The Gritty Manc Mysticism of Factory Star’s “Enter Castle Perilous”

Factory Star
Enter Castle Perilous
Occultation

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If you were Martin Bramah, what would you do? You’re in your fifties now and, as a founding member of both the Fall and Blue Orchids, your status as semi- if not full-fledged post-punk legend is assured. How seductively tempting would it be to trade off your legacy? There are, after all, no shortage of examples to follow, others from your graduating class that have found ways to feather the nests of both their reputation and bankbook by tapping the scratchy, angular birdsong of their youth. Hell, a fair number of them have even managed to do so without significantly damaging said legacy. Sure, in all but the rarest cases this has amounted to a rather baldfaced (re)treading of water, with nothing particularly gained nor lost in the proposition, a kind of pleasing – at times even exciting – stalemate, but what the hell. Only the harshest amongst us would begrudge them their places in this second-chance sun. It’s not as if the original post-punk generation was showered with rose petals and gold-plated limos. The reward for creating some of the edgiest, most singularly inspired rock music in the history of the form was, well, at best a kind of cultish celebrity – and we all know how well that pays – and at worst a kind of cultish obscurity, which, as you might imagine, pays even less.  So, again, if you were Martin Bramah, what would you do? Find a way to cash in, maybe, then trot a few of those (relatively) fat cheques down to his local branch of the British Post-Punk Bank of Nostalgia?  Turns out, no.  If you were Martin Bramah, you’d form an ad hoc, sharply sympathetic, no-nonsense band, name it Factory Star and make an album that, in its vital center, is nearly impervious to those particular glories of yore.

What began simply enough, as a plan to record a single and a couple of B-sides, exploded into a three-day barrage of recording, a take-no-prisoners studio assault that left in its wake, once the smoke had cleared,  the body count was tallied and the smashed crockery swept aside, a genuinely exciting album that somehow manages to be both a biting paean to Bramah’s post-punk legacy  – with all the tropes that implies: scything guitars, vocals possessed of a peculiar nasal burr that is simultaneously impassioned and detached, a frenzied scudding rhythm that will be familiar to anyone that can put the terms ‘Manchester,’ ‘musical style’ and ‘late 70s’ into a meaningful sentence – and an assured, uncompromising statement of departure from it.  Enter Castle Perilous is, in short, a modern record, there’s no scraping and bowing to the demands of nostalgia towards which its target audience may lean. But more than that, much more than that, it’s a timeless record, one that won’t be moored to a particular year and couldn’t be if it tried.

The raw energy, present even on the more deliberate tracks, cannot be over-remarked upon. At nearly every turn you can hear this album’s urgency to get made, though ‘made’ is perhaps a bit tame so let’s go with ‘birthed.’ And it comes out with a snarl, slashing at the chancers surrounding it, the hypocrites in ministers’ clothing, the tough-guy losers losing again, and, as much as anyone or anything, at the shadows of a Manchester that once was or should have been, a mythic place whose passing is not so much bitterly as plaintively mourned.  Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that Bramah sounds reborn here, his weapon of choice not the martyr’s sword but, yes, the martyr’s guitar. When The Fall’s original bassist – and the band’s only genuine musician at the time – Tony Friel taught Bramah some barre chords and basic structures way back in the dark-aged mid-70’s, young Martin promptly set off to explore the more primal terrains and snaky discord of Tom Verlaine and this album in some respects feels like a matured distillation of that process, the moonlit graveyard influences casting a similar eerie pall, and pull, as Television’s seminal debut.  Except instead of the then-wasted environs of New York City, the junky doorways and torn curtains, are the verdigris-ridden riverwalls and alleyways of Manchester where whiffs of mold and mildew and a kind of Arthurian swampiness permeate.  And decay, need we mention decay?  Economic, spiritual, the gamut.  If all this suggests a certain level of mysticism – there are, after all, allusions to fallen angels and ancient ritual – you’re not far off.

