Written by: Dave Cantrell
Mounting their musical Trojan horse and kicking down the doors of both the disco and, potentially, the pop charts, the band of Bristolian brothers charts a comeback like no other.
When a legend the likes of the Pop Group returns a quarter century or more past their moment of original impact with a reunion tour and a new album, they present a many-faceted quandary, and every one of those facets has to do with relevance (and bear in mind, please, that for the purposes of this piece we’re only talking bands that were widely considered relevant in the first place – Splodgenessabounds, for instance, dear as they were, wouldn’t quite qualify – and that indeed have put out an album of new material. Reunions alone, which is to say exercises in cheap nostalgia, define irrelevance, regardless of how good those shows almost always are and how great it is to see whomever back on stage again). It’s a bit of a Gordian knot here but let’s see if we can be so bold as to untangle it.
I’ve argued on these pages before how and why the polymorphous entity that is commonly tagged ‘post-punk’ has, relative to other revivalist trends (psych, most pointedly), retained its sting of pertinence, the movement’s shadows and angles, its fearlessness and unblinking stare undiminished by the passage of time. The gist of that argument was that the form in all its many iterations simply doesn’t age, that the zeitgeist-capturing done back then in the late 70’s early 80’s is, at its core, no different from that being attempted now, and in fact it could be argued that the themes of surveillance-state paranoia, corrupt elitists, rampant greed and inequality and the alienation that all that breeds before it gets absorbed emotionally and comes out creatively, is all the more acute today. Hence the presence of a mode of expression that has refused to go away and is currently enjoying its strongest resurgence since the Reagan-Thatcher years (the less said about the retro-stylism of the Franz Ferdinanded years the better, please). All of which helps explain why the return of the Gang of Four a decade ago, Magazine a few years after that and now the Pop Group, arrive on a tide of built-in momentousness. What it doesn’t explain is why, of those and others, only the Pop Group is managing to return with an album that parallels and even enhances their reputation rather than falling overshadowed prey to it. The truest answer, best as I can tell, is stubborn faith.
When deciding to re-engage the fray, it seems unwaveringly clear that Mark Stewart, Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith and Dan Catsis made the not unreasonable decision to pick up more or less where they left off as if little to nothing had changed, which, again, by any accurately measured dynamic of how the world works, it hasn’t. Gadgetry has propounded upon itself to an unforeseeable level, yes, but whatever advanced freedoms that should in theory bring have, with rare if notable exception, not materialized in any tangible way, and have in fact often proven to have had rather the opposite effect. We’re no less propagandized by screens and those that provide the content populating them, they’ve simply grown smaller and more portable, more ‘trick.’ So permeatingly true is it that civilizaton has en masse become a slave to the palm-sized device in its clutches that to comment on it is about as cutting-edge insightful as, say, pointing out that the music industry has really changed, man. And there, hidden in plain sight, is the true scandal: our blanket, blank-faced acceptance of this soul-deadening state of affairs as the preferred status quo. Smart phones and their blinking ilk have passively accomplished what centuries of despots and Richilieus have had to expend incalculable amounts of violent effort to effect and with nothing near the same success rate. And here we arrive at the subject at hand – neat segue – as this is, rather self-evidently, precisely the territory explored by the rollicksome, shockingly good Citizen Zombie.
Espousing the standard party line as regards a band of this Rushmorean stature re-entering the studio to bang out a new record – ‘if it’s not good it’s not worth doing’ or some variant thereof – what’s different here is the Pop Group figured out a way to follow through on that hoary old chestnut of intent and not just on a handful of tracks – though some stand above their mates, of course – but on the album entire. At the risk of brandishing my own cliché, the key here is really quite simple: the Pop Group picked up again without missing a beat.
