Attempting to reclaim a position of authority within the jagged guitar lines of the industrial infrastructure that arguably owes its essential architecture to the Gang of Four, bassist Dave Allen (who had spent the ’80s giving his old band’s skeletal funk a wider panorama in Shriekback, then King Swamp) formed Low Pop Suicide as a trio with guitarist/singer Rick Boston (ex-Hand of Fate) and Ministry/Revolting Cocks drummer Jeff Ward. Set to serrate rock with ominously controlled bass-powered ferocity, Low Pop Suicide looked like a cohesive unit (or at least Allen’s vehicle) at the outset, but Ward left after recording On the Cross of Commerce; Allen, and Ward’s replacement, followed suit before The Death of Excellence. For a trio with only three records, this group has gone through an awful lot of changes.
The exploratory EP, four songs co-written and co-produced by Allen and Boston, has some of Shriekback’s febrile density, but none of Barry Andrews’ wanton invention; Boston sings “Disengaged” and the driving “Turn of the Screw” with semi-Reznorized drama and scads of slash’n’pedal guitar as Ward and Allen underpin him with not unreasonable rhythmic force.
The sonic aggression level is appreciably higher on the full-length debut, which was recorded with Ward in early 1992 but names the incoming Melle Steagal as the band’s drummer. (Ward killed himself in 1993.) Even before suffering its first personnel adjustment, the band sounds different — and not for the better — on the new material. (“Disengaged” and “Crush” were picked up from the EP.) Roaring or whispering inanely simple lyrics in a foolishly curdled voice and playing like a frustrated metal thug without an idea in his head, Boston hacks away with zero creative energy, stripping songs like “Kiss Your Lips” (“There was nothing that I liked better than to kiss your lips”), the hopefully ironic “Gimme, Gimme” and “Your God Can’t Feel My Pain” of all possible color and texture. There isn’t even any pain — just unconvincing drama and a sad case of arena envy. “All in Death Is Sweet,” a dreamy instrumental, demonstrates that shutting Boston up is one idea that works.
Perhaps the problem was Allen’s divided attention. Besides running the World Domination label, the bassist/businessman had to work on Shriekback’s reunion album in London at the same time Low Pop Suicide was making On the Cross of Commerce in Los Angeles. Although his throbbing bass tones are essential to Shriekback’s low’n’slow creep, Allen could have phoned his parts in, as keyboardist/singer/co-producer Barry Andrews continues to fix the group’s vision, shaping its smoky-velvet wallop on Sacred City. Made as a trio with original drummer Martyn Barker (with guest contributions from ex-Damned/Public Image guitarist Lu Edmonds, guitarist Karl Hyde of the Underworld and a didgeridoo player) after four years apart, the quietly energetic album is lyrically themed as an urban love offering: “(Open Up Your) Filthy Heart (To Me)” is typical of the artful band’s ambivalent feelings, while “Beatles Zebra Crossing” is an intriguing and uncommon Fab Four memorialization.
Back in Low Pop land, Boston and the returning Steagal, joined by new bassist Mark Leonard and a couple of spare drummers, reinvented the band for The Death of Excellence, an album that trades in the venomous posturing of its predecessor for a more diverse rock menu not notably beholden to any specific model. In “Zombie,” Boston wonders “How I ever got so far away from things that really matter” — an apt thought for an album that rediscovers stuff like melody, dynamics and variety. Spilling harsh guitar sparingly makes it a more effective tool here (especially in “Philo’s Snag,” where it rustles quietly in the background), but Boston’s writing isn’t equal to the numerous settings (pseudo-Beat rhyming, Neil Youngian stomp, semi-acoustic restraint, etc.). The Death of Excellence is crap, but a better brand of crap. Clearing away the endlessly exploding sheet rock at least takes the rattle out of the ride.
Owning a record label ensures Allen an outlet and exposure for whatever projects he undertakes; his next stop after Low Pop Suicide and Shriekback was singing in the Elastic Purejoy, a quartet with drummer Scott Petersen, ex-Sky Cries Mary bassist Joseph E. Howard and Sage guitarist Marc Olsen (who also served briefly in Sky Cries Mary). Allen claims literary inspiration for some of his originals on The Elastic Purejoy, which helps explain the pretentious lyrics. (Beyond unfortunate bits like “blood runs thicker than the sperm and spittle of worn-out lovers,” “If Samuel Beckett Had Met Lenny Bruce” is, fortunately, the worst of it.) Finding use for both Sebadoh’s “Soul and Fire” and Brian Eno’s “Stiff,” the band serves a random stylistic master here, proceeding from plain rock, woozy fuzzpop and unaffected folkishness to tautly executed sonic adventures which set wanton noise against carefully measured temperance. Driving feedback stakes into the heart of acoustic songs is a good gambit, but it’s not the only workable idea here; the group disassembles a stuck-in-the-funk dance groove with interplanetary freakout visitations in “You Are My PFM” and lets buzzing guitars lurk beneath the radar of enervated Pink Floyd drama in “Witness.” Confounding sonic predictability (and revealing Allen to be a functional singer), The Elastic Purejoy is occasionally engrossing, a disorienting late-night hallucination that might be all too real. Boston guests on several tracks, as does this generation’s Natalie Wood, a guitarist who has done the same for Low Pop Suicide. It’s a small (World Domination) world after all…