Perennially productive post-punks Disappears return with their fourth album in as many years, Era. It’s a creeping, crawling freak of a record from the Chicagoan group; beside it, a lot of the other post-punk-indebted efforts of recent years sound tame and plastic, having assimilated the darkness, the tones and the rhythms from the ‘70s and ‘80s post-punk bands but with one eye clearly on commercial success, adapting the sound to conventional song structures and excising anything that might prove too much of a challenge to the listener.
With a lot of the best original post-punk bands, you got the sense that they were making music solely for themselves, seeing how far the frontiers of music could be pushed to satisfy their own curiosity – the audience was almost irrelevant. You don’t get that with White Lies and their bombastic singalong choruses, however many black and white photographs there are of them looking pale and moody in storm drains.
Disappears, on the other hand, are channeling the weirdo, pioneer vibe of that period on Era. Frontman Brian Case has spoken about the influence of notoriously commercially-oblivious acts Wire and Public Image Ltd on Disappears’ sound, and although it might not be that apparent at first – Era’s opening track Girl is much more of a noisy, Spacemen 3-style reverb-rock blast than anything else – as you get deeper into the album it begins to make sense.
Post-punk aficionados will be able to spot almost every significant dark-tinged British band of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in Era, but always given a subtle update, so that the record never feels like a lazy throwback or revival album. The deliberate, menacing guitar loops, echoing goth-rock vocals and thunderous drums on Power are reminiscent of Killing Joke’s debut record, but laced with a more up-to-date psychedelia; the creeping, low-key title track has shades of Siouxsie & The Banshees’s Happy House, and then throws in a distorted, modern-sounding chorus that’s as close to anthemic as bands like Disappears can get. New House’s black sparseness bring to mind Joy Division’s final album Closer, sharing its staccato bass with Decades in particular, but breaks it up with industrial washes of noise from later noise-rock.
The Wire influence is the most pronounced: Case has mentioned the band’s seminal third album 154 as particularly important to Disappears, and Era’s tracks are full of the kind of pared-down weirdness found on 154 – not to mention Case’s vocals, which switch between strident, Colin Newman-alike obnoxiousness and growling bass tones worthy of Graham Lewis. We’re not talking 154’s poppy outliers – the chirpy likes of Blessed State and Map Ref 41 Degrees North 93 West, or the aching beauty of The 15th. Era takes the twisted, nightmarish tones of something like The Other Window or A Touching Display and adds in a load of driving Krautrock repetition – possibly too much driving Krautrock repetition in the case of the fantastically sinister Ultra, which really, really doesn’t need to be nearly ten minutes long. Five would’ve been grand, honestly.
Ultimately, Era is a difficult album to get a handle on. Much like Wire’s 1979 masterpiece, it really, properly throws you the first few times, but the haunting oddness of the tracks means they gradually burrow their way under your skin. It’s not a big, euphoric, hook-filled record by any stretch of the imagination: by way of illustration, the song with probably the most commercial potential, Weird House, features vocals that jerk between high-pitched and low-pitched, one line of lyrics repeated throughout, and a heavily flanged two-note guitar part. One for the open-minded and dark-leaning.