It’s been thirty years since I first discovered Shriekback, somewhere amongst the music papers, Radio 1 evening shows and my handful of music loving friends. Standing askance to the new electronic sounds and shiny electro-pop that I favoured they provided a slightly grubbier, somewhat edgier proposition. Their early run of singles included the sinuous ‘Lined Up’, rattlingly funky ‘My Spine (Is The Bassline)’ and seductive ‘Hand On My Heart’: all different, all unorthodox, all brilliant pop.
Although I was oblivious to this at the time, in the heart of that creative unit there appears to have been some tension between keyboard player/vocalist Barry Andrews and vocalist/guitarist Carl Marsh. To me it was Marsh who appeared to provide the grit, while Andrews’ occasional lyrical outings were a little more fantastical. But whatever the truth of the situation, Marsh left during the making of their highly-acclaimed ‘Oil and Gold’, the album which spawned the very popular – all though chart-untroubling – ‘Nemesis’.
Marsh went on to make one of my favourite albums, ‘Here Comes The Crush’, which disappeared without trace, and Shriekback continued in his absence, starting with the ‘Big Night Music’ album. Featuring tracks such as ‘Black Light Trap’, ‘Gunning For The Buddha’, ‘Running On The Rocks’ and the tremendous ‘Sticky Jazz’, it was a corking, lively, brightly coloured album, better produced than any of the previous efforts but, I found, lacking the darkness that Marsh provided. The follow up, “Go Bang!”, was even more cartoon Shriekback, now lacking founder member and bassist, Dave Allen.
It was a big surprise, then, when, four years later, Shriekback reformed (still minus Marsh) to release my favourite album of theirs, ‘Sacred City’. Suddenly Andrews seemed to have dropped all the big colours and fantastical lyrics to provide an album that came from his own direct experience of squatting in London, wandering the city by night. It was at this point that I really began to enjoy his work both through Shriekback and solo. (Incidentally, if you were to ask me which Shriekback album to start with – and, really, none of them is representative of the whole canon – then I would buy ‘Sacred City’ and listen to ‘Beatles Zebra Crossing?’ (it is), ‘Exquisite Corpse’ and ‘(Open Up Your) Filthy Heart (To Me)’.)
Since then, there have been five further Shriekback albums, with Marsh popping up here and there, all of which feature a mix of good tracks and others which are, to be frank, a bit Shriekback by numbers. And now they are joined by this, ‘Without Real String Or Fish’, Shriekback’s 13th studio album and the first since ‘Oil and Gold’ in which it feels like Marsh is properly back in the band, even if he only appears on five songs.
It gets off to a bit of a false start with ‘Now Those Days Are Gone’, whose brass attack is uncomfortably reminiscent of ‘Go Bang!’ and where Marsh seems to be trying a little too hard. From then on, though, it’s all gold, starting with ‘The King In The Tree’, where Martyn Barker’s ever-intricate and precise drumming picks up Andrews’ cyclical keyboard figure. This is followed by the gorgeous ‘Soft Estate’ and ‘Woke Up Wrong’, which are instantly recognisable as the the healthy offspring of Andrews’ song-writing DNA.
The firstly truly great moment, though, where for me this collection is lifted above recent Shriekback albums, arrives in the form of ‘Beyond Metropolis’, sung by Marsh in the style of his that I love the best. Quite apart from his semi-spoken word style, he has a way of taking his stream of conscious lyrics and imbuing them with a sense of poetic purpose and internal logic. It was this song more than any other that hooked me into this record.
Indeed, of the remaining seven songs, it is the two that were written by Andrews, Barker and Marsh – ‘Recessive Jean’ and the lovely, gentle ‘Bernadette’ – that stand out, and I really hope the next album is completely written by the three of them. (And, to be honest, it feels like now there is proper reason for Dave Allen to return, one that doesn’t involve nostalgia at all.)
But I don’t want to over-emphasise Marsh’s contribution – wonderful though it is – since it’s certainly worth mentioning that Andrews seems to have completely revived his mojo with ‘Without Real String Or Fish’. The album has a sure-footedness that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing with Shriekback now and I think this has somehow opened up the door to allow Barker to make a more integral contribution to the song-writing, too.
Now, if only they’d go out and play live!