Chuck Eddy, "Riffs & Licks: White Wedding Noise"

VILLAGE VOICE, December 10, 1985, p. 77


Back in the U.S.A. (Fort Knox, where the gold is) after, three years overseas, fuck if I'm not getting off for the first time in a long time on rock'n'roll from-this is sick, 90 brace yourself--England. Pisses me off to no end that gut-wrenching bands like the Pogues, Three Johns, Mekons, Mark Stewart's Maffia, et al., aren't getting American ink, while some hippie gal and her Hollywood countryrock band, or maybe the latest groovy foursome from some Southern college town, are deemed hot shit. Latest evidence that the rock'n'roll pendulum may be swinging east is This Nation's Saving Grace (PVC/Beggers Banquet), the nasty, head-banging, soul-purifying new LP by the Fall, a dissonant journey into heavy mettle territory that wracks your senses and gets under your skin and gets your juices flowing and makes you curse the walls, all the stuff that I'd say rock'n'roll is supposed to do.

Mark E. Smith, for more than a dozen albums very much the Fall's leader, not too long ago married and hired one Brix E., and she plays guitars that sound like nuclear destruction and sings surprisingly pretty backup all over the new album; she also gets full or partial composing credit for more than half its tracks. Due to her influence, I think this sounds like a much more democratic band than the. Fall once did. With only Smith and drummer Karl Burns remaining from the group's earliest incarnations, Mark E. no longer comes across as a bang-haired, button-collared, little dictator. Where the old Fall often seemed to exist solely to frame the singer's existential vocal gymnastics, the new band is united in a common quest for cleansing clamor. They've found it.

But what a long, strange trip it's been, eight years since the prophetic words "white noise" opened the Fall's first single "Repetition." The early Fall, deploying itself around Yvonne Pawlett's Rudy "?" Martinez-gone-to-heaven keyboards and Martin Bramah's Stooges- gone- further- into- hell guitar noise, served as a perfect psychedelic forum for Smith's demon-exorcising. He declaimed, screamed, 'and shouted (but rarely sang) about life' on the dole about joining the army because he needed money, about how love can be its own trap, about finding a reason to live and then realizing it'Il kill you, about not knowing whether to direct hatred inward or outward--and, in "Rebellious Jukebox," "Music Scene," and "Dice Man," about rock'n'roll. As the band took weird junctures toward disco and rockabilly and heavy metal and heavy funk and Bo Diddley, Smith veered toward the obtuse and cosmic. I believe him when, in "Room To Live," he talks about driving around with "a Moody Blues cassette on the dashboard." But during years when the new wave, especially in England, was turning more and more into a lie, the Fall stayed painfully honest, so honest that even their worst pretensions have stood up. By 1982's brooding Hex Enduction Hour, the Fall had moved into a dense, bluesy realm, more akin to early Beefheart or to New Picnic Time-era Pere Ubu than to the lysergic emanations of their first records. Then, following 1983's chaotic Perverted by Language, the band took a sharp turn toward accessibility. They've also been very busy: in the past year they've released the Call For Escape Route EP, marked by a great eight-minute version of their industrial-noise-gone dancing "No Bulbs," one of Smith's most lucid depictions of the horrors of everyday life; Hip Priest and Kamerads, a compilation that blends the best parts of Hex Enduction Hour with other worthy tracks from the hand's blue period; The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, the group's most easily listenable album; "Couldn't Get Ahead," a 45-rpm discourse on the failure to succeed, backed with Sweet Gene Vincent's "Rollin' Danny," the first song the Fall has covered on vinyl; and, using the pseudonym of the Adult Net, a Brix-vocalized cover of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints," with her own version of "Rebellious Jukebox" on the B-side. Some of this stuff wouldn't sound out-of-place on Top 40. But any apparent accessibility has gone to the winds on This Nation's Saving Grace. If this album has a precedent, it's the very difficult (and very American) guitar-drones of the Swans and Sonic Youth, not the hippie-dippie melodies of paisley park. One song, "Cruiser's Creek," the LP's first single, with its doomed-party plot, repeated two-chord rhythm line, steamrollering drums, grind-on-a-groove distortion, and eerie background singing, might even serve as the Fall's answer to "Death Valley '69." But this music is more interesting than most of that post-no-wave axe-terror crud; for one thing, you can dance to it. Karl Burns and bassist Steve Hanley lay down a wicked beat, and it's from there that the feedback erupts. And does it ever erupt: in the aptly titled "Bombast," great balls of sonic fire blast through like Motorhead on a long black freight train; "L.A." weds "Eight Miles High" to "Autobahn," with the friendly skies acting as the superhighway and quivering middle-Eastern guitars replacing the synthesizers; "Gut of the Quantifier" wails like the final solution, engulfing a huge funk beat in the process; in "Paintwork," a pastoral guitar line emerges from some fingerpopping exercise, gets lost in a backwards tapeloop, and then comes back, only this time real loud; the guitars in "I Am Demo Suzuki" churn in and out of a tribal rhythm, only to end up soaring, skyward, like in a Glen Branca symphony. Amidst all this ruckus, Mark E. Smith stays calm, calmer than he's ever been; shit, Mark E.'s in love, and look, he's even parting his hair. So his lyrics usually don't deviate too far from the title lines, which he repeats over and over in most songs; occasionally he'll let his voice crack, or he'll get a good scream in, and in the closing "To Nkroachment: Yarbles," he even manages to borrow a couple lines and a vocal stance from some recent Lou Reed. But mostly he's content to let the band do its work--here, it's the noise that'll set him free, not the words. Like, halfway through "Bombast," I swear I hear him instruct the Fall, "oooh ...kick it out!!" And I'll be damned if these Limeys don't comply.