come to those
The English proverb certainly applies to Shriekback’s thirteenth studio album, Without Real String or Fish. Begun back in 2011, the band completed work on their latest offering on 1 November, 2014 – a wholesome day, indeed – much to the delight of their fans, both old and new.
Before I delve into the song-by-song, I must come clean by informing readers that I count myself among Shriekback’s fans, and the songs I can admit to not enjoying that much can be counted on one hand missing a couple of fingers. Although I will do my level best to remain objective in writing this, my subjectivity should be considered when you read it. For that reason alone, you should listen to the album, so you can judge for yourself.
Also, please bear in mind that any lyrics interpretation is mine alone, and could be completely off the mark. Again, you should listen and judge for yourself.
That said, let’s go!
- Now Those Days Are Gone (Andrews/Marsh)
In the tradition and spirit of Shriekback’s 1985 magnum opus, Oil & Gold, and its first track, Malaria, Now Those Days Are Gone bombards the senses, leaving no doubt the band are not playing around. The groove is deep and unrelenting, living up to the Shrieks’ decades-old agenda to create music to which people cannot resist dancing. The combination of Rock and Funk, along with the rousing chorus, makes the song a solid anthem. The lyrics sound not only autobiographical, speaking to Shriekback’s early days, they also convey a biography of the time in which most of us long-time fans came of age. The chant-like call and response chorus hint at regret for an age that’s passed, but the accompanying music doesn’t let any potential navel-gazing progress go too far. Sure, those days might be gone, the song seems to say, but we aren’t, and that is what matters.
We were living in the future
Now those days are gone
We were kings, we were preachers
Now those days are gone
We had incubi and succubi
Now those days are gone
All these pleasures standing by
Now those days are gone
- The King in the Tree (Andrews, Barker, Marsh)
Beginning with a clockwork carousel, the song seems to promise a tour through a deserted fairground containing the ghosts of revelries once indulged in happier times. In typical Andrews fashion, the lyrics contrast with the music, and they conjured in my mind visions of the demiurge-like Hapexamendios, the insane architect of the First Dominion, in Clive Barker's Imajica. Regarding The King in the Tree, Andrews had this to say: [M]y image of a King in a Tree was King Sweeney of ancient Eire (from Flann O'Brien's 'At Swin Two Birds'), who was cursed for attacking a priest and went mad: climbing into a tree where he stayed - reciting poetry and eating cresses.
The title character in the song also seems like a representation of the Green Man in modern times, invisible to most everyone who prefers to turn [their] face to the wall rather than see him and rescue him from us before we find ourselves in need of rescue from him. A wise warning indeed.
Secrets words of the world are Engulf and Devour
(why is all this tyrannical shit in the soul of a flower?)
Note: When listening to this portion of the song, pay attention to the music when Andrews sings “why is all this tyrannical shit in the soul of a flower?” It mirrors the lyrics with an aural blossoming. Brilliant.
- Soft Estate (Andrews, Barker)
Soft Estate weaves a delicate soundscape that will doubtless make the hearts of Big Night Music enthusiasts beat just a little faster. The undulating melody dresses lyrics that encourage the listener to populate that soundscape with beasts and structures. It is absolutely a song you would want to sing in your sleep, but it also one that promises waking dreams. Andrews shines here, his command of language obvious, along with an uncanny ability to seamlessly meld poetry and music to create a unique visual for every listener.
all along we were licking at the light
and clawing at the roots
and walking in the night
all startled at the sound
and reeling at the sight:
all the information:
limitless and liminal…
- Woke Up Wrong (Andrews)
Musically, this song is probably my least favourite, but the lyrics, with their play on names and words, more than compensate. The conceits are all tongue-in-cheek, but for any linguaphile, they will also double as pure delight. The second verse takes the wordplay a step further, hinting at a little bit of danger you think you can’t quite grasp, but it may be you really don’t want to… Like so many Shriek songs, the mischief implied latches on to your subconscious, and that’s what you carry with you long after the song has ended. A particular stand-out is the piano solo, sweeping the languid patterns of the rhythm along in a flourish.
