❉ “Self-expression is evil. If thine eye offend thee…”
“We believe that the applause of silence is the only kind that counts” – Alfred Jarry, late 19th century
“And nobody knows how it is – always leaving, and never to go” – Pere Ubu, late 20th century
It takes real smarts to sound this dumb; or perhaps it takes a lifespan to rage again as if for the first time. This has always been the Ubu way, that every fresh addition to their corpus is just another POV upon the same vista, and that it could all end anytime soon, the story still incomplete, however detailed the evidence and however simple the resolution. But remember at all times one of the Ubu prime mottos: “Self-expression is evil. If thine eye offend thee…”
“While I lean on the remnants of a fractured plan
I will learn all the regions on the side of a can”
– Pere Ubu – Prison Of The Senses
“Pere Ubu is like a cup” (David Thomas interviewed, 1988)
You’ll read elsewhere reviews of this album which will hark back to music Ubu made over 40 years ago as a gold standard, and make no mistake, they were a formidable outfit back then, an undeniable fork in the road; but apart from the permanent central figure of David Thomas, there have been several iterations of the group down the ages, and the spine of this Ubu – MicheleTemple (bass), Steve Mehlman (drums) and Robert Wheeler (analog electronics) – have been together since 1995, deserving to be regarded as beyond stalwart, practically definitive these days. They’ve been joined by a roster of superb guitarists – the late great Jim Jones, Tom Herman from Ubu’s seventies halcyons, latterly Keith Moliné – in one of the leanest, most striking bands you may never have heard. In recent years adding Graham “Dids” Dowdall (digital manipulations) and Daryl Boon (clarinet and more), the full line-up for this album numbers nine in total with the guesting of further guitarists Gary Siperko and Kristof Hahn, a step-change towards a Thomas concept of an eventual Pere Ubu Orchestra, the band becoming a floating multitude and expanding as if towards supernova meltdown and consequent singularity. As if they see too much?
In recent years, Ubu have hit a particularly purple patch, based upon the absolute trust in one another that comes with experience and which turns mere proficiency into something closer to telepathy. 2013’s superb, gargantuan Lady From Shanghai was created using a “Chinese Whispers” methodology intended to oppose the ouroborous grind of rehearsal and trial and error, positing instead that the “monstre sacre” of consequence can produce definitives rather than grotesques. Their next, 2014’s Carnival Of Souls, a pummelling amusement ride, was predicated from their sideline occupation of live underscoring of B-movie classics (including Roger Corman’s 1963 shocker X, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes).
For this latest release, Thomas extended both conceits into what he calls the “Dark Room”; viz, all present on this album are recorded separately, free to play whatever they wish, but with no knowledge of how it fits with other players, only ever being given the most basic guidelines. All constituent parts are then whittled, considered and moulded in studio. Not everyone plays on every song, and if they are involved, it’s likely that their part is melanged or crosscut with others.
What you’re hearing, which sounds very like snarly punk, is actually closer to pointillism. Not that it “isn’t” snarly punk, you understand – just that it isn’t “only” that. The narrator of Toe To Toe (which in a more literal work would’ve been the title track), locked in subterfuge at his workstation, constantly awaiting judgement day, could easily be a caustic self-portrait of Thomas at the Ubu controls, were he given to such affectation. But that would fall foul of the maxim quoted above. In interview, Thomas has stated that for all its spitting ramalama, the song is intended merely to depict someone at work, at difficult or thankless work, because difficult work is how most of us have to get by. There is, for all the pyro in an Ubu performance, a quiet heart, albeit the eerie quiet of the observer, but an empathy all the same.
Stay sick – why fake it?
The album sparks up parboiled & distilled into blastism, the first four tracks (Monkey Bizness/Funk 49/Prison Of The Senses/Toe to Toe) vrooming by like train window glimpses or flipbook confessional, with the sudden punctua of The Healer cuffing the wind from the lungs, meanwhile introducing the troublesome motif of “seeing” which comes to define the album. It slowly rears from here into a fire-circle of cautionary, afeared prowl, as if rising unsteadily from a blow (Swampland/Plan From Frag 9) but still attempting a front (Howl/Red Eye Blues/Walking Again, the lyrical braggadocio in the bluesman tradition ultimately overpowered, cornered and even ridiculed by the expressionist angles underfoot, more mea culpa than Mannish Boy. Then the splintering rallentando brake-squeal finale of I Can Still See/Cold Sweat, the facepalm and cold regret and deep, difficult draught of acceptance as the engine chokes to a stop, and the breakneck anxiety recedes.
Every Ubu album since the very first has been constructed and performed as if it were the last throw. Some have even actually been the last throw, only for them to reappear down the line, work still to do, no rest yet. There’s an urban cine-myth about the final scene of X, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, that it was supposed to end with the self-blinded protagonist howling “I CAN STILL SEE!”. Some people even claim to remember the line from chance tv viewings. But it isn’t there – the final word which doesn’t actually exist except as a mystery nag in the amygdala. Entirely appropriate, then, that it should form such a neat central motif for this oddly disconcerting work; the nightmare of infinity, the man who isn’t there – always leaving, never to go.
Post scriptum: I can’t let this spiel go by without obituary salutation for Paul Hamann, who died aged 62 in early September and whose final over-seeing this is, along with the definitive reconsiderations of Ubu’s back catalogue currently being reissued by Fire Records in box set form. Engineer and producer for the band since 1979, we’re back to “real smarts” here; the more you know, the less you show. It’s the thousand other options you forewent that make the one you went for the one. This concentration of possibility into decision is the hallmark of Ubu, in any age, and Hamann was the facilitator – the way the sound of Ubu reflected absolutely their intention. “All sound is created equal”, as another early band motto put it. Vivid, shape-shifting, Ubu could only have flourished with a truly open mind watching over them, and Paul Hamann was precisely that avatar.
❉ Pere Ubu – ’20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo’ was released September 29 2017 on Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95.
❉ Official streaming of 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo from here.