But the trick here is, there’s nothing folk-rocky or anachronistic about it. Nowhere on this album will you feel you’re slogging through the mud of a medieval village or cast in the stocks.  Rather these themes are there as a template of warning, the Druidic past laid like an omenic transfer over the modern-day grid of Manchester. The power of this record comes, yes, through its words and instruments – details in a moment – but as much as those, its impact comes through feel.  Though there are, crucially, breaks in the clouds at times, through which shards of humor and tenderness if not exactly great hope, overall a suggestion of menace stalks this album.  When you walk outside on a late fall night and a heavy wet fog deadens the echo of your footsteps on the bricks, that’s the air you’ll feel as you follow this record across Manchester.  Enter Castle Perilous indeed.

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Though it can’t be presumed that Bramah intended this album to play like an emblematic saga of a man attempting – bravely wildly and sadly – to navigate his way back across a jarringly altered yet never-changing Mancunian landscape, toward an always uncertain fate, that’s the way ECP plays, at least through its first half.  Not so much novelistic or cinematic but more allegorical, a quixotic Canterbury tale adapted to the anxieties of 21st C. Northern Britain.

The album’s first word, the password needed to enter ECP?  “Devastator,” and as a song “Angel Eyes” is a corker of an opening, romping and thrumming and kicking down the gates in the company of, flirting with, ‘defiling’ even, an accusing wraith.  Bramah, understand, has only recently returned to Manchester after years away in London, and here, straightaway, he meets his guide, this snip of a spirit that’s none too happy that he or anyone else ever left her behind.  She will, however, in her own ghostly, ghastly fashion, welcome him back with an open, emaciated embrace, a clutch of spider bones.  That initial gambit, “Devastator,” is launched on the heels of strummed electric chording that might well suggest the guitarist’s famous past outfit, and of all the songs on the album, with the possible exception of “Cheetham Bill” a few tracks hence, “Angel Steps” most closely hews to the Fall’s stuttery cadence.  But the resemblance is short-lived, overshadowed by two elements critical to this album’s triumph: the organ track of the inscrutably-named Hop Man Jr and the lyrics.  The former is in fact essential throughout this album.  The aforementioned waifish guide seems to glide on it, riding it, a wave in the atmosphere that carries her.  Arguably the organ is her very presence and that presence continues in varying forms – ghosts of a ghost, if you will – over every track, hovering, jabbing, never absent.  Sepulchral here, carnivalesque there, quite often both at the same time, the organ is key, if occasionally subtle enough to go almost unnoticed.  But don’t be fooled.  Whether ostensible or not, the haunting-slash-gurning tones of that organ are what you breathe as you live inside the world of this record.

As for the lyrics, on this and every song, well, let’s just say that, though still elliptical in their way, allusive and richly metaphoric, Bramah’s use of language is nonetheless direct, there’s no mucking about.  Though “Angel Steps” may, in its structure, resemble a certain notorious band from his past, lyrically it couldn’t be less of a MESs.

“Hair flailing on the red bank / She was not swimming in the brimming weir.”

No way of knowing how easily these words come to him (it should be noted that both this song and “New Chemical Light” list Ann Matthews as co-writer ) but what is clear, everywhere on this record, is how important language is to the songwriter.  There’s no stinting, no ‘good enough.’  Whether or not one can always follow the Mancunian references, the appearances of historic characters, or even if the at times too clarion brittleness of a lyric, as in “The Fall Of Great Britain,” strikes with less nuance than you might have wished, you’re never left with that all-too-common impression, “Nice tune, but the words? Meh.”

By no means, however, is there a preciousness maintained to coddle these words.  No, the ferocity, humanity, outrage and humor  – that dank Manc humor  –  that inhabit these songs by turns is well reflected in Bramah’s singing.  By the end of “Angel Steps” he’s pretty much growling the line They give me wings, they give me wings, offset, rather playfully, by petite, precise handclaps in the background.

Likewise, the next track, “Big Mill,” is put forward with a sort of ominous pragmatism, our anti-hero hero, our sorry prodigal son, declaring his intent to work his working-class fingers to the working-class bone.  Tie me to the yoke…I will work myself free, the guitar churning and driving as if to underscore this determination even as the ever-present organ swirls above and just behind him, hinting at the sorrow shadowing any such ambition.