Barney Manglue with his running gags
(you wouldn’t want to do the kind of things he wants from you)
Butcher’s sawdust in a hundred bags
(needs that soak-up since he woke up).
Stretch the moment with his steely claw,
spread this second to infinity and more.
World-matter rattle, it’s a losing battle
(we always knew it had a tendency to get bad)
- Beyond Metropolis (Andrews/Marsh)
After days of mulling over how to best describe Beyond Metropolis, I finally settled on Etymological Chimera. This song is a triumph in every way, and will more than likely drive lovers of language to smoke a cigarette after each listening. The afterglow is that good. I’m really not going to say much about Beyond Metropolis, because it would be unfair to spoil those who have not yet listened to it. Musically, the song is what we’ve come to expect from the Shrieks: intelligent, funky, and rhythmically perfect. Lyrically, Carl Marsh makes a good case for adding words to the Scrabble dictionary that will let you win every single time.
Favourite lyric: All of them.
- Ammonia Tree (Andrews/Barker)
This song may be the perfect example of why so many of Shriekback’s fans are often also seekers of knowledge, long after they have completed their “official” education. It is fraught with references to mythology, literature, history, theology, and philosophy, but also offers Easter eggs of a more personal nature, evidenced in a kind of gentle angst and nostalgia.
Framed within Mark Gowland’s fierce harmonica, and underscored with a quiet rhythm, both of which enhance the longing, and a certain level of regret, you can clearly hear in the lush tapestry of Andrews’ keyboard work, Ammonia Tree vividly takes you to the locations, both real and imagined, mentioned in the song. It paints pictures and freezes moments you can take with you when drawing to a close.
It may be of interest that the last stanza of the lyrics is signature Andrews work, which focuses on a word or phrase – this time, it’s a phrase – that becomes a chant. It’s very Shamanic in nature, using mnemonics to teach by rote. This signature composition places Ammonia Tree in Shriekback’s family of songs that also includes The Reptiles and I and Hammerheads.
When your own head bores you
with its bloody awful song
it wasn’t pretty wasn’t clever
and didn’t last for very long:
it felt like looking in the mirror
with all the strip lights on.
(might be a Stendhalian glory if you can only wait that long).
Is it holy intropection or wrestling futility?
In the quest for Truth and Beauty under the Ammonia Tree
- Recessive Jean (Andrews/Barker/Marsh)
In the hierarchy of my personal taste, Recessive Jean would rank #11 to Woke Up Wrong’s #12. What I find most impressive about the song is the rhythm and bass that makes it sound like a descendant of Feelers. That’s not to say it’s a rehash of the elder song; Recessive Jean is undeniably a force unto itself, but it carries that Feelers vibe, which will make many Shriek fans miss Dave Allen.
Carl Marsh is once again taking the lyrical and vocal reins in this one, growling about the clever homonym in the title. The apocalyptic implications are deftly hidden within the jaunty melody, and is a reminder that nothing is ever what it seems when you’re listening to a Shriekback song.
With a charm to disarm and a passion for harm
In so many ways, so many ways
A façade of calm can but raise the alarm
At the end of days, the end of days
- Horrors of the Deep (Andrews/Barker)
One of Shriekback’s more consistent trademarks is combining unease with beauty. What could easily be the title of a chaotic Death Metal song delivers to you an ethereal vastness that overwhelms the senses.
Horrors of the Deep revisits Barry Andrews’ preoccupation with the sea in all its metaphorical glory. The music alone is an aural ocean unto itself, all delicate ebb and flow.
As with Cormorant’s Sea Theory, Andrews offers up a meditation on the sea and how little we know about it, despite being born from it, carrying it within us, and eventually coming to rest within it, in some way or other. The dust of our evolutionary ancestors can be found on ocean floors, and attempting to comprehend that is often unsettling, as such evidence forces us to come to grips with our impermanence when compared to the unimaginable immensity from which we came. So, too, is our inability to understand mortality and what happens after.
