Simon Reynolds, "The Fall Softens Its Edge"
THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 11, 1993
The Fall is one of England's enduring cult bands. Formed In 1976 by the singer and lyricist Mark E. Smith, it evolved into one of the most critically acclaimed and influential groups of the post-punk era. In the mid-8O's, the Fall was the prototype for the abrasive British genre of "shambling bands." More recently, its coruscatlng sound and cryptic lyrics have been a major influence on the "indie" scene. In the United States Pavement, the most prominent band in the burgeoning American lo-fi underground, is indebted to the Fall, as are other up-and-coming groups like Truman's Water, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and God Is My Co Pilot.
The Fall has signed with the hip independent label Matador and the band's new album is its first for some while to be widely distributed in the United States. "The Infotainment Scan" (Matador/Atlantic 92263; all three formats), the Fall's 16th studio album, is one of the group's most accessible, so it may be that the band will reach a whole new audience, primed by Pavement, et al.
In its early days, the Fall was infamous for being listener-unfriendly. The second-album, "Dragnet" plumbed new depths of bargain-basement recording. On subsequent landmark albums like "Grotesque (After the Gramme)," "Slates" and "Hex Enduction Hour," the Fall wove a dense, forbidding but -- for those who persevered -- captivating trance rock over implacable rockabilly rhythms, the band layered a thick wall of droning, distorted guitars in the tradition of minimalists like the Velvet Underground and the German band Can.
The Fall also experimented with techniques that involved degrading the guitar textures and distorting the human voice; one of Mr. Smith's favorite tricks was to feed his voice through a megaphone. He dubbed the band's style "country-and-northern," making a link between the raw primitivism of the Fall's sound and the surly attitude that's often attributed to the natives of Manchester, his hometown in the north of England.
Lyrically, he offered a bilious, withering dissection of British society. But instead of sloganeering, his songs immersed the listener in the grimy textures of working class life. A self-educated avant-gardist from the wrong side of the tracks, Mr. Smith devised a distinctive fractured style that recalls the cut-up prose of William Burroughs.
As the 80's progressed, the Fall veered closer to pop with albums like "The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall" and "This Nation's Saving Grace," and even scored a number of chart hits. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith became a reliably controversial interviewee for the music press. His persona remains that of the classic British misanthrope, who scorns humbug and political cant whether it comes from the left or right. Mr. Smith's intransigence is best exemplified by his fervent belief in a man's right to kill himself smoking.
Musically, "The Infotainment Scan" may be one of the Fall's more approachable records, but Mr. Smith's lyrics are as caustic as ever, while his wizened sneer of a voice will always be jarring. Not for the first time, he alms his ire at what he regards as fatuous or regressive tendencies in pop culture. "Glam-Racket No. 3" takes a potshot at the current British youth trend of 70's revivalism. Over a fuzz-drenched riff and a stomping beat that's pure homage to glitter rock circa 1972, Mr. Smith decries nostalgia and makes a pointed jibe at the nouveau glam rock band Suede, which is hugely popular in Britain.
The Fall's version of the Sister Sledge disco classic "Lost In Music" may also conceal a pop-culture critique. The song was always an ironic commentary on dance culture's escapism, and Mr. Smith is probably using it to deride the British rave scene, which -- like disco -- is "caught in a trap" of druggy hedonism and mass amnesia. Paradoxically, the Fall's version retains much of the shimmering fleetness that made the original so enchanting.
The album's second side sees the Fall continue the flirtation with rave rhythms and the squelchy synthesizer textures of techno that it has indulged in on recent albums. Contemporary trance-dance has an obvious fit with Mr. Smith's early creed: "repetition in the music, and we're never gonna lose It." The song "Service" layers an eerie mesh of vocal harmonics over a limber, shuffling funk groove, "The League of Bald-Headed Men" seems to be a diatribe against gerontocracy, although it's hard to decipher whether its target is the decrepit fogies who rule Britain or the baby-boomer superstars who dominate international pop.
"A Past Gone Mad" is an anti-nostalgia rant layered over state-of-art techno squiggles and a hyped-up hiphop beat, as if to proclaim that the Fall isn't afraid to move with the times. The band never has been, but the secret of its continued relevance is that The Fall never bends with the times. Mr. Smith and his band absorb whatever in the cultural climate is worth bothering with (what's not, he invariably scorns in song or interview) and make it swing re a rollicking remorseless beat. Here's to the next 17 years of the Fall.
Simon Reynolds is the author of "Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock."