Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Few Thoughts on The Sound

I first encountered The Sound when I visited Drake Records in Köln just about ten years ago. The gracious owner offered my friend and I a drink and put on Jeopardy after he saw me browsing the New Wave section. I loved it, but for some reason ended up buying Wolfgang Riechmann’s Wunderbar instead. Just a few years later, Edsel Records released two box sets containing almost the entire recorded discography of the band, and I devoured both with glee. I’ve been meaning to write an article about the band and these reissues ever since. Now that I’m stuck inside during a pandemic, what better time to finally do it?

The roots of The Sound lie in The Outsiders, a (sorta) punk band fronted by Adrian Borland. After two albums and EP that already showed the band pushing on the boundaries of punk and independent record production, the band started to splinter. In the midst of a substantial lineup change, the band ended up changing their name to The Sound while recording a demo album that bridged the gap from The Outsiders to the eventual debut album of The Sound. This demo album, recorded in mid-1979, eventually saw release in 1999 as Propaganda. It’s still somewhat punky, but Bi Marshall’s clarinet and saxophone show the band grasping beyond the basic forms. Most of the lyrics are fairly basic critiques of British society and suburban life (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but a few are particularly noteworthy, such as the staunchly anticapitalist “Cost of Living” and the prescient “Music Business”. Three songs would later be rerecorded for Jeopardy and one for the Physical World EP. The album is fairly raw, and although some critics (and members of the band) consider it the band’s “real” debut and even their strongest album, I think it lacks the sophistication, finesse, and subtlety of their best work. It’s still cool to hear them in transition, though, and apparently some of the tracks were recorded with Outsiders member and later lyrical contributor Adrian Janes on drums before he left for university.

After a brief diversion with the experimental Flesh As Property EP by Second Layer (featuring just Borland and bassist Graham Bailey), the first proper Sound release was the Physical World EP in late 1979. While the title track and “Coldbeat” (later rereleased as the 12" b-side of “Sense of Purpose” in 1981) are in the same vein as Propaganda but with slightly better production, the final track, “Unwritten Law”, already shows the band moving in a deeper, darker, and more dramatic direction. This early version is absent from the recent reissue box sets, and although it isn’t as strong as the rerecording on Jeopardy or any of the live versions, it’s still a thrill to hear a primitive version based more around guitars than the brooding keyboards that would define all later versions.

[The Physical World EP.]

The Sound then signed to Korova, best known as the home to Echo & the Bunnymen. The Sound would be forever damned to follow in their footsteps and live in their shadow, although the frequent comparisons were not entirely unfounded. At any rate, their debut album and first release on Korova was Jeopardy in 1980. It’s amazing to hear the quick leap they made from everything they made before then. Despite the hasty sessions and miniscule budget, the result is stunning. Although the production is certainly not at the level of the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles (which apparently consumed all of Korova’s budget, leaving The Sound in the lurch), the immediate energy of it plays to the band’s strengths. The album is raw and still just a touch punky, yet comes across sophisticated and fully formed. “Hour of Need” and the new version of “Unwritten Law” benefit from noticeably more nuanced production. Marshall’s icy keyboards shine, as do Bailey’s throbbing post-punk bass and Michael Dudley’s propulsive drumming. Other highlights are “Missiles”, an unapologetic critique of the military-industrial complex, and “I Can’t Escape Myself”, an incisive assessment of mental health struggles. It’s a great album.

After a tour supporting Echo & the Bunnymen, The Sound issued the Live Instinct EP, shortly before the Bunnymen’s Shine So Hard live EP. While Shine So Hard sounded great and showed the band progressing into their next phase, Live Instinct is something of a regression. It’s upbeat and intense, rough and unsubtle. It’s alright, but offers nothing particularly special. Korova then assigned The Sound the same producer for their second album that had handled the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here, Hugh Jones, and he clearly had his own ideas of how From the Lion’s Mouth (1981) should sound. The result is cleaner, more elaborate, and much more refined, but the quality of the songs doesn’t quite match Jeopardy. The grandiosity and stateliness of the production is a welcome change, but the songs suffer from a loss of energy and power. In the process of writing the album, Marshall was apparently kicked out of the band and replaced by Max Mayers, although Marshall was still credited with cowriting “Skeletons” and “The Fire”, the two songs that sound the oldest and rawest. She has claimed that she wrote parts for all of the songs, and that most of those parts ended up on the final album, but Meyers is credited with cowriting five of the songs. Regardless of the author, keyboards and synthesizers took a more prominent role. The highlight of the album remains the strident opener, “Winning”, a battle hymn for combating depression that foreshadows their later anthems. The album was followed by a non-album single, “Hot House”, another excellent upbeat song confronting some sort of struggle.

