This cheerfully obscure Australian chaos group manipulates tapes, found sounds and assorted electronic gear — essentially any audio source that isn’t quite a traditional musical implement — to squeak and plunk out synthetically rhythmatized fogs of craziness. Not really a noise machine, Severed Heads generally stays on the safe side of unpleasant, but sometimes sacrifices accessibility in a jumble of competing sounds.
Starting out on their own Terse Tapes label in 1980, Severed Heads — at the time Garry Bradbury, Paul Von Deering and Tom Ellard, collectively credited with tape recorders, drum programming, sequencers, turntables, televisions, etc., plus a guitar player and sporadic guest vocals — hooked up with England’s Ink Records and made its longplaying European debut with Since the Accident, an alternately entertaining and irritating experimental patchwork of kitchen-sink sonics that occasionally reveals a strong Eno influence. City Slab Horror is more accomplished and conceptually conventional (“4.W.D.” is dissonant electro-pop with a proper melody and lyrics), although the audio ingredients that layer songs like the onomatopoeic “Spitoon Thud” and the maddening “Bladders of One Thousand Bedouin” are still drawn from a uniquely bizarre world. Belatedly released on individual CDs, Since the Accident and City Slab Horror comprise a retrospective set that divvies up the tracks from Blubberknife, an intermittently worthwhile but more often underwhelming exploratory effort that uses synthesizers and spoken-word vocals. Clifford Darling is a double album of early outtakes, dating from 1979 to 1983.
The Dead Eyes Opened EP consists of remixes of the title track (a 1983 UK single), “Petrol” (a 1985 single) and “We Have Come to Bless This House,” along with two new songs. (All five tracks later appeared as bonuses on the Big Bigot CD.)
Come Visit the Big Bigot reveals development of a strong and cogent (treated) vocal electro-pop sensibility amid more familiar hubbub that might have been created by Martians armed only with Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets and Orchestral Manoeuvres’ first LP for templates. At the record’s high point — “Phantasized Persecutory Breast” — the Heads (Ellard, videosynthesist (?) Stephen Jones, drum/computer programmer Obereta Kvojin and Topsy Ke-Evil, credited with “choir control”) build an oddly shaped sound castle of conflicting rhythms, left-field effects, amusingly treated vocals and crisply pinging sequencers. Stimulating if you don’t get too involved.
Bad Mood Guy continues to reduce the polyphasia, centering the tracks with stable tempos and reasonably sturdy song structures, keeping the distracting gimmicks back in the mix until needed. Something like lightweight Cabaret Voltaire or a hyperactive DJ collective spinning five records simultaneously, this Severed Heads outing draws within spitting distance of conventional music.
Bulkhead is a handy ten-song compilation: tracks from the four preceding albums plus a few non-LP cuts. The American CD adds a remix of “Greater Reward,” a 1988 single (subsequently included on Rotund for Success) that opens the collection.
Reduced to a duo of Ellard and Jones but bolstered by sampling technology, Severed Heads jettisoned willful weirdness and moved into politely presentable synth-dance-rock on Rotund for Success, an unnervingly plain-sounding and faintly dated record that could almost be by Blancmange. Ellard’s lyrical sensibility is typically off-kilter and flashes of a twisted mind do erupt now and again in the mix, but the diminution of musical disturbance and the elimination of the band’s creative challenge is most disturbing.