When the rock media reminisces about the late eighties and early nineties it is usually about the sweeping aside of everything by the explosion of grunge. Of course, it gets labelled as one particular movement from a city in USA and dominated by one band in particular, but there was more to this period of time than just Seattle and Nirvana, as it was more of a time where there seemed to be an abundance of noise experimentation that crossed over into many styles and genres from many corners of the world.
The British bands of that time are somewhat unfairly overlooked, then and now, but played their part in what was quite an exciting time for noiseniks and lovers of pushing the boundaries and limits of indie/rock/punk noise. To name but a few of these bands in question: Wolfhounds, Silverfish, The Telescopes, Swervedriver, and influential post-punk outfit The Membranes. With the exception of Silverfish, all of the aforementioned bands have reformed and released new material, with The Membranes now added to the list.
Even though the legendary John Robb (also music journalist, biographer, T.V. pundit) has been interested in the universe for some time, I think it’s fair to say it is still a surprise he and his merry men have released a concept album of said subject. And I’m glad to report it continues where they left off from their last release – a whopping 23 years ago – as they produce a mighty clanking and cluttering of punk-fuelled noise.
However, this time there is also plenty of variety across the album because while they punk out in glorious abandon with ‘Do the Supernova’, the punk/rockabilly of ‘Hail to the Lovers’, the scratchy, edgy guitar and piano tinkering of ‘21st Century Man’, and the menacing ‘If You Enter the Arena, Be Prepared to Deal With the Lions’ – the latter two songs possess the hallmarks of their own classic sound and The Birthday Party – there are other influences at play.
The slow rhythmic ‘Money is Dust’ is prime Can and builds with control as otherworldly guitar sounds emerge, while opener ‘The Universe Explodes Into a Billion Photons’ has a melodic maturity, New Order-style bass runs and ends as fittingly as the song title suggests. ‘Space Junk’ continues the aptly-named theme as it broods along at mid-tempo with The Membranes emblematic splattering of scratchy guitar but with the added variety of cosmic-inspired sounds.
Interspersed throughout the album are interludes and instrumentals, which either provides info about the universe – ‘The Multiverse Suite’ – or soundtracks the said topic – ‘5776 (The Breathing Song)’ & ‘Dark Matter’ – in glorious Neu atmospheric influenced fashion. The album closer ‘The Hum of the Universe’ begins with John Robb informing us of his interest in the concept album’s topic before the band crashes in like two meteorites colliding. It then proceeds to level itself out into an atmospheric drone.
Although I wish there was more of their own brand of short-and-straight-to-the-point, post-punk-fuelled noise, the admiration is they have found inspiration in a subject that has pushed them outside of their comfort zone and proves a long lay off can have fruitful results.
The Membranes have returned to the studio to produce an album which is broad in scope, expansive and full of possibilities, a bit like the universe itself.