Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 12: The Birthday Party, "Release The Bats"

Artist: The Birthday Party
Song: "Release The Bats"
Album: John Peel Sessions/Release The Bats (single)
Year: 1981

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True uniqueness in music is a very difficult thing to come by, as a majority of the time, at its core, there is some common thread that runs through nearly every song. A majority of the time, where there is a truly unique sounding song, it is usually because the song is so ahead of its time, that there has simply been nothing similar recorded to that point. These songs often serve as the catalyst for new musical movements, and they remain some of the most influential songs in history. Within these landmark songs, there are a handful that stand out from the rest due to the fact that, even after a number of listenings, the songs still leave the listener with a general feeling of "what in the world was that?" While this is sometimes due to the strange instrumentation, sometimes due to an outrageous lyrical run or thought, there has never been a song quite like The Birthday Party's single, "Release The Bats." Though it is often mistaken as being from the groups' phenomenal debut album, the song actually originated during a recording for a John Peel Session (linked above), and a formal studio recording was made months later. From a sound that isn't quite punk, isn't quite rock, and simply isn't like anything else that was being done musically at the time to the absolutely insane lyrical tirade by the legendary Nick Cave, "Release The Bats" stands as one of the most important songs of the post-punk era, and it fueled a generation of performers, setting the standard for aggressively dark music.

One of the key aspects to the overall impact of "Release The Bats" is that the song wastes no time, immediately jumping out and grabbing the listener with one of the most powerful basslines in music history. This would be the worlds' introduction to the late, great Tracey Pew, and he would spend the next few years playing some of the most brilliant basslines with The Birthday Party, as well as early incarnations of The Bad Seeds, before meeting a tragically early death in 1986. Another key element to the sound on "Release The Bats" is the dual guitar sound of Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard. Taking a great deal of influence from the sound of The Stooges' James Williamson, the duo combined crushing chord progressions with an almost unsettling amount of aggression and feedback. It is their playing that gives the song its borderline-chaotic feel, and the pair manage to each carve out their own sound on the song, whilst somehow simultaneously sounding absolutely brilliant as a team. Rounding out the musical lineup is drummer Phill Calvert, and his heavy use of his tom-drums on this song remain a massive influence on drumming to this day. As the only member of The Birthday Party who would not become part of the first Bad Seeds lineup, one is able to hear just how important his contributions were when one listens to the "new" sound that came from the "new" band. Riding the line between musical genius and sonic chaos, there are virtually no other songs that even come close to the sheer power and unbridled emotion that one finds on "Release The Bats."

While the musicians strong certainly pull their weight and create an amazing sound, there has truly never been another vocal performance that is as stunning as one gets from Nick Cave on this song. Clearly bordering on completely insane, Cave wails and screams across the song, giving the perfect feel of a man coming unhinged. Standing in a bit of a contrast to the swagger that would define his career, there have been few performances of any artist ever that are as stirring, almost unsettling as one finds on "Release The Bats." Without question, it is the vocal work of Cave that leaves one in wondering awe at the songs' conclusion, as there is clearly "something" about the way in which he sings that is beyond intriguing. Nick Cave is in rare form on "Release The Bats," and in many ways, this level of unrestrained vocal power would not appear from Cave until Grinderman was birthed more than two decades later. As the song has been revived and covered over the years, "Release The Bats" has very much taken on a life of its own. Widely used as a calling card of sorts for the "gothic" movement in music, even due to the bands' longstanding protest that this is a misuse, the link has endured over time. This is to say that over the years, The Birthday Party continually denied that the song was "goth" in any way, yet its perseverance within that style of music proves that once a band unleashes a song of the caliber of "Release The Bats," it is hard to again regain control of its impact and influence.

Throughout the course of music history, there are a small handful of songs that once one hears them, they simply cannot be forgotten. Often due to some overpowering, unique element, they stand so far apart from the rest of recorded music, that they defy the standard musical categories. Perhaps due to nothing more than the unprecedented raw power that the song brings, The Birthday Party made an unintentional addition to this list during a 1981 Peel Session when they gave the world "Release The Bats." Though the band attempted to push their trademark tongue-in-cheek reasoning into the song after the fact, it was too late, and the song remains an icon within countless genres to this day. Tracey Pew's mind-crushing bassline has rarely been equaled in terms of the power which he is able to create within a relatively simple musical progression. Perfectly complimenting this sound with an almost bouncing feel, the drumming of Calvert was clearly the key to the overall sound of The Birthday Party, as it is his absence that gives the later work of Cave a different feel and tone. The team of Howard and Harvey use "Release The Bats" to instantly cement their names as guitar legends, and the song marks the first of a countless line of sensational compositions between the two. Yet when it comes down to it, there is simply no way to get past the fact that "Release The Bats" is all about the vocal work of Nick Cave. Truly an unprecedented and unequaled musical feat, Cave's vocal performance is nothing short of perfect, and it is his growling, singing, and screaming that makes "Release The Bats" an absolutely stunning musical moment.

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