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And indeed it doesn’t take long, immediately in fact, for things to begin slipping off the rails.  Over two tracks the steadfast promise inherent in “Big Mill” goes rapidly astray.  “Away Dull Care,” one of the catchiest songs you’ll hear all year, furthers our tale under the auspices of Clym of the Clough, a renowned – and actual – outlaw in the mold of Robin Hood, who with Adam Bell was truly “the last of the merry men,” and it’s all ruction and tumble, the song boasting an appropriately garagey swing not far from Passenger-era Iggy, with all the swagger that implies.  Easily the album’s most rollicking track, it’s also the one richest in local lore, citing Donkey Fringe – AKA the Scuttlers, 19th C. gangs that sported a short back and sides with long fringes – a Cotton King (at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was referred to as ‘Cottonopolis’) and a figure spitting like a Kilkenny Cat, in once-common local parlance a nasty fighter.  The message would seem nailed in the song’s title, raise your glass despite your troubles, away dull care!  Yet, tellingly, buried early in the lyrics, one line brings a note of sobriety to the loutish outlaw fatalism: There used to be a factory there.

So, what’s our poor boy to do? No prospects to speak of, really, the big mill as it turned out was a bit a big joke, an empty promise, a pleasant myth maybe but pleasant myths won’t pay the bills and besides, this is Manchester, where clever lads for centuries have found a better way.  Meet “Cheetham Bill.”  After an opening salvo that sounds an obvious nod to Bramah’s earliest work – eight single, seemingly off-key notes that have you falling into the song before it’s met by a companion rhythm guitar and of course the lurching organ – we’re introduced to the title character through his order to his of unseen goodtime girl to give (him) time to do another line before he’s on his way, hoping to do it all again someday and why wouldn’t he, it’s all on her dime.  Yes, Cheetham Bill’s a bit of a spiv, no doubt about that, but, poignantly, one that has met his match in this unnamed foil, this woman of his fevered dreams, his girl.  Cheetham Bill, you see, is in love.  In spite of its crashing mayhem, its theme of rather rapacious abuse and exploitation, this is an exceedingly romantic love story, albeit one wherein redemption is only possible via the offices of mutually-assured destruction.  Being the chivalrous sort, our man Bill makes sure his sweetheart meets her fate first, though we get the feeling it won’t be long he’ll be joining her, a suspicion not unfounded as she appears before him “with her head in her hands..her skin all white and deathly” – that last word emphasized by a single, achingly beautiful guitar chord that could break crystal – and off they go into the wild doomed yonder.  You can almost see them walking arm in ravaged arm, exchanging knowing chuckles, what a lark, shrugging their shoulders as one.  Cheetham Bill cannot, it seems, live without her, quite literally, and what greater love could there possibly be?

Would be lovely, wouldn’t it, to picture the two doomed gadabout lovers drifting entwined into a sunset saturated by industrial pinks and blood crimsons?  But by now we know better, we know their spectral nuptials will more likely lead them deeper into the dark heart of the city, where shadows are swallowed by darker shadows and the ways out of despair are tricky and labyrinthine, leading in dead-end circles.  It’s here you hear, on an abandoned street corner, the first few gentle chops of guitar that introduce “Black Comic Book,” a song that reigns as centerpiece, four minutes fifteen seconds of catharsis, made all the more gripping and effective by how gently it begins, those few soft strums giving no indication of the howl in store.  So seductive is the opening, drawing you in unawares, that the initial absence of the organ goes unnoticed.  It’s when it does appear, a full twenty seconds in, that you know you’re in trouble.  Nowhere on this album does the organ more eerily don that mantle of sepulchral-slash-carnivalesque, the simultaneity of which is as unnerving as it sounds, as unnerving as it should be.  Also nowhere on this album is the synthesis of that organ and fretwork more devastating, Bramah’s wiry filigreed guitar lines bursting apart in flight above the swirling fog of the circus church keyboard, the notes slicing off tones that feel woozily off-kilter, just to add to the sublime discomfort of it all.  If it wasn’t for the stellar foundation of a rhythm section anchoring us to the floor who knows where we’d end up, tangled in the rafters, flying with the crows, who knows.

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And what better time for Bramah to lay into the vocals, lay open his torn-open heart and lay it all out there, the hero disillusioned, his blood “splattered on the street,” valor either vanquished or turned to darker purpose.  Past this what’s there to say, nothing really and the song and its protagonist come to an abrupt end.  But the song itself is a searing triumph, arguably the singularly most powerful in Mr Bramah’s storied career, and easily imagined as a highlight to a live set assuming its emotional pitch wouldn’t prove too draining on a nightly basis.

