Ulrika Spacek’s noisy art-rock is artsier than most, dreamt up and recorded in a converted art gallery kenned lovingly as ‘KEN’, a space that also acts as a house and hub in which the band create their artwork, videos and photography. Said sleeves, promo clips and press shots are all presented in stark, moody monochrome; if their records aren’t pressed on blacker-than-black vinyl then they’re on limited-edition white. One doesn’t have to be a synesthesiac to identify their psychedelia as being of the colourless variety: the bad-trip psychedelia of white noise and black humour; whites-of-your-eyes intensity and blackouts. Last year’s brilliant single Everything, All The Time was backed by a cover of original monochrome set, the Velvet Underground – Lady Godiva’s Operation, the grisly game of two halves from (what else?) White Light/White Heat.
The Album Paranoia, the debut long player by the Berlin-founded, London-based five-piece, came out in early 2016. While clearly accomplished, it wasn’t immediately obvious what their self-produced music was for; it lacked the almost physical quality of Sonic Youth’s sonic assaults, their ability to poke at your ribcage and hollow out expressways to yer skull; the heaviness of Spacemen 3’s trance-like drones was notable by its absence, as was the eccentricity and charm of Ought. Beta Male and She’s A Cult quickened the heart, but the exhilarating, visceral release of, say, Hookworms was in short supply. It worked best as music to zone out to: music that swirled around and washed over you; the beautiful textures produced by the interplay between the three guitarists acting as beckoning come-tos. The band’s approach of taking their time and creating space to move around in (“rather than eight bars, if you do 16 then there’s just so much more room for whatever you’re doing over the top of it to go somewhere else”) led to some splendid moments, but also mid-paced mid-album longueurs. The effects put on Rhys Edwards’ vocals and the insistence on burying of them in the mix became frustratingly monotonous over 45 minutes.
Work on the album’s follow-up began almost immediately. Everything about Modern English Decoration – its title, lyrics, ambience – was inspired by KEN’s living room, where the majority of the LP was recorded. Any fears that this would result in little more than musical wallpaper – easy to ignore; instantly forgettable; (God forbid) pleasant – were dispelled by Everything, All The Time’s crunching riffs, prominent vocals and emphatic forward thrust. It remains a bold highlight at the heart of the tracklisting.
Ulrika Spacek continue to pride themselves on their sound’s lack of reverb, on their focus on focus, and Modern English Decoration works as a refinement of The Album Paranoia. It’s more varied in pace, richer in guitar tones; there’s less fuzz, less dead air. They’re fans of collage based art, and there’s no denying the artistry involved in the sound design and assemblage of these contrasting guitar parts. One listen to opener Mimi Pretend through good earphones is enough to appreciate the machine-like precision of its creation: as part of an extended instrumental intro – also a feature of the debut – guitars enter at different intervals from different channels and lock into a satisfying, driving groove; multiple small breakdowns follow, the band each time snapping effortlessly back into line. Full of Men ebbs and flows in similar fashion – the guitars pinging and scraping and rubbing against each other – before building to an exciting climax. Dead Museum is a wonderfully atmospheric recording, complete with Slint-ish bass, that manages to evoke a trudge through a swamp of white noise and emulsion without sounding muddy or messy itself.
Ziggy lends some light poppiness, while Silvertonic is this album’s Porcelain – a song so good and sure-footed that you forgive it for sounding exactly like a track Deerhunter might have recorded and subsequently forgot to include on their last album. Everything, All The Time and the ominous Victorian Acid aside, however, there remains a lack of abandon to these performances – the problem with machine-like precision is that it can end up feeling very controlled. It also feels strange that an act who talk so much about focus and clarity choose to make their vocals so muffled and their meaning so obscured: only certain phrases such as “Are we elegantly passing out?” (Mimi Pretend) and “I’m just sliding into the unknown, but I’m not going anywhere at all” (Silvertonic) make their way to the surface. There’s a great but rare moment on Protestant Work Slump where the singer and song talk to each other – the lovely but subdued music rising in response to Edwards’ command of “get up, get up.”
A drunken conversation about names that would make an impression at parties birthed the name Ulrika Spacek (a mixing of Ulrike Meinhof and Sissy Spacek) and the band have suggested that a certain “goofiness” is detectable in their music. Modern English Decoration is curiously slapdash compared to the meticulousness of the other tracks around it, as if it’ll stutter to a halt and the band will break down in hysterical laughter. Presumably designed to disorientate and sound chemically-induced, Saw A Habit Forming’s submerged vocal effects instead come across as faintly ridiculous – as does its later section with the band apparently clanging metal poles. Coming on the back of Ought’s 2014 track Habit, it suggests there’s a habit forming for tracks about habits forming. Reservations regarding vocals and mannered performances aside, this is an impressive second outing that cements Ulrika Spacek’s position as one of Britain’s most intriguing, painterly guitar bands.