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Dug up from the permafrost of punk-funk obscuria, ex-XTC and Gang of Four men explore the emotional life of monsters. It’s alive…
Shriekback - Oil & Gold
Throughout the rock epoch, commentators have slagged record companies for the dilution of art in pursuit of profit. Full marks to the Arista label, then, for releasing Shriekback’s Oil & Gold. A chthonic portal into an inverse world of eat-or-be-eaten terror-funk, macabre amusements and terminal ambience, it would have sat heroically askance in the Phil Collins and Wham!-embracing charts of 1985.
Co-vocalist Barry Andrews looks back on an anomalous situation. “There was a precedent in the Thompson Twins - also on Arista, also signed by the bloke who signed us - of a band turning from weirdo, uncommercial ugly ducklings into great big shiny ‘80s cash swans,” he reflects. “I think Arista still held out a wispy hope that that would happen. The cover idea was to make us look dreamy and great, but we ended up going for a gang of eels and feathers, which were props that became the main event. Once again the record company were not totally made up.”
Formed in 1981 in Kentish Town, the group’s core consisted of ex-XTC keys man Andrews, Gang Of Four bassist Dave Allen and Carl Marsh, former guitarist in squat funkers Out On Blue Six. Having logged such unnerving dancefloor releases as My Spine Is The Bassline and Tench EP on the Y label, they’d signed with Arista for 1983’s Jam Science album. After July ’84’s crisp single Hand On My Heart got to Number 52, they regrouped for a third LP, having been joined by drummer and Fairlight sampler operator Martyn Barker.
Andrews recalls a complicated genesis, commencing when the band took 20 rhythmic sketches to Rockfield studio in south Wales, with producer and future Hollywood soundtrack composer Hans Zimmer (who turned up three hours late, copping a £600 black cab bill after missing his train). “Everybody was involved in a lot of groove-building and improvisation to get ideas rolling,” says Marsh. “Then Barry and I would pick the ones we fancied and write lyric and melody ideas and structure them into songs, after which everyone would pitch back in with ideas to fill in all the gaps.”
After more session at Lillie Yard in west London, mixing took place in various studios in the capital and Bath. It was not an over-harmonious process, remembers Andrews. “There were a lot of major rifts,” he reveals. “Our manager wanting to sack me, Carl was gearing up to leave, Hans getting sacked - we ended up mixing with Gavin MacKillop. God we spent a lot of money.”
What emerged clearly thrived on the discord. Opening with the febrile, spasming Malaria andtwo more feverish funk eruptions sung by Marsh, Shriekback’s strangely scientific world of primordial nature was revealed in its noisy, intoxicated splendour. Drastic contrast was provided by This Big Hush, a phantasmal, possibly post-apocalyptic contemplation of ultimate extinction sung by Andrews, and similarly spectral pieces including the Cretaceous instrumental, Coelocanth. Marsh cites lead single Nemesis - which name-checked 2000AD comic’s alien hero who battles Earthling superfascist Torquemada - as “the one that sums up all the themes and contrasts into one pop blast. The animals and monsters, the tensions between instinct and intellect, nods to high art and comic books, and big laughs in dark places.”
Despite this, Marsh would leave the group after the album was completed, fulfilling press and photo duties but bailing before the touring could begin. “I did feel that the band had become a bit of a two-headed monster with myself and Barry both fronting it and pulling in different directions,” he says. “That said, I’m actually always surprised the album as a whole has such a unified feel. I guess we had a common purpose after all.”
The group forged on, but despite all efforts including an arena tour with Simple Minds, Arista’s dream of an immaculate cash swan would prove chimerical. Director Michael Mann, however, would add to the group’s cult cache by selecting Oil & Gold tracks for his movies Manhunter and Band of the Hand. “He got the tenderness in the weirdness, I guess - the emotional life of monster,” muses Andrews. The singer continued to lead Shriekback, with 1986’s Big Night Music a worthy companion piece to its predecessor, but would cease operations after 1992’s Sacred City. The beast would not die, though, and four more releases down the line, Marsh was back in earnest for 2010’s sterling Life In The Loading Bay. Now Barker is also returned; the three-man line-up is finishing a new album.**
Twenty eight years on, Oil & Gold remains visceral proof of what they’re capable of. “The actual title came from a lyric that wasn’t used,” reveals Marsh. “‘It’s as physical as oil and gold’. It was the contrast between dark, sticky, clingy blackness and bright, hard clarity that seemed to encapsulate some of Shriekback’s extreme qualities.”
**The new album referenced in Ian Harrison’s article is Without Real String or Fish, our thirteenth studio album, just released earlier this month. You can learn more about it on the official website. Please join us in the discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter for free music downloads and current Shriek activity.