has, if I may say, an intimate distance to it that suits these songs abundantly well, especially as it contrasts with the plumbing, adroit charge of the bass he’s playing down below.

For the sake of what-the-heck argument let’s say there’s a weak track on Echelons. Closest we come is “Loud And Clear,” top-heavy as it is with a Dolby-like, MTV-baiting synth element that gives a kind of whipped-froth feel to it while not supplying a grabby enough melody to offer a counterweight. Still, even with those putative failings duly noted, the song scuttles along with sufficient amounts of bassy swagger to keep its head admirably above water, a sign of an irrepressibly good band, and of an enduring, still-fresh debut.

1988’s December found the band tackling the sophomore syndrome mostly with aplomb, the songs retaining their tunefully aggressive strata and gripping rhythmic heart even as the sheen of the era creeps in, if modestly, to coat the drum sound and drive the high end just a bit higher. Overall an unstinting continuation of what Echelons began, this second album can’t help but seem as if it were designed to be more ‘accessible,’ with industry indictment “They Said” even rounding out as a straight-up mid-tempo rock song, the bass suppressed in favor of some pleasing guitar jangle, that damned popped-drum effect, and a final keyboard drift that’s the opposite of ‘atmospheric.’ That, however, is quite decidedly the exception.

The winner on December could be “December” with its slumbering icy textures and its longing wintry wandering but then again that might get edged out by “The Effect,” the adventurous intrigue of lyric (Here are some matches to play with/don’t call me by my first name), Dingman’s crystal drop harmonics, now this is atmosphere. And speaking of which, closer “Clandestine On High Holy” brings the elevating ambience and the chunneling hurtle and suggests what Kitchens of Distinction might have sounded like had the bands switched birthplaces.

Hampered primarily by production values, December regardless holds its own. It may sit a rung or two down the ladder from its predecessor but it’s a very tall ladder and a great deal of its competition struggles to find purchase far down below. Amazingly, though, it could be argued that both albums lie in the shadow of the box’s third disc, In The Marshes.

First released in 1990 as a 10″, the 5-song mini-LP consists of demos and it may well take the post-punk cake here. Despite being in some ways more electronic, a bit more minimalistic, there’s something writhingly alive about these tracks. Frankly, I hadn’t expected I’d be plumping for them over the two LPs proper but the unvarnished, unselfconscious power here is undeniable. These tracks rock, they leave you (wonderfully) cold, they bat you about the head, they engage with a fearless primacy.

“The Purgatory Salesman” so effectively evokes the jittering disorientation of a nightmare it’s physically unsettling – very good indeed, in other words – the Pornography-era Cure vibe of “Amen Yves” is simply massive, taking that cue and transiting it far beyond the chasms of doom and into a blinding, befogged glare of sunlight; the unchecked, fierce underbinding of “Fate,” belying Running’s fluttering (if nerve-wracked) vocal, could have easily transmitted its power through the decades and named the Soviet Soviet album via osmosis. And the title track? That sets us down in a deserted cityscape wasteland and leads us inexorably towards, yes, the marshes just beyond the boundary line, building a beautiful architecture of anxiety along the way, the vocals not vocals but liminal utterings, shadows darting in and out of our consciousness. Opener “Tibet” imbues its thin-air mysticism with an edge of shifting fear, you feel you’re being followed. Besides gasping, one comes away from In The Marshes thinking ‘Demos? Those were demos?!?’

All of which amounts to this For Against box set being utterly essential if you have even the least drop of post-punk jones in your blood at all. Slightly pricey (though already a rarity), it’s easily, without doubt, worth missing a month’s rent for.