Four stars - there IS another option.
It is very easy to revel in the nostalgia of certain records. Listening to Wolf Alice‘s new album was a pleasant experience, but was like being trapped in a hall of mirrors. While originality is not always necessary in music, and is indeed hard to generate, that album is but one example of a precocious fascination with the past and tradition that seems to be infecting music and the way we connect with it. Plus, it’s nice to talk about something more experimental, something that’s trying to push things forward, something that doesn’t envelope the listener in a cosy docility, but instead challenges them to properly listen, and think about what they’re listening to.
All of this is where Severed Heads comes in. Severed Heads were Australian pioneers of electronic music, with their longest-standing member Tom Ellard and friends choosing to make (and distribute) their music the hard way. They initially used tape loops, cassettes and analogue equipment to make grimy post-punk statements like 1979’s ‘Since The Accident’. They then gradually succeeded in passing off the harsh and primitive as something that, despite its sound, somehow seemed serene and beautiful, with the triumph that is 1986’s ‘Come Visit The Big Bigot’ (an album I can’t recommend enough).
Then, during the 90s, Tom Ellard, by now the principal member and custodian of the band, ended up being burnt by bad experiences with record labels. After struggling to keep up with their demands, only to end up being dropped when the label went under, and with just $50 to his name, Ellard decided in 1998 that the next Heads album, Haul Ass, would be distributed independently – in every possible way. Always an innovative trailblazer, he was one of the first to take advantage of the then-primitive Internet, burning CDs himself and shipping them internationally by mail. It sounds ordinary now, but in the days before Google and PayPal it was a groundbreaking way of taking back control.
From 1991 to 2006, Severed Heads made four albums, through which their decline and comeback can be charted – Cuisine (with Piscatorial), Gigapus, Haul Ass, and Under Gail Succubus. These albums are now physically rare, but have been available on the band’s BandCamp page for many years – that is, until now. After years of lying dormant and unnoticed, Ellard replaced these albums with a 34-track compilation, streamlining four LPs into one two-hour playlist, and cutting out what he felt to be the less successful bits.
Some fans were unhappy about the changes, as this meant that some tracks are no longer available. However, it is a definitive move from someone who speaks regularly on his blog about his preference to look forward, rather than sit on the laurels of the past.
“No one has bought those albums in a while,” Ellard explained recently. “The people that are most upset had them decades ago, and the downloads have been available for about decade themselves. So these albums have ceased to be effective containers of my music.”
“I can simplify and better present music I made 30 years ago. I need to address a new listener, one that has decades of music to wade through and not much time to do it. That might mean deleting the worst of my music and keeping only the good bits. Fair enough. […] If Michael Jackson burned out in four albums and Kraftwerk maybe in six (that is, albums that the average listener would recognise) then I have been a fool to have put so many titles on the shelf.”
The compilation means that years of music that were previously underappreciated can now be heard more easily. It’s also better value for money: you’re given a beautifully comprehensive 45-page PDF booklet, complete with transcripts of Ellard’s enigmatic and absurdist lyrics, plus commentary on what this lyrics mean, along with all the turmoil that was going on behind the scenes. The liner notes provide a glimpse into Ellard’s non-purist, but very particular, approach to art – namely, it’s no fun if it’s easy, and repeating yourself is the most boring thing you can do.
What of the music itself? It sounds extraordinary. It has aged very well – as I type, I’m listening to ‘The Interpreter’; the horns that pop up near the end wouldn’t be out of place on the radio today, while the overall production reminds one of Thomas Fehlmann, but without that producer’s po-facedness. ‘Heart Of The Party’ is an instant highlight, and what you would probably call a bop or banger. There’s also some lovely pastoral sections, such as the strings of ‘Lufthansa’ which are ultimately juxtaposed with busy drum-and-bass rhythms. There are also weirder humourous moments – the first album, described as ‘electronic country and western’, features ‘Kangaroo Skippy Too’, which successfully combines silly sampling of nursery rhymes with large, cavernous and foreboding drone pads in a way that doesn’t feel jarring.
There’s a lot to take in, and much of it is challenging, but demands repeat listens. If you come out the other side, there’s a strong chance you’ll be in awe.
Focus is an excellent summary of the Severed Heads sound, presented through some of the band’s lesser known albums. Imagine either Stockhausen making pop music, or a pop song’s melodic sheen being put through a shredder and pieced back together in a charming hatchet job.
It’s strange, and may seem hostile on first encounter, but give it a chance, and I think it may beguile you.
Focus is available for download via Severed Heads’ Bandcamp here.