Barry Andrews was a founder of XTC and later the organist in Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen. David Allen was coincidentally replaced in Gang of Four by League bassist Sara Lee. Together with guitarist/vocalist Carl Marsh and a drum machine, Andrews and Allen formed Shriekback, a cagey dance band with solid rhythms and insidiously weird vocals. The playing is top-notch, a slithering swamp snake that oozes cool malevolence on Tench‘s six tracks. Shriekback abounds in originality and creativity, if not warmth. Despite changes in personnel, Andrews has remained the band’s core, preserving its spirit of prickly iconoclasm and imaginative exploration.
Care is an intelligent, well-produced, spirited debut, demonstrating what every XTC fan knew all along — Andrews is one of rock’s most original and musical keyboard players. Over Allen’s slinky, oblique bass lines, he provides subtle shadings and clever doodles that move in and out of the mix, making this perfect for both dancing and scrutiny. Most bands with this much talent would be content to showcase their chops, but Shriekback can write a good song, too, especially the haunting “Lined Up,” a unique funk concoction that sets an impossible standard for inferior but likeminded bands.
Jam Science doesn’t quite match Care for sheer invention, but is nonetheless a solid, confident LP. More prominent use of drum machines, female backing vocals and string synths give the record a slick Euro-disco feel. (Released by UK Arista, this LP should not be confused with an unauthorized release of the same name on Dutch Y, which contains most of the same songs but in unfinished form. The German EP, with four of the proper album’s tracks, is legit.)
Oil and Gold goes for a much harder sound, with booming, sometimes overpowering guitar and drums (most evident on “Nemesis,” a big club hit and the only pop song ever to make good lyrical use of the word “parthenogenesis”) When they lean towards the more ethereal colors found on Care, the results are pretty boring (“This Big Hush,” “Faded Flowers”). After the LP was released, Marsh left the group, and was replaced, for one American tour, by former Voidoid guitarist Ivan Julian.
The garrulous liner notes on the next album explain it in some detail. “Shriekback celebrate the blessed dark — the place where they were always most at home. Songs to sing in your sleep…the shape and rhythm of two different kind of nights — nights of heat and weirdness…and nights incandescent with moonlight and dreams. Big Night Music is entirely free of digital heartbeats of every kind.” Except for a few familiar-sounding entries, this radical departure resembles nothing in the Shriekback’s previous repertoire and thus requires a real commitment to get over the shock of hearing evanescent continental delicacy and understated piano music instead of pounding dance-rock bizarritude. But do it — your efforts will be well rewarded with beauty, grace and originality. After the album, Dave Allen left to form King Swamp, making Andrews the only remaining original member.
The Infinite, the first of two British compilations, offers a solid introduction to the band’s early period, excerpting Tench and Care, plus some other things. Evolution, the second volume, is more eclectic, containing tracks from Oil and Gold, Jam Science, 12-inch versions of three singles and another song from Care.
With guest star Doug Wimbish (Tackhead, etc.) playing a lot of the bass, Andrews and stalwart drummer Martyn Barker — joined by guitarist Mike Cozzi, who first appeared on Big Night Music, and two backup singers — returned to musical daylight on Go Bang!, a winning LP produced by Richard James Burgess. While the ominous undercurrent in Andrews’ voice remains one of the band’s best features, the kinetic arrangements (including electronic horns) are almost playful, largely picking up where Oil and Gold left off.
Shriekback disbanded in mid-1989. Martyn Barker followed Allen into King Swamp, Cozzi joined the Andrew Ridgeley Band and Andrews formed Illuminati. The final release from Shriekback — The Dancing Years — is a start-to-finish career retrospective that contains the songs you’d expect, but not in overly familiar form. Other than one new song (“White Out”), the album consists of four re-recordings (including a radically revamped “My Spine (Is the Bass Line)” and “Deeply Lined Up,” which has a little something, but not much, to do with “Lined Up”), two live renditions (four on the CD) and three remixes, leaving only “Everything That Rises (Must Converge)” and “Shark Walk” untouched from their original album versions. More an intriguing coda than a convenient summary, The Dancing Years bids farewell on a typically offbeat and atmospherically entrancing note.