❉ Strange, surprising, thrilling, funny, impenetrable and accessible, this is a practically perfect Fall album.
Since their excellent 2015 album Sub-Lingual Tablet and subsequent Wise Ol’ Man EP in early 2016, The Fall have endured a bit of a rough ride. Keyboard player Elena Poulou left after fifteen years with the band. Drummer Keiron Melling was badly assaulted in an attack on a train last April. There are persistent rumours about Mark E. Smith’s health, with gigs being cancelled and the BBC stupidly announcing his death on the great man’s sixtieth birthday earlier this year. Hope someone was sacked for that.
Listening to the new Fall album, New Facts Emerge, puts all this into perspective. It’s (yet) another fantastic record, the same yet different, as wonderful and frightening (though perhaps a bit more frightening) as usual, with the band on top form and Mark E. Smith on fine (if often startling) voice. Strange, surprising, thrilling, funny, and somehow impenetrable and accessible at the same time, New Facts Emerge is a practically perfect Fall album.
The cover art is brilliant. Like that of Sub-Lingual Tablet, it’s simple and striking. It’ll stand out equally on the shelves of your local record shop or the screen of your phone. It’s ‘Fall-esque’ in an old-school way, and I approve of the Dalek-like lettering, although this does lend itself to a somewhat unfortunate mis-reading (I’ll leave you to work it out). The pinky-purple background is nice too. For the first time in a long time I am inclined to buy a band T-shirt. The inner sleeve art consists of an ominous nocturnal landscape, shadowy figures and lightning-bolts, which suits the feel of the album.
To the music. Though eleven tracks are listed, there really are only nine, as will soon become clear. Three tracks are over 6 minutes and two of those are over 8, and the album itself is a satisfying ‘proper album length’ of 48 minutes. Things kick off with the amusingly-named Segue, thirty seconds that seem to confirm the nay-sayers and rubberneckers crowing that ‘Mark E. Smith has lost it.’ Half a minute of what sounds like Mark E. Smith hitting a pint glass with a fork whilst intoning ‘fol de rol’ in the voice of a drunken tramp. And what probably is Mark E. Smith hitting a pint glass with a fork whilst intoning ‘fol de rol’ in the voice of a drunken tramp. It’s a funny and clever opening, completely wrong-footing the listener, because as it ends, the album’s true first track, Fol-De-Rol, begins, and IT. IS. A. MONSTER. A tight, strangulating riff ripping off/paying homage to On A Rope by Rocket From The Crypt, overlaid by Peter Greenway’s searing guitar, with almost subsonic bass and pounding drums assails the unsuspecting listener’s ears. A thrilling onslaught, extremely well-produced with notably precise stereo separation; you can hear exactly where each instrument/sound/vocal is coming from. Mark E. Smith yells, gargles and shouts his way through the proceedings. “Waiting! Human dog! To start the… Homeric! Fol de Rol! Ha ha ha ha!” Towards the middle the song fades into an eerie sequence with see-sawing bass, distant martial drums, mandolins, and Mark E. Smith moaning the song title mournfully. This goes on for quite a while – and then the music slams back in without warning. Bang! The whole thing ends on a sinister descending drone like a vast machine powering down. It is utterly terrifying. It is utterly captivating. It is utterly brilliant.
Next track, Brillo De Facto, rocks just as hard, with a choppy, concise guitar riff which is almost but not quite reggae, underpinned by a bubbling, punchy, funky (yes, funky!) bassline courtesy Dave ‘The Eagle’ Spurr. Mark’s vocals match the music, all staccato barks and pronouncements. In the last minute or so the song abruptly changes direction, letting rip with a roar of punk which collapses in on itself with a sonorous, bell-like twanging. This leads into the controversially-entitled Victoria Train Station Massacre, not really a song in its own right, but a prelude to the title track, utilising as it does the same riff and drum pattern, over which Mark E. Smith ominously pronounces, “I crave drama.”
This ends in a bizarre backwards sequence which leads directly into New Facts Emerge itself. The bit where the one track leads into the next is brilliant – the main riff seems to shift up a gear and the music slams into focus. It recalls the technique used in Bury from 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter, the band’s former peak which New Facts Emerge looks set to eclipse. The track is a masterpiece of repetition with Keiron Melling’s military drumming underpinning an endless looping, scathing, mutant glam-rock guitar with descending twangy bits. Four minutes of Fall glory in which Mark E. Smith shouts, “Horrible new facts emerge!” And, brilliantly, “Horrible new newsmen emerge!” And, perplexingly, “You gotta stop shaking down those frogs!” Why? Obscure Brexit reference? Who knows.
This run of tracks from 1 to 5, though only actually 3 songs, is an exhilarating rush, and one of the best opening sequences on any Fall album ever. After the feint of Segue through the repetitious groove of Fol De Rol to the triumphant blast of the title track, you find yourself borne aloft on a tide of glorious, gleefully malevolent Fall music. You find yourself bouncing around the house. You find yourself guiltily not missing Eleni and her synthesisers. Peter Greenway’s guitar dominates, and this album contains his best Fall work, so far. If this is anyone’s album, it’s his.
