Shriekback are a band who come with some pretty good schooling behind them, originally formed 23 years ago from members of two of the best acts of the post-punk era, XTC and the Gang Of Four.
These days the Gang Of Four element (bassist Dave Allen) is no longer there, yet on Cormorant, their tenth album, XTC are represented not only by band mainstay Barry Andrews but also Andy Partridge, reuniting the pair for the first time since the Go 2 album of 1978.
Anyone expecting the XTC sound to be reproduced on this album will be sadly disappointed however, as the two bands could hardly be further apart. While XTC were all about songs and melodies, Shriekback have much more of a texture and lyrics based sound. Cormorant sees Andrews (keyboards and vocals) joined by Martyn Barker on drums and percussion, Mark Raudva on bass, and a plethora of guests including Andrews’ son Finn, who takes a break from The Veils to add some vocals.
Named after a type of coastal seabird, described by the RSPB as “sinister and greedy”, it would be fair to say that this album has a touch of the sinister about it too. The band’s first release since the mini-album Having A Moment in 2003, it includes lyrics about death and the perils of reaching the mid-life crisis.
As you might expect then, it is not the cheeriest of records – in fact, you might want to get the smelling salts out before you put it on because you won’t be tapping your feet or humming along too much. Shriekback have never been about catchy melodies but even the merest hint of one would have been nice. The result quite frankly is dull, dull, dull.
The album starts with the atmospheric Ronny, a song with dream-like vocals about a criminal living in exile, who has “paid for his crimes” by being paralysed. This meandering effort is pretty much par for the course, all summed up nicely by a line in second song, Sea Theory – “I got a sea theory, gonna bore my friends”.
The best thing about this album is without doubt the lyrics. Every track tells a story, with the words used clearly very carefully thought out, but after a while you just need the quality of music to come through too. The extreme use of reverb on Andrews’ vocals becomes increasingly annoying too. On Sea Theory it sounds like he is singing from down a well!
Too many of the songs on this album go down the same ambient path. There are a few welcome variations though. Huytfi Dbl Plus, one of two instrumentals on the release, is a more interesting affair with urgency added with some dancy beats. Very much an Aphex Twin-esq number and the best thing on the album by a mile. Troublemeat also has a bit more gusto behind it, thanks in the main to Partridge’s guitar work, while Il Mystera Del Tempo, featuring Andrews singing in Italian over an incessant droning electronic beat and some beautiful piano, is a highlight.
Highlights are very hard to come by however. Load The Boat, with a chorus sounding like an African tribal song, had me reaching for the skip button until I realised that I had a duty to listen to it to write this review! Meanwhile, although the screeching kids at the start of Voiled Karletus work me from my slumber, the song itself could only be described as cringe worthy.
By now you may be building a picture that I won’t be considering this album when it is time to think of Best Of 2005 lists. It is true that this is an album that certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you are someone who appreciates well-crafted lyrics over the usual musical niceties then it may well have something to offer.