By The Scaramanga Six
"Glad you all could join me, on another pointless journey". So begins the 2nd album proper of Wrath's finest premium export The Scaramanga Six. A journey it may be, pointless it most certainly is not for Soul Destroyer may well be one of the finest opening tracks committed to disc anywhere, let alone in Leeds. It is an evocative and biting hymn to the desolation, frustration and all round miserable experience that can be life in an up-and-coming band sometimes. All those in favour say Aye.
The fact that the specifics of the subject matter can be replaced with any labour of love broadens the appeal, but for anyone who has ever slept crammed in the back of a van with no money, no hope, an AWOL drummer, a guitar sticking into your back and a bunch of people you're now sick of the sight of, this may well carry special resonance.
This track alone could well do more for inter-band relations than any manager has ever done, kind of like the musical equivalent of a group therapy session. Lines such as "With the wind against us, we are sailing ever backwards" wash over the sparse soundscapes bringing to mind the sea breaking on the shore of a remote beach somewhere serving only to highlight the themes of isolation. Musicians everywhere nod sagely.
If this all sounds like some kind of contrived muso-winge, the truth couldn't be any more different. Underneath the self-depreciating blacker-than-black humour lays the distinct strain of optimism found uniquely in people who, through a mixture of belief and sheer bloody-mindedness, continue to carry the torch for what they set out to achieve. The theme for both track and the album seems to be triumph over adversity. It's the notion that if you want something enough, are prepared to work for it and have the raw determination to plough stubbornly on towards your goal despite all of the logic, misfortune and outside advisors telling you otherwise, then you will eventually get there.
As Mark E Smith once duly noted, no one ever said it was going to be easy.
The way the atmospherics of Soul Destroyer give way to a thundering finale brings to mind Cardiacs' Little Man and a House, which not only shares a similar theme to this record (the futility of hum-drum life etc), but the same producer to boot.
By the time it comes to an end you feel emotionally drained, but happy. Kind of like the sense of achievement you would get having got through a round with a heavy-weight boxer and come out battered, but feeling stronger. However if you are going to go into the ring with Muhammad Ali, you can't quit after the first round, so back into the ring we go for round two. Deep breath.
If Soul Destroyer is an exhibition match (all deft touches, technique, build-up and fancy footwork) then Smite My Face is like coming out after the bell and being met with a full power smack in the chops. It dispenses with the subtlety and goes straight for the knock-out blow. This is The Scaramanga Six at their most brutal - choppy, buzzsaw guitars juxtapose slightly cod semi-operatic vocals. And it all works a treat.
Amazingly, track three and former single Poison Pen is even more intense. Essentially a three minute rhythmic cycle that gathers ever increasing power as it circles round culminating in a hysterical organ break which, given that the sound has been packed by this stage to almost combustible proportions, could hardly be considered a solo, but probably is by default.
What impresses most about this track is how catchy it is given that technically speaking it has no tune as such to speak of. It is one of those tracks that will be swirling around your head for days to come, yet if someone asked you to sing it to them you'd end up trying yourself in knots trying to recreate it monophonically.
This offers yet another high point, the kind of track you're better off listening to on your own to save making a fool of yourself by lurching around the room involuntarily, making strange grimacing faces whilst thrashing out imaginary chords on the most rock and roll air guitar you have to hand. If not already clear by now, it should be pointed out that this is not dinner party music. Unless that is you favour the kind of dinner party thrown by Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Show, in which case this would probably fit in perfectly.
Things get even stranger next with the opening of Pincers. This is the Scaramangas at their most Cardiacs-influenced; all heavenly choral wailing, heavy riffing and drums that sound like a shipment of pots and pans being unceremoniously dropped through a glass-ceilinged china shop. Things take break half way through as the piano wanders off down the path market "avant-garde intermission" before the group hauls things back into shape again for the double-time finale. 4 tracks down and this is truly thrilling stuff.
We Rode The Storm offers up the closest thing so far to a pop moment. It's a kind of bubblegum-punk riffage set to some Buck Rogers-esque backing with a monster chorus and looks like the closest thing (and probably only contender) for another single. However all other Scaramanga boxes appeared to be checked. Intensity? Yup. Wall-of-noise Breakneck riffing? Yup. Self-depreciating humour? Yup. The odd "Weird Bit"? Uh-huh. Yes, all would seem to be present and correct.
Next up, Unclean is something of an oddity, although bear in mind that this should be viewed in context of an album that is in all conventional senses something of an oddity itself. It sounds a bit like Neil Hannon playing the devil in a calypso version of Faust. All smooth-baritone annunciations giving way to a cacophony of intense rage that almost mirrors the very humming of evil. Nice. Although probably not one for your Gran at Christmas.
Track 7 is possibly the best track of all (as often seems to be the case for some reason). A Song For You is a masterclass in atmospheric mind games. The eerie opening and simmering vocal delivery are almost lullaby like, but with a very dark underside. Chords shift menacingly in the background with the bass occasionally intervening the expected sequence to create some very strange dischords that seem to take an uncomfortably long time to resolve themselves.
Then just as you are getting accustomed to the pattern, out of nowhere the track shifts gear into the major key and soars towards the sky with tumultuous speed as if this is some kind of musical recreation of the Tower of Babel. Gothic pianos cascade, guitars screech and the vocals aim ever higher towards the Gods, before tumbling back down again. Simply breathtaking.
Following the pattern of tracks one and two, The Electricity Bill offers the more base counterpoint to A Song Fort You's high-brow ambition. Essentially, just over two minutes of balls-out punk rock riffage, that sounds vaguely similar to a Public Image Ltd hook. Nothing wrong with that quite frankly.
From there on it's into the trinity of songs that may well be familiar to keen S6 watchers. Poison Fang, The Coward and Horrible Face all featured on the band's superbly titled The Liar, The Bitch And Her Wardrobe from 1999. There will be few quibbles of short-changing given the superior quality of these new recordings. Poison Fang is a two-parter, one half new-wave-ish rock, one half mock-opera histrionics. Outstanding. The Coward is even better, a superbly judged, creepy yet sublime penultimate installment which feels like it should be the last track.
Which in fairness it should as Horrible Face is probably the weakest track amongst this fare. That said, it is still good enough to be considered the highlight of most people's albums, it's just that having polished off 10 out of 11 tracks we have come to expect tracks that are all exceptional rather than just good. It's not that there is anything particularly wrong with this one, it's pretty much S6-by-numbers: brooding beginning, dark humour, big build up, screamy bit, the end. It just seems to lack a little of that magical creative ingredient that the others have.
At any rate, by anyone's book this is nit-picking. In actual fact this track does us a favour. Had the album kept up the same pace right to the end we'd have had to invent a sixth star, which frankly would have paid merry hell with the administration system at LMS towers.
Rest assured though, this is an astonishing achievement. Rarely has an album that'd still fit on one side of a C90 broken so much new ground and yet still remained perfectly accessible. It can be hard work at times and if you make it through in one sitting you may end up with brain-ache the first time around, but it'll be one you come back to again and again.
Quite simply, indispensable.