Just as with death, the deeper the waters go, the less we know. And it’s a human trait to fear the unknown. That fear is etched into our DNA. But just as with this song, if we dare to explore these arcane landscapes, we often find beauty and transcendence just under that layer of dread encoded within us all.
Looking at it from that perspective, the horrors woven into song become a living cradle instead of a watery grave. Despite the horrors, in the end, it is illumination (or bio-luminescence) that wins the day.
Sumptuously poised here in the foam
a watery quintessence
later pitifully trailing home alone
- In the Pylons (Andrews)
An instrumental that may be a musical re-enactment of touring an Egyptian temple, In the Pylons begins subtly, but escalates into epic, hard-driving drum-fest. No proper Shriekback album can go outside without an instrumental to keep it warm.
- Man of Foam (Andrews)
The first thought that came to me upon the initial listen is that Man of Foam could be a lyrical look in on New Man from Go Bang! Elegant piano and shimmering synth carry the tune into Big Night Music territory, bridging a gap between the two albums in a very satisfactory way.
Oh Man of Foam
What you gonna do if he follows you home?
There will come a day
when the moth meets the naphthalene.
- Everything Like That (Andrews/Barker)
Prepare to worship at the Church of Shriekback when you’re tossed into the Gospel-driven Funk that is this baptismal fire they call Everything Like That. If anyone needs proof that Shriekback are still making music, this is all the proof you need. A culmination of Andrews giving a nod to an author whose books have been of inspiration and the long love affair the band have with deep and dangerous grooves. Everything Like That is relentless in its invitation to be properly arranged in the construct of the song. Lyrically, it is a very close to being as brilliant as Beyond Metropolis. The bass line of the song is one of the best on the album, in my opinion. Judge for yourselves; however, it may take more than one listen to hear everything that’s going on. It’s a veritable fun park for Shriek fans who prefer their tuneage to threaten as much as delight. It could break some hearts as well, though, because you can only imagine how a live performance of this song would be.
Under the time-lapse clouds
out on the screen of green
I want to see the monsters couple
with the wet machine.
You are my salad witch
that I would like to dress.
I do not lack the Wound.
I do not lack the Mess.
And Everything Like That.
I could have easily said “all of them” as I did with Beyond Metropolis; however, this particular stanza holds one of my personally favourite things about Shriek lyrics – words that usually would not be capitalised, but are, to make them seem Very Important, but the reason or meaning behind it is never explained, and that makes my imagination go wild. What is this Wound of which you speak, Shriekback? No, don’t tell me, I have my own ideas.
- Bernadette (Andrews/Barker/Marsh)
A perfect end to a nearly perfect collection of songs, Bernadette is a lullaby that lets you get grounded after the manic Everything Like That. It promises you good dreams and rocks you, overlooking a sprawling cityscape bathed in the twinkle of electricity, as the sun retires with you.
Bernadette‘s gait is akin to a metronome, used not only to maintain the see-saw magic of the melody, but to also hypnotise and assure you of your safety, even when the music spirals down as though the cradle has fallen.
Carl Marsh’s vocals and Barry Andrews’ piano give the song a stately air, a sort of ritual procession done each day as the sun begins to set on the place you call home.
When beauty starts to fall apart
The savage eye and beating heart of darkness
Overall, I cannot recommend Without Real String or Fish strongly enough. Since they returned to music with Having a Moment, I have always cited Cormorant as my favourite among the albums they’ve recorded in the 21st Century. That must change now. This is one of those Shriek albums that doesn’t just shine in its place among the recent outings; I have no doubt that Without Real String or Fish will stand the test of time, and find itself treasured by Shriekers old and new. From the opening song until the soft dissolve into Dark, it’s more than obvious that this was a labour of love.
And we are the winners.