The Sound’s lack of commercial success began to grate on both the band and their label, and their third album, All Fall Down (1982), is spitefully uncommercial. It’s dark, challenging, and full of synthesizers and drum machines. It’s much more aggressive than From the Lion’s Mouth and perhaps closer to Jeopardy or Second Layer’s World of Rubber (1981). The album has a poor reputation, but most of its risks pay off. The boldest, most difficult track is the opener, “All Fall Down”, but plenty of accessible moments can be found thereafter. “Party of the Mind” is a great pseudo-pop song, and “Monument” is another superb anthem. “Where the Love Is” and “Calling the New Tune” are strong upbeat numbers as well. The album certainly isn’t perfect, but it grows on me more and more with each listen. “We Could Go Far” is a fascinating floating dream, and the irony that the label insisted on adding the bass drum is painful. The box set includes the original version without it, but ultimately both versions have their charms. The reissue also includes three other outtakes that presumably would’ve been b-sides if they’d released a single from the album. None of them are duds, and the best of the bunch, “Sorry”, was even played live.

After getting dropped by their label, The Sound somehow ended up getting paired with former Factory Records singer/songwriter Kevin Hewick for the This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal EP (1983). It sounds like The Sound fronted by Hewick, but Hewick isn’t as convincing as Borland, and it doesn’t hold together well. The first side is more conventional while the second is quite experimental. The final song, “Scapegoat”, was apparently recorded solo by Hewick a year before the rest. It’s a unique release but not particularly successful.

While on the search for a new label, the band recorded a set of demos that first saw release on the second of the Edsel box sets. Three of the tracks would end up on the Shock of Daylight EP, another three on Heads and Hearts, and the remaining four eventually appeared as b-sides as late as 1987. The recordings are a bit rough and it sounds like they suffered some tape generation loss, but the songs are generally fleshed out and well arranged. Most of the songs already sound fairly similar to their eventually released versions, albeit with simpler arrangements and production. Although the demos are an interesting artifact, nothing about them is better than the final versions, so there isn’t much going for it.

Eventually, The Sound ended up on Statik, and their first release with them was Shock of Daylight (1984), an EP that seems like a huge leap from their past. The six songs are all tuneful but deep, with strong lyrics that are generally less downbeat than before. “Counting the Days” is particularly amazing; it sounds like a love song, yet is ambiguous enough to prevent a simple reading. “Winter” is sparser and gloomier, but the other five songs are all anthemic and strong yet complex. The EP might be the most optimistic Sound release, and it’s cohesive and consistent without getting dull. It’s their finest moment.

This was followed by Heads and Hearts (1985), which continues some of the same sounds and themes and almost maintains the same level of quality. “Whirlpool” is a bit dark, but it’s a powerful description of the depressive energy that can suck you down. “Under You” and “Wildest Dreams” are similar, and they too manage to address mental health struggles without sounding trite. On the other hand, “Total Recall”, “Love Is Not a Ghost”, “One Thousand Reasons”, and “Temperature Drop” are grand and beautiful. “Restless Time” and “World As It Is” are slightly more aggressive and recall their earlier sound, which doesn’t work quite as well, while “Mining for Heart” is a throwback to All Fall Down with its minimalism and openness. The band were apparently disappointed with the album and its production, and while it does have a distinctly 80s sound, it’s only barely dated, and the many synthesizers are rarely over the top. The album doesn’t quite match Shock of Daylight, but it’s almost on par. The b-sides aren’t quite at the same level; most of them are heavy and negative. The box set also adds “Shimmer”, a previously unreleased outtake that tops all the b-sides and fits in right with the album tracks. One wonders how it was overlooked for so long!

To make up for their frustrations with Heads and Hearts and its supposed shortcomings, The Sound quickly released a live album, In the Hothouse (1985). Strangely, only four songs from Heads and Hearts made it to the album, but it also included “Prove Me Wrong”, which would end up on Thunder Up two years later in a similar form. The best track is a frenzied version of “Wildest Dreams” that benefits from a blazing solo, but otherwise the production is rather dry and it hardly even sounds like a live album. It’s not bad, but it sounds more like a best-of compilation than an exciting live album. It doesn’t show much that the studio albums didn’t already, and it sounds too tight and clean. There are plenty of bootlegs that are more dynamic and compelling.