And then you get Couples Vs Jobless Mid 30s (who else but Mark E. Smith could come up with a title like that?) and the game completely changes. One of the strangest tracks The Fall have ever recorded, and I don’t say that lightly. Be warned, this will separate the men from the boys! Take early Genesis, Can (specifically Aumgn from Tago Mago and Soup from Ege Bamyasi), some sort of bizarre avant-garde play, 90s West Midlands doom metal, the inmates of a Victorian insane asylum, mix them all up, and you’d get something like this. On first listen it kills the album’s momentum stone dead, but when you’re used to it, it fits into place perfectly. And it is very well produced, the stereo separation creating a vast and cavernous soundstage, filled with all sorts of weird noises and voices. Great to listen to on headphones, as is the whole album.
Two minutes in, a throbbling bassline and martial drums kick in, with Mark ranting about… something… and backing voices laughing and singing “Hi-ho!” (not for the last time on this album). Halfway through, it collapses into weirdness again, before resolving into a standard Fall ruckus with bouncy bass and spiky guitar. Tracks like this are bread and butter to Fall fans, and I salute them, because The Fall without unpredictability and weirdness isn’t really The Fall to me.
After all thus sturm und drang and chaos, proceedings lighten up considerably, and the second half of the album is sunnier and poppier than the first. Second House Now starts with comedy rockabilly but then abruptly switches into a belter of a track featuring an incessant, fuzzy Greenway riff, more of that funky bubbling Spurr bass, and loads of strange and vocal and sonic effects.
O! Zztrrk Man is an extremely lo-fi rocker reminiscent of early Stereolab, with Mark singing in a very strange muffled voice; you can’t quite make out what he’s saying, sometimes it sounds like “O, joyous man”, other times, “O, George Best.” On initial listens this track seems throwaway, but it’s far from that. It’s strange and beautiful and oddly touching in a way that’s hard to describe.
Gibbus Gibson is a poppy throwback to mid-80s Fall, with Mark actually singing, sounding just as he did back in those days, giving the lie to those who say he can’t sing any more. Greenway’s spiky guitar is so reminiscent of Brix Smith’s playing that you could easily imagine this as an offcut from (say) The Frenz Experiment. Such nostalgia is usually verboten in the world of The Fall, but this is such a perfect little gem that it can be forgiven.
Now to Groundsboy. This, to me, is the best track on the album, and there’s almost nothing to it. A gentle, loping, rockabilly bassline, some gentle piano, “Hi-ho!” backing vocals (again), more delicious guitar work from Greenway, and Mark in fine voice, recounting the tale of a menial worker at an airport (I think) who is “treated like scum.” The way he sings, “Grounds…boy. Checker! Checker!” is sublime beyond words. We’ve come a long, long, long way from the opening onslaught of Fol De Rol. A long, strange, and interesting road has been travelled. And with the closing moments of Groundsboy – “Checker! Checker!” – we’re almost at the final destination.
Nine Out Of Ten closes the album, another 8 minute plus track. Just Mark E. Smith singing against a simple yet complex jangling, nagging, haunting, 2-chord guitar backdrop. Mark sounds impassioned here, ranting (apparently) against reviewers: “Nine out of ten you gave me!”, he howls like a man betrayed, harking back to the “He is not appreciated” refrain of 1981’s Hip Priest. Stunning, captivating, haunting. Mark’s vocals finish after 3 minutes, and we’re left with Greenway’s guitar (suddenly in mono), worrying and nagging away at that 2-chord riff for almost 6 minutes. On first listen it’s annoying, because you’re waiting for Mark to start singing again, but on further listening its stark beauty is fully revealed. What a way to end an album.
New Facts Emerge is so full of twists and turns, abrupt changes, weird effects and variations in style that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It takes you on a journey, from the heady, thunderous charge of the first sequence, into the swirling chaos and darkness of Couples Vs Jobless Mid 30’s, into the sunshine rush of Second House Now and O! Zztrrk Man, then the gentle, twinkling retro-Fall of Gibbus Gibson and the laid-back rockabilly of Groundsboy, and finally into the stark, jangling poignancy of Nine Out Of Ten.
Nine Out Of Ten? You gotta be kidding. This is Ten Out Of Ten, at the very least.
❉ The Fall’s 32nd studio album, ‘New Facts Emerge’ was released on 28 July 2017 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95. ‘New Facts Emerge’ was Album Of The Day on BBC Radio 6 Music this Thursday (3 August) as well as being Mojo Magazine’s Album Of The Week, and entered the UK Album Chart at No.35.
It’s quite an album, this one. Stuff like Couples Vs or Nine Out Of Ten feel like the queasy grind of trying to simultaneoulsy recall/repel a fading bad dream, really queering that imperious opening salvo of tracks 1-5. Fantastic & cogent review of a genuinely eccentric & slippery work, sir.