Danny Kelly, "Totally Weird"
New Musical Express, March 5, 1988
The Frenz Experiment (Beggars Banquet LP/Cassette/CD)
IF I TELL you that The Fall's new LP (discounting compilations and lives, their tenth!) is the strangest to date, you'll know we're talking industrial strength weird ...
The key word in the album's title is 'Experiment', lurking there like a bold statement of intent, a government health warning or a sick note from the band's mum. I'd believed that the ill-fated Hey Luciani! play had purged Mark Smith's soul of the need to strike out in new directions. Furthermore, the recent developments - groovy cover versions, extra added glam and, gawhelpus, hits! - had left me expecting The Fall to go Big Pop. Instead I've got ...The Fall's most musically chaotic, apparently undisciplined, almost trippy.music for ages. For much of its meandering progress it could easily pass for a Mark E solo effort, so conspicuous by their absence are both Brix's guitar and Marcia's keys. Most of the time, indeed, the lead instrument on 'Frenz .. .' is Steve Hanley's bass. The runaway cement-train serf-belief The Fall exude live is here all but dissipated.
The opening pair of sort've songs, 'Frenz' and 'Carry Bag Man', are illustrative, being plodding nonentities whose lyrics add up to little more than tape-loop mantra chants. Further in, 'The Steak Place' - basically just Mark and producer Simon Rogers' semi-acoustic guitar - is a Fall-by-numbers advertisement for Berni inns (enlivened only by the discovery that the corners are occupied by 'hitmen'), while 'Guest Informant' is a 40 second excerpt from a recent B-side. In the midst of all this there are two, almost three, songs that remind you of The Fall's habitual glory ...
'Athlete Cured' is, if anything, an old fashioned Fall tune that engrosses the listener through a storyline that concerns the unhappy (German) athlete of the title whose room is pervaded by the smell of hot dogs which can only be eradicated by the exhaust fumes from the Volkswagen of his brother, a clerical officer! (The album's centrepiece, the long 'Bremen Nacht' also deals with Germany in some way, but what exactly it's about is beyond me. Rattling along on a taut, punchy tune that could have introduced one of those late-50s cop series, it's disconcertingly scary atmosphere is added to by incomprehensible voices barking something (orders? warnings?) through megaphones, and sirens that slice unnervingly through the song. Great stuff. The almost-wizard 'Oswald Defence Lawyer' ends the record by demonstrating most of its problems. It's an intriguing lyric (any takers for "the stuffed corpse of Walt Whitman"?) but it's strangled by being squabbled over by four different tunes.
Because this is The Fall it will be afforded houseroom and loads more plays than it probably deserves. But, objectively, there's nothing here to compare with, say, 'US 80s & 90s' off 'Bend Sinister', and overall 'Frenz ...' isn't fit to share the same planet as 'This Nation's Saving Grace'.
Maybe my disappointment is heightened by my over-excited expectations. I'd anticipated 'Dare' or, more likely, 'Electric Warrior'; 'The Frenz Experiment' turns out to be The Fall's 'Sandinista'. Yep, that weird.
(6 1/3) Danny Kelly