After Statik also ended up screwing over the band, they got one more chance with Play It Again Sam, who released their final album, Thunder Up (1987). By this point, Borland’s mental health struggles were beginning to wear down the band, and the album shows it. The first side is almost too bright and direct, with a surprising abundance of optimism and a lack of subtlety, while the second side is darker and more mixed in tone. Although the band had gradually included more and more band compositions over time, this album is almost entirely written solely by Borland. “Barria Alta” is the lone band composition, and it is the most complex and detailed song on the album. “Iron Years” is a solid pop song, but it comes across just barely over the top. “I Give You Pain”, on the other hand, is a solid slow burner like they hadn’t done since “New Dark Age”. Despite that the band got to work with their preferred producer Nick Robbins, the album sounds fairly dated, mostly because of the cheesy synths. The band apparently prefer the production of Thunder Up over Heads and Hearts, but I think the latter is superior in sound and in songwriting. Thunder Up still has some great moments, but it has less depth and nuance.

[Thunder Up.]

The last item in the Edsel box sets is The BBC Recordings, originally a double-disc album released in 2004. The Read and Peel sessions are attached as bonus tracks to the albums they were promoting while the BBC Live in Concert disc is given its own CD. The Read and Peel sessions both have high production values that might make them even better than the album versions. The Read session in particular sounds substantially better than the versions on Jeopardy, and while the Peel session is about as good as the From the Lion’s Mouth versions, the Peel session sounds more natural and less forced. The highlight is an early, slower version of “Hot House” that sounds like it’s still very much a work in progress. The BBC Live in Concert disc also sounds great and somehow more alive and intense than the studio versions. There’s less variation in the sound, but all the tracks are strong. Ian Nelson again shows up to contribute sax to the same three songs he played on from Heads and Hearts, and his parts are more upfront in the mix.

After The Sound, Adrian Borland stayed quite active in the music world until his unfortunate suicide, although he never again quite matched the same level of quality that he had with The Sound. His solo albums carried on where Thunder Up left off, with less of an alternative or post-punk sound and more of a mainstream pop sensibility. His songwriting was generally still good, but the production was often quite cheesy and dated. Borland was also a member of Honolulu Mountain Daffodils (under pseudonym), a bizarre and playful band led by Pete Williams. While many of their songs are indulgent or uninspired, plenty are creative and successful. The vocals are consistently bad, but the atmospheres and ideas are often quite good. “Also Sprächt Scott Thurston”, “(I Feel Like A) Francis Bacon Painting”, and “Collector of Souls” are particularly noteworthy. Later in his career, Borland also collaborated with Carlo van Putten and others (including Mark Burgess of The Chameleons!) under the name White Rose Transmission. Their albums are well-produced, gothic, and haunting, but the results are again mixed. Some of their music works, but some is drab or awkward.

It’s a shame that The Sound never found wider appreciation. Living in the shadow of Echo & the Bunnymen did them no favors; while the Bunnymen may have reached greater heights, one wonders if The Sound could’ve gone just as far if they’d been given the same budget and support. I’m glad that they persevered despite all the downsides of the music industry and that they managed to find sympathetic labels for so long. The Sound never released a bad album, and their willingness to grow and develop without repeating themselves makes their back catalog quite rewarding to explore. The Edsel box sets are well worth their price and are quite well assembled, even if the Statik albums and some of the rarities are sourced from somewhere other than the original master tapes.

Propaganda: C+
Physical World EP: B-
Jeopardy: A-
Live Instinct EP: C
From the Lion’s Mouth: B
“Hot House”: A
All Fall Down: B+
This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal EP: C
1983 demos: C-
Shock of Daylight EP: A
Heads and Hearts: A-
In the Hothouse: C+
Thunder Up: B
The BBC Recordings: B

Further Reading:
Interview with Bi Marshall, Part 1
Interview with Bi Marshall, Part 2


Brad Schumacher said...

Dang, this music slaps!

Brad Schumacher said...

Wow, this music is really good!

Patti said...

@Brad I suspect you'd particularly enjoy All Fall Down if you didn't already listen to that one. Jeopardy would be the close second. If I'm wrong I'd be curious to know what you like best!