So far, so “phew!”  By this point in the record we’ve definitely been on a bit of a reckless journey, caroming about, a lot of action, slung to and fro.  It’s been exhilarating, rather breathtaking, in senses both figurative and literal.  Anyone out there dismissive or unaware of the importance of an album’s sequencing, sit up and take note, as here we have an object lesson.  “When Sleep Won’t Come” is paradoxically named, in a way, a lullaby to a lover caught in insomnia’s web.  But before the gentle theremin-like notes greet you, before the Morricone’d chords that open the song proper, a voice, presumably the singer’s though unidentifiable, murmurs the words “Slow down now, son” (or “some,” hard to tell) and, indeed, thematically, the song puts the character whose dizzy fevered path we’ve been following to bed, even while the lover herself lies helplessly awake.  It’s an enchantingly intimate song, the album’s tenderest turn, filled with promise and devotion, the omnipresent organ playing a far more benevolent role, drifting into a lilting, soporific solo that lasts over a minute and is guaranteed to carry you into your own state of exquisite sleeplessness.  Beautiful.

It’s a short breather.

As if it hasn’t already, Enter Castle Perilous, from this point forward, more than earns its title.  “The Fall Of Great Britain,” as unironic a song title as you’ll find, also begins with a whisper – The Philistines be upon thee – but it’s a whisper delivered with the urgency of a shout.  Nowhere on this album is Bramah more explicit lyrically.  To be sure there are still some curious turns, many of the phrasings are still allusively dressed – no idea where Gimme one good slug fits in, for instance, though you can be sure it does – but given the title, given the words immediately after that opening whisper, This is a warning to you all, there’s no room for doubt.  There are suits of gold and iridescent liveries and it’s near impossible to miss the reflective undertone relating to current political and economic circumstance in the UK and, ahem, elsewhere.  History’s written by the victors but victories aren’t always accomplished via the sword or drone.  Just as injurious and sinister are the weapons wielded by bankers and stock marketeers.  “The Fall Of Great Britain” ends with the unreliable historian cooking the books and burning the words of better men.  Need I say more?  That this most unvarnished of tracks should be presented inside a wry, snarling-but-restrained rage should itself go without saying.

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“Fall Of…”’s companion piece is closing track “Arise Europa!,” another track that pulls no punches, as none need pulling when a world teetering on so many brinks is slow to recognize that very fact.  Arriving on another tune that’s as jukebox-ready as “Away Dull Care,” it speaks to both the inherent privileges that come with First World status and the wobbly reality in which that First World now finds itself, and, really, whose fault is that.  The title would seem to suggest an exhortation, and in fact its opening salvo, Climb off your sofa baby couldn’t be any clearer.  But the underlying sense that such a rallying cry is nothing but the reaction of a slow lumbering old giant far too comfortable in its paternalistic (now crumbling) role as the powerbroker, as the leader of men deciding the fates of lesser men, is inescapable.  “Arise Europa!” is less a call to arms than a call to simply wake the fuck up.

Serving as a sort of analgesic buffer between those two more damning, outwardly political tears, are a couple of songs that would risk the ‘bucolic’ tag where it not for the sharp lysergic edge in “New Chemical Light” and the rumbling garage-psych vibe of “Stone Tumbling Stream.”  On the former, amidst a blossoming arrangement and some frantically hopeful twinned guitar leads – one of this album’s few clear moments of overdubbing – comes some of Bramah’s most poetical and unabashed lyrics, overt clarity dispensed in favor of the sensual, of the intuitive.  And if you don’t know that Lactea is a reference to the Milky Way, that Sidera is part of the name given Saturn’s four moons by Cassini, or what ‘viaticum’ means (resources for travel, basically, derived from Ancient Rome), all the better, as you can either simply enjoy the sound of the language – bit of a rarity, that, you have to admit – or run to the internet and look them up.  Either way a besotting choice, and isn’t it nice to be given that choice by what’s ostensibly a rock song.

