Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Suck Out My Insides



A Certain Ratio were perhaps the most overtly occultish of all the punk-funk groups. Although they made pictorial play of their interest in flight, with their sleeve pictures of old aeroplanes and aviators, their real interest was in the dark, draining, winged spirits of nightmare - incubi, succubi, vampires and demon angels. Just as they drained the mana, or life-force, from African-American funk music, so their own mana was drained by their record company, and their subordinate position to its priority band Joy Division. In their dealings with demons however, the two bands could not have been more different. If Joy Division were an external dramatisation of the internal battle of the shaman to conquer and re-shape chthonic spirits, A Certain Ratio invited them in through the window to drink their bodies dry.

Their obsession with spirit-possession and blood-loss first overtly manifested itself on the early single "Do The Du", a bleakly sado-masochistic depiction of a claustrophobic relationship in which flesh is flayed and blood is drawn. Their most celebrated single "Flight" is creepier still, a Blakean hive of blind, incorporeal spirits spiraling upward to the light of Revelation, the soundscape whistling with their ectoplasmic trails. The sleeve art openly contrasts images of human aviation with parasitic spirits. Were our efforts to construct flying machines inspired by birds, or by malign angels?



Their first album proper, 1981’s "To Each….." immersed itself deeper in the theme, with tracks such as "Felch" and "My Spirit" chronicling the loss of vital fluids. For ACR, the decline of the industrial north was itself a kind of voodoo that manifested itself in a physically palpable despondency. You could feel the general decay leeching mana from your own body. Their new singer, Martha Tilson added her bloodless vocals to "Back To The Start", a call to the night-spirits that is reminiscent of the open-window scene in "Salem’s Lot".



Their masterpiece, "Sextet" was released in 1982, and featured a lush, exotic sound that brought to mind J.G. Ballard’s "Crystal World". The deep, aquatic bass shone refractive waves on the other instruments like ripples on the walls of a nocturnal swimming pool. The opening track "Lucinda" was the clearest expression yet of their aesthetic, a pulsating account of obsession and possession, sexual desire provoking the winged spirits of decay to leave their gremlin-work on the factories and attack the body-personal. "Knife Slits Water" with its sub-aquatic bass rumbles and murderous, disembodied vocals recalls Roeg’s "Don’t Look Now", with its grotesque demon stalking the canals of Venice.



Their last great album, "I’d Like To See You Again" was a kind of ambient-funk that featured a shimmering rain-washed penumbra that anticipated The Blue Nile. Like most post-punkers, they then spent the remainder of the decade gradually losing touch with the dark impulses that originally propelled them, engaging in that strangely universal phenomenon in which every attempt to make themselves more "accessible" only increased the level of indifference with which they were regarded. At their best though, there was no-one who could match their ability to invoke the vampire spirits that were feeding on the national psyche.

5 comments:

Wayne Kasper said...

These guys sounded very creepy and sinister at times (much more than Joy Division IMHO). Was jarring to find out how sweet and innocent they looked years later. I reckon if they looked like the Stranglers (or gone for a more austere/eastern bloc look) they would have charted a bit more.

Phil Knight said...

Yeah I'd much rather listen to ACR than JD these days, although that's partly due to over-familiarity with the latter.

I think the thing that held them back chart-wise is what I like most about them - the absence of a compelling frontman who commands the attention. Their slightly formless quality is what makes them so spooky.

Wayne Kasper said...

Yeah I know what you mean. Their 'personality' kind of bleeds out (like a radio drifting between channels at times), while JD's world feels very self-enclosed and fixed in their 'story'.

The shift between modernism and po-mo I suppose. Surprised you didn't mention 'Shack Up' - one of the 'whitest' but best funk cover versions ever (unlike JD's covers which were obvious attempts to place themselves in a continuum of sorts).

I'm starting to detect a recurring theme on this and the 70s blog: the marginal or relatively forgotten that actually ends up being mainstream elsewhere (or everywhere).

Phil Knight said...

Ah yes, "Shack Up" is very good, and fits in with their overall theme of psychic depletion. That said, I think it's somewhat their "All Right Now" or "Hi Ho Silver Lightning" - a song that's over-identified with them at the expense of everything else they did.

As for po-mo, I'm going to have to explore Spengler's idea of cultural "patternwork" - but that'll have to be on the 90's blog...

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