I give you fair warning. I am about to break the ancient, time-honoured and globally respected code of the International Covenant of Authors, Note-Takers, Writers, Reviewers, Interviewers, Talkers and Editors (or ICANTWRITE for short) covering the critique of musical releases and/or performances on precisely 2 counts. In fact one of these has already been broken. So apologies if this warning comes too late in the day and has already caused you unnecessary distress.
One of these is occasionally drifted into, usually through a momentary loss of concentration, by the unsuspecting journo, although rarely as brazenly as I am currently employing for this rambling pre-amble. The second is far more consciously employed by great rafts of the less scrupulous music press, although normally dressed up in vain denial and rebuttal in a manner that will at best convince, oft cause the mild raising of the singular metaphorical eyebrow and more-often-than-not be the cause of much hooting at the obviousness of the contrary.
The first is that I will spend large parts of this "review" speaking in the first person. The second is that, with regards to the subject matter, I am completely and utterly partisan.
So now that's out in the open, let's deal with the facts:
* These simultaneous releases represent the 18th and 19th full-length Cardiacs albums on CD.
* They are a compilation (over two volumes) of the three night, sold-out residency at The Garage in London in September 2003
* They are only available through the band's website
* The content consists entirely of material pre-dating their breakthrough album A Little Man And The Whole World Window spanning the period 1976-1983 and consisting of early tracks, rarities, old live favourites and unreleased stuff all dug-up for consumption by the devoted army of obsessives that they have built up over the intervening 29 years since their formation (of which you can count Damon Albarn, Marc Radcliffe, Mark Riley and previously, the sadly departed John Peel amongst the throng).
* Cardiacs are the ever-present brothers Tim Smith and Jim Smith with various others in toe on a kind of revolving basis which currently includes guitarist (and former Monsoon Bassoon main man) Kavus Torabi, and drummer Bob Leith, but have included such musical luminaries as Christian Hayes (Levitation, Dark Star), Jon Poole (Wildhearts) and Marc Cawthra (former This Et Al producer)
* Cardiacs are the bestest band in the whole world ever*
Given that as Cardiacs are without doubt my favourite band ever, the chances of a truly objective review are fairly limited. So allow me instead to make a case for their relevance and more pertinently with regards to these particular discs, offer some guidance as to whether these should be the starting point for the Cardiacs novice, worth the investment for anyone other than the die-hard completist, or alternatively to file under "misfire".
As a start let's give you a feel for what you can expect from you average Cardiacs release. As their rather smug, although entirely accurate Myspace manager points out, most bands are described by who they are influenced by, whereas Cardiacs are most easily described by who they have influenced. This is an extensive list, one that you could very obviously add Blur, Oceansize, Gang Of Four, Scaramanga Six, The Somatics, Mama Scuba and although they probably don't realise it This Etal and O Fracas. I attribute the latter two's influence and the fact they don't realise it to the same point: By the time the current crop of 18 year olds were born, Cardiacs had already released 6 albums of agit-punk blended in equal proportion with epic prog rock that could by turns be sweeping soundscapes or thrashy bursts of extreme noise or compacted freak-outs in 7/13 time on fairground organ.
In fact, such is the vast amount of ground covered over the last three decades that its almost impossible not to find reference points to anything loud and guitar-y currently described by the more hyperbolic elements of the frothy-press as "Dazzlingly Original" somewhere in the Cardiacs' cannon. And seeing as if your planning on arguing with me there are 19 albums on CD alone to wade through, unless you've got a spare 15-odd hours (students excepted) and a brain the size of a planet for digesting what at first listen appears to be amongst the most comprehension-proof music you're likely to hear, you'll just have to take my word for it.
So what of the discs themselves? Well given that they consist of over two hours of music almost entirely bereft of melody, they actually prove remarkably digestible all things considered. I must admit that whilst - as a fan - the idea of picking up two albums of predominantly new material (as far as I'm concerned anyway) was exciting, it was tempered somewhat by the niggling doubt that as with so many albums raiding the archives, the term "oldies and rarities" could be easily interchangeable with "substandard off-cuts".
