Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29: The Pop Group, "Y"

Artist: The Pop Group
Album: Y
Year: 1978
Label: Radar

Irony within music is often one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish without becoming cliche. Whether it is within the music, a bands' appearance or attitude, or perhaps in the most difficult case, the band name, being clever almost always ends up coming off as plain stupid. However, in what must be seen as a moment of wonderfully ironic genius, one U.K. art-rock, post-punk group took on the perfect name, calling themselves simply, The Pop Group. Unquestionably taking a page from the sound exploration of Suicide, The Pop Group are far darker and more aggressive. There are many moments throughout their handful of LP's and EP's that the music is outright frightening, and yet these moods are often the key to what makes their songs so amazing. However, buried within these gloomy, often times chaotic sounds are clear elements of pop music, though they are often so warped that they are overlooked. Though only around for just over two years, the music of The Pop Group has influenced everyone from Nick Cave to Marilyn Manson to Rage Against The Machine, and nearly every band that has ever attempted to be loud, dark, or "artsy." As is in the case with many bands, the 1978 debut from The Pop Group, Y, stands as their finest musical moment, and it is easily one of the most stunningly amazing musical moments in history.

The Pop Group epitomized the idea of a band that refused to compromise anything about their sound, and this is much of the reason why Y is such a uniquely amazing record. Blending together elements as wide ranged as jazz and the blossoming hardcore scene, there has never bee another group with a sound anything close to what is found on Y. The album itself has been re-issued a handful of times over the years, and later versions include The Pop Group's first single, "She Is Beyond Good And Evil" as the first track, though it did not originally appear on Y. Along with the band members, one of the key aspects to the sound throughout Y is the presence of producer Dennis Bovell. Having worked with everyone from Bananarama to Fela Kuti, his attention to the sonic quality is absolutely integral to the records' sound. Though Bovell is most well known for his work within the reggae genre, the fact that he fits in so well with this unmistakable "art rock" band somehow makes sense when one considers all of the chaos within the music. There are also a handful of moments on Y where Bovell's reggae roots come through, and early signs of the bands' short exploration into dub and funk can be heard. Throughout Y, the band presents both the most outlandish, seemingly disordered compositions, as on "Blood Money," as well as more formally constructed songs like "We Are Time." Regardless of which form the music takes, the quintet are truly fantastic on every song, and this is an album that must be experienced firsthand to be completely understood.

The wild, sonic mayhem found on Y is truly a group effort, and one cannot imagine such brilliant musical bedlam such as is featured on this album. One of the most important and most stunning aspects of the compositions is the lack of a consistent tempo anywhere on the album. It seems that as soon as the band finds a rhythm, they immediately throw it to the side and find a new tempo. This spotlights the sensational talents of drummer and percussionist, Bruce Smith. Masterfully guiding the band through these wild tempo shifts, Smith's playing is truly stunning, and his work with The Pop Group would lead him to later work with everyone from Public Image Ltd. to Björk. Bassist Simon Underwood is equally as brilliant, as he keeps the balance between Smith and the rest of the band. Whether he is playing a prominent, repeated bassline, such as on "Don't Call Me Pain," or flying around the scales as he does throughout a majority of Y, Underwood is truly fantastic on every song. The dual guitars of John Waddington and Gareth Sager completes the musical landscape, and their combined sound is often nothing short of unsettling. With their screeching, sometimes strangely tuned passages, there is truly nothing else ever recorded that even remotely resembles the sounds they create. Along with the more "formal" instruments, the wild saxophone on "Don't Call Me Pain" immediately brings to mind the mood and sound of The Stooges "L.A. Blues," and The Pop Group's ability to evoke such moods gives them all of the "punk credentials" that one could need. Once called, "the soundtrack for an insane asylum," the music found on Y is sincerely stunning, and the fact that the band members flawlessly navigate the wild musical patterns serves as proof to their amazing musicianship.

At the center of this primitive, yet somehow futuristic musical storm is one of music's most visionary musical geniuses, Mark Stewart. It is his caterwauling screaming and deep, stirring spoken vocals that complete the mood of each song. Clearly putting more emphasis on "how" he delivers the vocals as opposed to "what" he is actually saying, Stewart's vocals are some of the most emotive and raw that have ever been recorded. Often sounding like a darker, somehow more wild version of Iggy Pop, but similarly being able to be just as mesmerizing on quiet, more morose vocals, there is truly nothing vocally off limits to Stewart. It is within this contrast in sounds and styles that one can easily hear a major influence on Nick Cave's vocal style, and there are a handful of moments where it almost sounds like Cave himself singing. A majority of the lyrics on Y are, in fact, politically based, and this would become the central theme throughout nearly all of Stewart's later, solo efforts. Whether he is rallying against war on "Blood Money" and "Don't Call Me Pain" or more direct cries against the government in general on "Thief Of Fire" or simply being brilliantly avant on "We Are Time," if one takes the time to listen to the words, they are often as stunning as the music itself. It is this need to dig beyond the surface that makes the music of The Pop Group so rewarding, and the vocal delivery and lyrics of Mark Stewart are perhaps the best part of the entire musical picture.

Some bands are simply so unique that there is no way to categorize the music that they create. These bands are often the most innovative and pioneering bands in history, and their music is so distinctive, that it cannot be ignored. Blending together everything from funk to blues to punk, and presenting one of the wildest and most sonically avant products ever, U.K. post-punk icons, The Pop Group, are easily one of the most creative, yet underrated bands in history. Led by the eclectic genius of vocalist Mark Stewart, the band constantly pushed the limits on what could be considered "music." Presenting some of the most rhythmically diverse songs ever constructed, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist, Simon Underwood prove to be one of the most talented rhythm sections ever, as they keep perfect pace through the sharp, unexpected transitions. The guitar duo of John Waddington and Gareth Sager rival any sonic partnership, and their punctuations on the musical textures they create are rarely anything short of perfect. Though at first listen, much of the music of The Pop Group comes off as unorganized noise and screaming, one must be patient and dig deeper to understand and appreciate the truly clever and extraordinary musical genius that is being deployed. Though calling it quits after just over two years as a band, there is not a subpar moment on any of the recordings from The Pop Group. Standing as their finest musical effort, and easily one of the most innovative and important records ever made, The Pop Group's 1978 debut, Y, is a true musical masterpiece that must be experienced to be understood and appreciated.

Standout tracks: "Thief Of Fire," "We Are Time," and "Don't Call Me Pain."

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