Never having been a band that have gripped me in the live arena, much preferring the Punk gospel of John Robb’s other band, Goldblade, I approached The Membranes newest album What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away with trepidation. It isn’t anything specific that causes me to be unmoved when watching them live; they have charisma, the tunes, and on paper they should fit the part. I have no explanation.
Previous albums have received critical acclaim from the music press but having no experience other than hearing the occasional track and seeing the band live at various festivals and all-dayers, I cannot comment on such claims. So, it is without disappointment that I get to report that The Membranes are for me a band that make much more sense on record than they do live.
I have an inkling that the very next time I see The Membranes it is going to click with me because this album is a most excellent affair. A dark affair at that. A deep rumbling bass led affair with a dark and ghostly dystopian underbelly. A mixture of a modern world Hieronymus Bosch meets Franz Kafka soundtrack. Over an hour of music across sixteen tracks.
“The Ghosts of Winter Stalk This Land” wins hands down for the most enthralling song title and is matched only by the PiL meets The Doors dub rumble within. It holds all; reverb, mellotron, ghostly female voice and, on this and “The City is an Animal (Nature is its Slave),” we have a very Jah Wobble like subdued dub bass.
“Winter (The Beauty and the Violence of Nature)” appears to be a spoken word piece by what sounds like TV Presenter and naturalist, Chris Packham, set to tribal drums, monotonous bass and discordant guitar lines and a chorus of crows.
There appears to be several interspersed themes running through this album; winter, night, dark, black, birds, nature. Is it a concept album or an album where the songs were written of a time, situation and a state of mind? Whatever it may be, this is a dark and gloomy affair that luckily, or by design, avoids falling into the self-pity and depressive spiral that it could so easily be sucked into.
We walk the line of The Birthday Party and Inca Babies in “A Murder of Crows.” A screaming death gasp somewhere between serial killer and victim over dirty scuzzy punk blues makes this a standout track for me. A complete sound contrast to the uplifting harmonious female vocal lines of “The 21st Century is Killing Me” that urges the listener into a calmer state. “Breath in, breath out” they instruct whilst running counter to the abrasive shoegaze guitar that attacks the listener.
Occasionally, the vocal quality of Robb can be somewhat distracting as he is not a singer’s singer. I’m sure he doesn’t claim to be that and to be honest it isn’t needed. The vocal delivery fits the songs and the vocals are most certainly the least important instrument here. When required, the female vocals, either singular or multiple, step in to add texture and enhanced context to the highly important instrumentation. This is an orchestrated album with excellent arrangements that occasionally peers over the garden wall of Godspeed You Black Emperor.
There is much to be lauded about this album and very little negative to offer. This deserves more critical acclaim to be added to previous releases and I have no doubt this will be forthcoming.
Potentially another Mark E. Smith moment for me as The Membranes finally make sense.
Time to sit and delve into the back catalogue before I next see them because I have a feeling that the whole thing is going to dovetail together tightly just like all the individual parts of instrumentation, production, feeling, words and story on this stunner of an album, I think this may be the catalyst where the band, live, recorded, and myself come together.
Review: Mark Veitch