Panic over though, because over the two discs the quality remains startlingly strong. There is an argument to say that compressed onto one disc this would be truly indispensable as there are enough exceptional tracks on here to produce one masterwork. However, whether you subscribe to that will largely depend on whether you're one of those people who think The Beatles' White Album should also be a single disc. There will always be as many who value diversity as much as a mercenary approach to track culling, and somehow to loose some of the more meandering avant-guard moments across these discs would seem rather sad. Although to be fair, these are in general kept to a minimum in favour of the tightly structured mini-epics.
Tim Smith has on occasion dismissed too much over-analysis of his compositions or broader tastes with the phrase "its all just pop music isn't it really?" And although at first glance the idea of Cardiacs being pop seems a bit like claiming Damien Hirst to be pre-Raphaelite, he's got a point. Smith has an acute grasp of pop in all its genres. Its just that the average Cardiacs song contains about a dozen pop songs within it, all tightly woven into each other or occasionally just blasted over the top of each other.
Across Vol I for example (probably on balance the more consistently rewarding of the two) there's Gloomy News: A cracking blast of Power-Pop although sufficiently punked-up to condense what would normally be a classic three-and-a-half minute hum-along into just under two minutes in a manner that makes Blur's Song 2 seem like Sibelius' 7th. There's also Gina Lollabrigida, probably the closest thing here to a classic pop song in the same vein as Arnald from their much-lauded On Land And In The Sea album. It feels like Britpop, only 20 years too early and considerably weirder.
However, the best stuff is in the denser material. Hope Day is gloriously cluttered and juttering, whilst Let Alone My Plastic Doll is stately and majestic in the manner of Stoneage Dinosaurs from Songs For Ships And Irons. However, best of all is the sublime As Cold As Can Be In An English Sea, which is both gloriously cluttered/juttering and stately/majestic. It showcases everything that is great about Cardiacs. That you can be nodding along to a fantastic riff before they catch you up in a wondrous celestial choral section before powering into a pummelling punk section and diverting via a double-time bluegrass pastiche into 2-tone organ led fairground noises. Barking, but utterly thrilling.
On Vol 2 there is much of the same, although with marginally more padding. Dinnertime Is At Home (Not Here) is a beguiling mix of the unlistenabley madcap and perfectly normal. A bizarre (even by Cardiacs standards) intro breaks into a ska-flavoured verse/chorus that promises to actually sound vaguely sensible before trotting off again into the realms of the nuts.
Hello Mr. Minnow sets down the blueprint that was to be more thoroughly explored in the late eighties/early nineties albums comprised of tight, slightly ska-flavoured mini explosions breaking into vast, semi-choral, expansive soundscapes. Although in this case topped with a wonderful three-part vocal polyphony towards the middle. The evergreen RES provides a solid hook for the audience to get its head round, a stark contrast to A Cake For Bertie's Party which starts weird and gets progressively more weird. Although not as weird as Food On The Wall, which is not only weird, but actually rather disturbing.
Although what is significantly more disturbing than any of the occasional lapses into atonality included here, is that this could all have been conceived by a bunch of 15-year-olds. The members were only in their mid-teens when they formed in '76, and given that all this material is dated between 1976 - 1983 it is conceivable that much of this impossibly complicated and crafted music must have been realised by some very young punks indeed. Which is frankly just wrong. Shouldn't they have been more concerned with football or girls or something at that age rather than composing 7 minute epics of gravity-defying technical demands?
So to those who have a frame of reference, this should be a compulsory purchase. The Cardiacs sound is in a class of one, and although many have attempted to replicate it since, mainly as a watered down version to package up and sell on as something slightly less sociopathic and thus capable of transcending into the mainstream, it has remained unique. For those who have never encountered Cardiacs before, firstly well done or getting this far, but you may find their mid-to-late-eighties studio output slightly more accessible, or better still the '95 compilation Sampler, but if you're feeling brave and fancy a plunge into the deep end, there is plenty to recommend here so there are many worse places to start. Pick up a copy and join the maddest gang in the playground. Your loyalty demands.
*Possible lapse into breach 2 of "the code".