Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9: The Birthday Party, "Prayers On Fire"

Artist: The Birthday Party
Album: Prayers On Fire
Year: 1981
Label: 4AD

One of the most difficult things to achieve musically is finding the balance between being dark and heavy whilst not becoming cliché. A majority of the bands that attempt this endeavor end up going too far and their lack of songwriting ability becomes quickly apparent. These lesser bands often only have one or two decent songs that fit the mood, and the rest are nothing more then the band recycling age-old ideas in less creative ways. The truth of the matter is, every band that is trying to be simultaneously dark and heavy is simply trying to emulate the one band by which all others of the style are measured: The Birthday Party. Though only in existence for a few years, the style and music of The Birthday Party is without question the pinnacle of what is now called the "goth" sound (though the band is MUCH heavier than bands of that style.) With a far more percussive sound then Pere Ubu and a far more theatrical sound then Joy Division, it is The Birthday Party that stands far ahead of the pack of all of the great post-punk rock bands. Similarly, as the first of many different groupings of these musicians, The Birthday Party gave the world its first exposure to one of the most brilliant performers in music history: Nick Cave. While The Bad Seeds were far more structured, and Grinderman was more of a hard rock outfit, The Birthday Party is raw and often borders on controlled chaos. Perfectly capturing everything that makes the band so fantastic, the second full length effort from The Birthday Party, 1981's Prayers On Fire, remains one of the most brilliantly stunning albums ever recorded.

Truth be told, The Birthday Party formed nearly a decade before the release of Prayers On Fire, when the core members all attended boarding school together in Australia. The group fronted by Cave was originally named The Boys Next Door, and it wasn't until 1980 that the group donned their new name. During the 1970's, the group's lineup fluctuated, and when the punk explosion began in 1976, the band quickly found their calling. Yet even the earliest recordings of these musicians finds them already taking their own musical approach, which is often a strange combination of the "no wave" sound with the punk ethos. In 1978, the group found one of the keys to their sound, and Cave found one of his most important collaborators in the form of guitar genius, Rowland S. Howard. With Howard on board, the group quickly honed their sound and released their self-titled LP (which would be re-issued in 1988). This recording gained the group a small, cult-like following, and after relocating to London, the group changed their name and began recording the album that would become Prayers On Fire. Upon its release, many critics simply did not know what to make of the record, as it is truly like nothing else ever released, with the powerful, gritty music moving rapidly under Nick Cave's wild, disturbing vocal performance. While Cave's vocals dominate the album, the core musicians of The Birthday party, and their performance on this album have influenced a countless number of groups that came after them.

In retrospect, the musicians found on Prayers On Fire are easily one of the most stunning groupings anywhere in music history. Pulling from countless genres, from rockabilly to blues to what is almost free jazz, and blending it all into the punk aesthetic, one would be hard pressed to find an equally talented lineup. The guitar work of Rowland S. Howard instantly solidifies his place as one of the greatest players in music history. Whether concentrating on mood, tone, or both, Howard uses Prayers On Fire to redefine what can be done musically within the punk style. Driving a majority of the songs is the equally stellar bass playing of fellow rock legend, Tracy Pew. The basslines are often nothing short of menacing, and Pew's ability to perfectly convey the dark, sinister nature of the songs is absolutely one of the key elements to the extraordinary nature of the record. Easily one of the most important players in nearly every Nick Cave project has been multi-instrumental master, Mick Harvey. On Prayers On Fire, Harvey plays piano, organ, and guitar, as well as contributing backing vocals, and he does so with absolute perfection on every song. Rounding out the core of the band is drummer Phill Calvert. Preferring the sound of his "toms" over the traditional snare drum, the signature sound that Calvert created can be clearly heard on the song, "Zoo-Music Girl." With the song, "Nick The Stripper," the group evokes the spirit of The Stooges, as they brilliantly blend a full horn section in with the deep, dark groove and Cave's possessed shouting and ranting. Each of the musicians found on Prayers On Fire plays perfectly, and the sound they create as a group is nothing short of stunning.

Though one can search the entire history of music all they like, the truth of the matter is, there has never been a vocal performance that so perfectly defines the words "scary" and "disturbing" as that which is found on Prayers On Fire. On this record, Nick Cave often sounds nothing short of deranged, and this unsettling sound is perhaps no more apparent then on his performance of the song, "Capers." Cave howls and croons, and the juxtaposition between his two deliver styles is yet another element that makes his performances so enthralling, as he perfectly captures the emotion behind every one of his perfectly crafted lyrics. The only thing that is equal to the feral quality of Cave's delivery is the complex, often mesmerizing, lyrics which he delivers on every song. Though he is now well known for his amazing ability to craft these allusions and images of sexual depravity with strangely religious and historic overtones, at this early stage in his career, it was truly stunning to experience. This staggering performance quality is perhaps no better captured then on the grinding, almost ranting classic, "King Ink." As the song progresses, driven by Pew's pulverizing bassline, Cave seems to become more and more unhinged, and the overall effect is nothing short of stunning. While in more recent years, the vocal performances of Nick Cave have become far more focused and purposeful, the raw energy and unrestrained ferocity he presents on Prayers On Fire instantly solidified him as one of the finest frontmen in rock history, and the lyrics he sings give him similar stature in the writing world.

Easily one of the most crushing and unrelenting bands in music history, the sheer power and overall darkness that is found within the music of The Birthday Party is simply unparalleled. Yet, this is also a group that, like many of Cave's projects, with a very subtle, unique sense of humor. Underlying many of the most unsettling and vivid images can be found a slight grin, as Nick Cave chooses every word he uses with a very clear purpose, and this ability to make light of the darkest subjects is one of the many factors that makes Cave such a creative genius. The music created by the band on Prayers On Fire is truly unequaled in terms of sheer power and exemplifying the balance between dark, evil overtones, and the volume and force necessary to create a perfect "sludge metal" masterpiece. Clearly, there was a very special chemistry between the lineup found on Prayers On Fire, and though the band members would work on later Cave projects, none of them sound quite like the musical mayhem found here. Then of course, there is the disturbing, almost psychotic vocal work of Nick Cave himself. His performance on Prayers On Fire, once called, "...highly recommended for those aspiring to advanced states of dementia..." is like none other anywhere in his career and it is truly amazing to experience. While it is true that everything Nick Cave releases is well worth owning, to properly understand how he came to be what he is today, one must experience the sheer power and greatness that is the magnificent 1981 release from The Birthday Party, the unparalleled and indispensable Prayers On Fire.

Standout tracks: "Zoo-Music Girl," "Nick The Stripper," and "King Ink."

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