In other similar efforts alluded to above there always seemed some measure of the audibly tentative that tended to manifest as recycled tropes, tropes that, granted, they may have invented in the first place, but the results didn’t translate into material that matched by even a half-length what they’d produced in their prime in terms of urgency and drive. The songs on Citizen Zombie, by contrast, burn with the need to exist. From the white noise warning punctuated by percussive tics that leads into the opening title track to the (perhaps surprisingly) lovely ballad of piano-dappled despair (“Echelon”) that carries us out in a swirl of an asylum-dweller’s fevered dream, we’re assailed by fractured beauty, driven tribal mad by stabs of serrated funk, made to look into the cracking mirrors of our own modern soul, assuring ourselves we can keep it all together and telling ourselves it’s all OK even as the sound of breaking glass increases all around us. And to all of this, we dance, mightily, not so much from some fatalistic impulse but because the Pop Group offer us little choice. Though it may be herky-jerky here, a piece of paranoiac pantomime there, Citizen Zombie, for the most part, and most unabashedly, is your ticket to the dystopian dance party, albeit one where a steely – even joyous – resilience dominates the dark festivities.
Past the thumping, horror-movie scold-and-roll of “Citizen Zombie” where even its most scathing refrain – equating its subject with bad robots lacking both control and soul – comes suspended inside a bit of a soothing interlude that only serves to illustrate how adept the Pop Group have become at this sly subversion game, we come upon the infectious “Mad Truth” (home of the ‘Sister Rita/Freedom’ dust-up; see interview), a relentless slice of light martial funk that’s like a vacation night out down the situationist disco, complete with 80’s-lifted steel drum-mimicking keys, Chic-y guitar lines and a bass sinuous and stabbing enough to curl socks. Further down the tracklist “The Immaculate Deception,” after its epic, of-all-things Big Country intro, moves on to plow a big phat furrow indeed, chunky massive blocks of whack-a-mole rhythm breaking out with an industrial persistence as the Wag The Dog-like lyrics get, well, barked out with both vigor and bite, all sweetly leavened by a soulful female fill-in vocal in the chorus. Straight on its heel, its placement appropriately dead center on the album, centerpiece “S.O.P.H.I.A.” (the acronym, if it’s meant to be one, escapes) judders to life past some ominous tech-fail static, rising into an irresistible slab of manic tightened funk pop that pulses with a swaggering joy and presents itself as Zombie‘s beating heart, Stewart’s vocal hook of “I’m so sorry but that’s not what I came here for” destined to become one of 2015’s most potent aural memes (though the track’s other addictive singalong moment, the chant-like “deny everything, do nothing” may well edge it out by a nose).
Though those are obstensibly the record’s most immediate tracks simply by virtue of their more explicit hip-shaking structures, they have competition. The shifty-rhythmed “Shadow Child” lurches adroitly about like an adrenalized, disfigured PiL track that’s somehow twice as dense but twice as light – yes, a paradox but that’s in many ways this band’s bailiwick, innit? – throwing itself around inside its own peristaltic spasms and stepping with feral abandon on its own toes as damning phrases such as “prisoner without a number” and “anarchy wasted” echo past. Essentially the equivalent of a CIA abduction as pop song, to say it’s arresting does it little justice, a statement we may as well apply throughout.
The crushing gospel vibe of “Nowhere Girl,” backed up as it is by a woofer-shredding bass and a phalanx of backup chorus noises that on its own underlines the merits of choosing Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine, Coldplay) to produce, is potent and heavy but deft, rather imprinting itself on your cerebral wall invited or not. Like most of Citizen Zombie‘s somewhat more challenging tracks, you’ll be surprised to hear it whistling through your brain many hours later. Same goes for “Nations,” a screed of the most articulate type that’s spewed with stern precision above a restless electronic scree, Stewart’s spoken-word, matter-of-fact outburst both excoriating and imploring. Think of it as a kind of wake-up call delivered by Henry Rollins were he Noam Chomsky hybridized with Aldous Huxley. From there we descend (with glee!) into the Boschean abyss of “St. Outrageous,” where we find some Eddie Hazeled guitar, some Outer Limits oscilloscoped synth effects, more robot motor noises as well a snatch or two of Numanesque futurism. A nightmare agglomeration you can shimmy to, it’s the record’s densest, most obtuse track, thereby becoming the ballast the rest of the album leans on, the place to go when you need a shot of unadulterated Pop Group bracingness. Somewhat squaring the contrasting poles – mashed funketeria at the one end, exploding manic didacticism at the other – is “Box 9.” Another party romp (ha!) that happens to concern itself with the question of the mysterious humanity-altering contents of the titular box (once opened, “things will never be the same again“), this one comes messy and true, as noisy and propulsive as the Fire Engines, as rabidly coiled as the J.B.’s.
