❉ John Robb and friends explore the beauty and terror of nature.
Post-punk is one of those musical forms, like hip hop and grime, that could never have come about outside an urban environment. It depended heavily on a musical miscegenation that’s common in the internet age, but near impossible in the 1970s, even for avid John Peel listeners. It needed the spark of different cultures and tastes often found in cities, the blend of funk, dub, disco and krautrock infused with the DIY spirit of punk to break new ground after punk had tried to raze things down. In the internet age of course, it’s one more style choice to be picked off the musical rack by a culture with access to just about everything that’s ever been recorded, shorthand for sharply dressed white boys playing the sort of guitar sound that’s come to be known as ‘angular’ rather than the questing spirit behind so much of the sound of the late 70s and early 80s. Entertaining as the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes and Bloc Party could be, they never matched the substance of the post-punk as well as they stole its style.
Which is why the second album of The Membranes’ second coming is as splendidly counterintuitive as they’ve always been. Following the example set by Suede’s The Blue Hour last year, they’ve beaten a retreat from concrete sprawls and headed back to nature. In a world where we’re all encouraged to be constantly connected, what could be more punk than contrarily going back to nature?
Lest you think that this is the sort of appalling lecture that periodically appears in The Guardian about how disconnecting is Good For You, this is far from it. Much as it’s celebratory of the countryside, neither music nor lyrics lose sight of how unsettling the countryside can be to those generally living in the mostly-ordered, man-made environment. From the opening A Strange Perfume, there’s a pervading ominous mood, with John Robb’s shamanic vocals reminding you where Ian Brown nicked his good tricks from.
It also introduces you to the album’s secret weapon, the BIMM choir. The addition of a choir is a logical development from the Sireen choir’s appearance on 2016’s single The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons of Pure White Light, adding a grandeur to the already heady blend of krautrock and gothic psych. On tracks such as The 21st Century Is Killing Me, Mother Ocean/Father Time and the Kirk Brandon guest-starring The Magical and Mystical Property of Flowers they become a contrast to the band’s sound, effectively bringing out the beauty and terror of nature.
Brandon isn’t the only friend dropping in to contribute: punk priestess Jordan lends vocals to Demon Seed/Demon Flower and Chris Packham (yes, the BBC’s second most beloved natural history presenter behind Attenborough) gets to live his post-punk dream with an impassioned plea to realise how much of a part of nature we all are and how we tend to deny it on Winter (The Beauty and Violence of Nature).
None of this is to downplay the band’s own contributions: the guest appearances are more garnish than main meal. Robb’s bass and Simon Moore’s almost tribal drumming are the foundation of the album’s sustained atmosphere of foreboding. It’s this which lends a thematic coherence to the album as much as any lyrical concerns, making it feel more like a post punk symphony in sixteen parts than a standard album. It’s a remarkable feat to sustain that over sixteen songs and more than an hour.
Over forty years on from their founding, this is a band whose ambition remains undimmed, moving from how the universe works on their last album to dwelling on our use and abuse of nature on this, still managing to cast a suspicious eye on a troubled country in the process. The Membranes never really got their due in their original incarnation: in the world of 6Music, perhaps it’s finally time for one of the era’s most intelligent, compelling bands to get their due.
❉ The Membranes: ‘What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away’ released by Cherry Red Records, 7 June 2019. CD pre-order: www.cherryred.co.uk/product/