In 2010, I used to write a monthly column for a local punk zine, AZKAOS. “This is What Happened” was a series of reviews on older alternative albums. This was one of my 2010 contributions.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED
Commentaries on Old Stuff
By Richard Bledsoe
SHRIEKBACK “Oil and Gold” Released on Island Records 1985
Going by the 20-year theory of cultural recycling, we should already be moving into the retro 90’s. Brace yourselves-soon enough, new bands will be featuring white boy funk metal, angry political hip-hop, and repetitive shoegaze-all clearing the way for a flannel tsunami of neo-grunge.
But in the meantime we continue to crawl through the treacherous alleyways of the 80s revival. So much musical went on in that decade, it makes sense it would take longer than the normal two-decade pattern to reabsorb it all. After the punk explosion of the late 70’s, the scene fragmented Tower of Babel style into dozens of genres, movements and sub-movements. Pre-internet, with little mainstream support or exposure, word of mouth and the exchange of cassette tapes (dubbed from vinyl) were the prime ways to keep track of the latest developments in the cultural landscape. For a time, the now obscure band Shriekback were big stars in this underground-they were a mix tape staple.
Shriekback had strong credentials. Bassist Dave Allen was from legendary post punk band Gang of Four. That group’s hard, jittery funk and strident social commentary carried on punk’s spirit of protest. Shriekback’s vocalist and keyboardist Barry Andrews was with XTC while they were still playing spastic, angular Elvis Costello-style pop. With the addition of guitarist Carl Marsh and a rotating cast of support musicians, Allen and Andrews went in the electronic dance music direction.
Oil and Gold was the splendor of their achievement; an intensely moody album, it swings from gospel chorus exuberance to whispering, depressive lullabies. It references many of the musical movements that were active at the time, with measures of Gothic foreboding, New Romantic artiness, Post Punk statacco, and slick New Wave drum machines and synthesizers.
The fast numbers feature Allen’s driving bass lines and Andrew’s shout/chant vocals, featuring complex, rather abstract lyrics. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” channels the Talking Heads while name-dropping Flannery O’Conner. “Hammerheads” is an ominous (but danceable) take on reactionary aggression. And “Nemesis” is the closet thing they ever had to a greatest hit. The guitar roars like prehistoric beast while a lyrical celebration of decadence unfolds: “Love has no meaning, not where they come from/But we know pleasure/Is not that simple/very little fruit is forbidden/sometimes we wobble, sometimes we’re strong/But you know evil is an exact science/Being carefully correctly wrong.”
There is a profoundly pretentious and entertaining period music video for this song.
But is in the slower pieces that Shriekback really accomplishes its finest work. Spacey progressive passages that would not sound out of place on a Peter Gabriel record incorporate a sorrowful, beautiful atmosphere. Here Andrews is subduded, oozing melancholy over delicate passages of soft percussion and introspective, lilting melodies. The vocals are also sweetened by soulful female voices harmonizing. “Only Thing That Shines” is a cutter’s anthem, a paean to both the beloved and the razor. “Faded Flowers” is a rueful rumination on the end of road: “We had some good machines, but they don’t work no more/I loved you once, don’t love you anymore.” “Coelacanth” is an instrumental, haunted and dark as the ocean floor. And “This Big Hush” is an epic, an eerie, echoing dreamscape about the eternal conflict between fear and desire.
Director Michael Mann recognized the power of these last two works. He featured them prominently in the 1986 film Manhunter, the first of the Hannibal Lecter movies. Forget the poorly cast remake Red Dragon, which featured such ridiculous images as Ralph Fiennes as a ruggedly handsome serial killer, Edward Norton trying to act tough, and Anthony Hopkins taking a stab at being hip by wearing a tiny ponytail. Manhunter used towering freak Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy, Miami Vice style minimalist design and artful music video inspired cinematography. The two songs from Oil and Gold are incorporated into scenes as the monsterous murderer toys with redemption-“Coelacanth” when he arranges for a blind girl to caress the body of a sedated tiger, and later “This Big Hush” over a truly ambiguous love scene.
Oil and Gold is very much of its era-80’s synthpop with a dark undercurrent. But the intelligence, energy and strong song writing it incorporates makes it an album that has stood the test of time.
RICHARD BLEDSOE is a visual story teller; a painter of fables and parables. He received his BFA in Painting from Virginia Commonwealth University. Richard has been an exhibiting artist for over 25 years, in both the United States and internationally. He lives and paints happily in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife Michele and cat Motorhead. He is the author of Remodern America: How the Renewal of the Arts Will Change the Course of Western Civilization.
Learn more About My Art: Visionary Experience
My wife Michele Bledsoe has written her own inspirational book, Painting, Passion and the Art of Life.
Remodernism Video: BEFORE THERE WAS FAKE NEWS, THERE WAS FAKE ART
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