Now, this being who it is, we expect polemic wrapped in Don Cherry-flavored avant pop nuggetry, a collagist sound with a violently murmuring heart. What we maybe don’t expect or at the very least expect less, is Pop Group as (somewhat) soft melodic groove merchants or as cracked balladeers with a taste for the Grand Guignol. On the final two tracks here they come close to both. Some may say dangerously so, I say delightfully so.
Built on a pretty piano figure that twinkles like dusk, with drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Dan Catsis practicing the fine art of funk encouragement (the hi-hats even going a bit Shaft on us), Gareth Sager’s guitars chippering along in a nimble Santa Esmerelda groove as if their strings are made of light, “Age of Miracles” may sound a departure from the great template of severity with which some (most?) associate this band, and by those markers mentioned above I suppose it is but hey, trust in this lot’s sense of structural balance. Those piano chords, of course, trend dark the deeper in we go, plundering the minor depths during a chorus that also sustains an echo of growing electronic chaos while the lyrics spare no quarter, no surprise considering they begin with the line “Sometimes I stumble, sometimes I fall.” Meanwhile, last track “Echelon” ushers us out through the smoky corners of a derelict club that time hasn’t forgotten but rather clings to like some invisible but oh-so-heavy cloak of yearning, Stewart never sounding so poignant as when he pleads “I can dream, can’t I?” This is, as is the whole record, the Pop Group matured, and whereas that word is often code for ‘softened,’ in these erstwhile Bristolians case it construes as added power, expanded parameters, a richer, more breathingly human command of that vast trove of tools their unstanched curiosity continues to explore.
A heady, unswerving triumph then by the four principals at the heart of this brilliant return but it’s worth mentioning that the band’s starkest stroke of genius may well have been the selection of Paul Epworth for the producer’s chair. A musician (read:artist) with his own deep CV of intriguing work, it’s his prodigious attention to craft that’s on as prominent display as the giddy shock of the band’s resumed vitality. Out of this collaboration has come something approaching epic and, if I may say, agreeably monstrous, an alive thing pulsing with inventive verve and punching out of the shadows of their own prescribed absence buoyed by the joy of mission. They have reached renewed momentum in record time.
Yes, one might say ‘against all odds’ regarding the strength of this “comeback” but if one had taken those odds in the first place they should have come with the jangly bells and pointed hat of the Fool. Anyone with any sense of this band’s history and the aesthetic ethics by which they operate, would never bet against the Pop Group. They have, again, shown the world how to win on your own terms.[As mentioned in the interview, the Pop Group are soon to tour. If they’re coming within 150 miles, don’t miss it. Check the dates below then check your distance]
LIVE DATES & Ticket links:
03/10/2015 Los Angeles CA – Echoplex – http://ticketf.ly/1uewMfE
03/11/2015 San Francisco CA – Great American Music Hall – www.gamhtickets.com
03/12/2015 Seattle WA – Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room – http://bit.ly/119pu2o
03/13/2015 Chicago IL – Levitation Festival – Thalia Hall – http://tktwb.tw/1u26eSi
03/14/2015 Toronto ON – Lee’s Palace – http://ticketf.ly/1BxbtfO
03/16/2015 Brooklyn NY – Rough Trade – www.roughtradenyc.com/
03/17/2015 New York NY – Bowery Ballroom – http://bit.ly/1xrv0vt