Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10: The Fall, "Hip Priest"

Artist: The Fall
Song: "Hip Priest"
Album: Hex Enduction Hour
Year: 1982

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Throughout the course of music history, there has been avant music, the likes of which defied all possible description and brought into question exactly "what" constituted music.  Sometimes due to the strange musical compositions, other times due to the vocals or lyrics, these "oddball" bands and songs are in many ways what actually "pushed" music forward.  Then of course, there is The Fall.  Sporting more lineup changes than any band in history, and making music that refuses to be classified for more than three decades, there is perhaps no more difficult to understand band that has ever entered a recording studio.  Led by the notoriously disagreeable Mark E. Smith, there music often borders on little more than "noise," and yet even in these moments, there is something undeniably intriguing about every note they play.  Championed by the great John Peel, he once said of the band that, "...they are always different; they are always the same..." and this strange paradox fits the group perfectly.  With such a wide range of musical approaches, it is almost impossible to define the band by a single album, let alone a single song, and yet one can easily make the case that it is the earliest years of The Fall where they soared to their greatest musical heights.  By the time 1982 rolled around, The Fall had already gone through a handful of lineup changes, and released a string of absolutely fantastic records in the process.  That year, they dropped another stunning album with the artsy-industrial-avant Hex Enduction Hour.  With thirteen tracks clocking in at just over an hour, there is perhaps no more fitting an example of the strange, yet extraordinary musical chaos that is The Fall than one finds in their 1982 classic, "Hip Priest."

While each of the many lineups of The Fall has their own, unique sound that makes them distinguishable from the other lineups, the most significant difference on "Hip Priest" is that on the song, as well as the album as a whole, there are two drummers.  With Paul Hanley and Karl Burns spinning a sparse, yet dizzying rhythm around the song, there is a strange, almost spooky mood that runs throughout.  For a majority of the seven-plus minute run-time of "Hip Priest," there is little more than a ride cymbal, a slow, looping bassline from Steve Hanley, and brief guitar progressions from Craig Scanlon.  As the song moves into the center section, the guitar becomes more frantic, almost chaotic, and yet there is always a sense of order amidst what is almost pure musical chaos.  This, in many ways, is the "genius" behind the compositions of Mark E. Smith, as this small space that stands just to the side of disorder is where he has led his band for the entire career of the group.  Yet it is also this type of strange sonic composition that makes the music of The Fall very much an "acquired taste" and why a majority of listeners simply don't "get" the band.  "Hip Priest" is a bit more "accessible" than a majority of the catalog of The Fall, as the dark, almost haunting mood that the band develops is impossible to ignore, and one can easily make the case that few other groups have ever created as intense, unwavering mood of any type.  Furthermore, on "Hip Priest," one cannot deny the amazing tension that builds throughout the song, created by both the instrumentation, as well as the vocal work of Smith himself.

Though he is often seen as little more than a ranting and raving, clearly disagreeable nut, it is hard to make a case that Mark E. Smith is anything short of a musical genius.  Truth be told, for more than thirty years, n other musician has created music quite like Smith, and the sheer amount of material he has released further supports the argument for his unparalleled musical talent.  Though there are many performers who have gone the "spoken word" style vocal delivery route in their career, none sound anything like Smith, and the way that he uses odd rhythms and shouting for emphasis makes him one of the most intriguing vocalists in history.  Often times, Smith even mocks himself with his "fake singing," and one can find examples of each of his different lyrical approaches within his work on "Hip Priest," where smith drops one of his most direct, and brilliant lyrics of his entire career.  As anyone familiar with the music of The Fall knows, a majority of Smith's lyrics are clearly poems, which he delivers in much the same way as was done by the poets of the "Beat" era.  On "Hip Priest," Smith takes on the persona of a music critic, who he dubs the "Hip Priest," and clearly, Smith has much to say about what he thinks are the inner-thoughts of such people.  Revolving around the repeated line of, "...he is not appreciated...," one must wonder whether Smith is trying to portray the "Hip Priest" as feeling this way, or if the line is in reference to Smith himself, who rarely receives the accolades he deserves for his amazing performances.  Smith's vocals push the overall tension to an unbearable level, and it is his work on the track that makes it a truly extraordinary musical accomplishment.

While the world of "avant" or "art" music is filled with flashes in the pan and groups that simply "try too hard," the opposite side of the coin is occupied by The Fall, who have been making the most consistently unique and challenging music on the planet for more than three decades.  With only one constant member for this entire time, Mark E. Smith, it is amazing to think that he has been able to mold so many lineup configurations into a similar sound, proving the high level of musical aptitude and vision that he possesses.  Having already unleashed a number of stunning records, 1982's Hex Enduction Hour showed Smith and his band moving further into his musical exploration, as there are many points on the record where Smith seems to be challenging the entire notion of both rhythm and melody and their importance within a song.  Standing as the finest song on the album, and easily one of the greatest of his entire career, "Hip Priest" contains everything that makes the music of Mark E. Smith so fantastic, and the song is as sly as it is powerful, showing both Smith's boldness, as well as his cleverness.  The music is overall a minimalist affair, and yet even with this sparse arrangement, the group is able to build an unparalleled amount of tension, which crashes in glorious fashion as the song moves into its final stages.  Over this background, Smith delivers one of his most spectacular lyrical tirades, and one can easily make the case that his words here are far more cutting and powerful than any "anti-someone" song ever recorded.  This combination of unorthodox music and lyrics represent everything that makes The Fall who they are, and one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the sheer genius behind their music than the 1982 classic, "Hip Priest."

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