The other, “Stone Tumbling Stream,” would appear fairly straightforward in comparing the narrator’s acquired ability to go his own true crooked way with that of the titular stream, and as such feels the most autobiographical, or at least self-referential.  It’s easy to imagine Bramah standing streamside somewhere gleaning this very sense, catching off its glint not only the mote of inspiration for this song but a rushing metaphor for the life of the artist him- or herself.  Whereas for most the ‘path of least resistance’ signifies a kind of passivity and therefore a weakness, for an artist it’s a crucial fact of life.  You don’t go wresting gems by brute force.  They instead accrue through channels developed internally, almost secretly, an idiosyncratic webwork of intuition, experience and craft.  Not an easy notion to quantify, less easy still to do so in the context of a rock song.  So it doesn’t hurt that the song, well, tumbles along on a head-nodding groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on the B-side of a lost garage-label gem circa 1966, the guitar rumbling or serrated as needed, the organ more Farfisa’d here than anywhere.  And ye gods, man, that rhythm section.  Chris Dutton’s bass, Tom Lewis’s drums, as they have throughout the proceedings, undergird the other two like primal forces stealing through the earth beneath their feet.  So solid, so punctuative, it’s their authority that Bramah and Hop Man Jr’s authority rests on, and it’s their thunder that will be left in your ears after every listen.

No review of this record would be complete without a word about Nick Halliwell’s production, a word about Occultation’s packaging.

An album made in a burst like this should, in theory, grab you instantly, by the ears if not the throat.  But only very few made in such a way actually do that, and ECP is no different.  As stated, Enter Castle Perilous was made quickly with very little overdub and only minimal, as-necessary post-production, and the very lack of studio polish, per se, leaves a rough-hewn path in its wake.  Odd then, that the effect can be, upon first listen, to make the immediacy less immediate.  But look at it this way.  By 2011 our ears have become accustomed to lush production, the way a host welcomes the suave charming guest in the GQ gear while taking a goodly while longer to warm to the slightly more caustic, nakedly honest guest who displays noticeably less decorum, is dressed a bit outlandishly in vintage scarves and weird velvets and only speaks to make acerbic, albeit accurate comments on whatever topic presents itself.  Yet we all know who, by night’s end, said host and everyone else present are drawn toward.  So it is with ECP.  Not overproduced, not under-produced, but produced as much as was needed to maintain its urgency and give these songs their proper, lasting impact.  This record sounds like nothing else, you could hear it from the window of a passing car and know it’s Enter Castle Perilous.  The result is a piquant, succinctly gorgeous record, an impression enhanced with every listen.

The packaging, on both the vinyl and CD versions, is exquisite.  Jim Donnelly’s cover photos fairly drip with an Avalonian esprit-de-mist, the layout in general helps you feel a sympathetic chill in keeping with the album’s contents.  But this is what we’ve come to expect from Occultation, a label that harkens back to the glory days of UK independents, Factory, Creation, Zoo and Fast.  It’s a throwback aesthetic of the first water and Halliwell and company should be applauded for being one of the labels keeping it alive.

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So, what would you do if you were Martin Bramah?  Who knows, really, but what the man himself has done is what he’s always done, at least since the Blue Orchids: taken his fluent, auto-didact’s knowledge of the folk history of the British Isles, the myths and mysteries forged in blood and brick-and-iron industry and those famous emerald forests, seasoned it with the gritty mysticism of his heady forebears – Yeats, Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Robert Graves’ White Goddess – and laid the whole trembling quilt over the landscape of contemporary life.  Though the gist of this record is concerned specifically with Manchester, it could, with a tweaked reference here, some rejiggered slang there, just as easily apply to any place within the sound of its voice.  Up until quite recently we’d all become pretty comfortable on the edge of our bubble, and with comfort comes complacency, with complacency arrogance, and with arrogance, inevitably and certainly, downfall.  So yeah, this record speaks as a warning but what a beautifully rendered one.  If we’re going to be told to watch out, that calamity is almost surely upon us and any sense of assurance is on the wing, it’s nice to get that message not only with the wry wink of a jaundiced eye, but also through the delivery of what can only be called a life’s work.

What would you do if you were Martin Bramah?  You’d dispense with easy niceties and any and all ideas of a nostalgia-driven paycheck, and instead produce exactly that, your life’s work.  So far.