A few seconds of any Silverfish song could wrench the most cast-iron gut, leaving a mess of entrails in its wake. But in the case of this London quartet, the more you bleed the better you feel. Jacked up rhythms are smothered by an electric blanket of guitar distortion, setting the pace for Lesley Rankine’s razor-toothed lyrics and penetrating screams (think The Exorcist‘s Linda Blair on a bad day). Rankine unhinges more than a few female stereotypes as she expresses rather than represses her violent and sexual urges in vengeful gun-wielding fantasies and blatant descriptions of lubricious desires. Anthem phrases like “total fucking asshole” (“T.F.A.”) and “Hips Tits Lips Power!” (“Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal”) are just the steel tip of this volatile iceberg. Judging by voice alone, Rankine could slam dunk Babes in Toyland, L7 and Courtney Love all in one shot. Musically, the band hovered over basic punk, grunge and noise groupings without holding to any single path.
Even the band’s formation story is a bit thorny. Bassist Chris P. and drummer Stuart, who originally played together in the Rover Girls, met guitarist Fuzz of the In-Stinks; they recruited Rankine (ex-Grizzelders) after bouncers tossed her out of a Terminal Cheesecake show for starting a fight. Silverfish debuted in their home base of Camden in late ’88 and was eventually credited for inspiring a dance dubbed the Camden Lurch.
The band’s Stateside debut, Cockeye, consists of the Dolly Parton and T.F.A. EPs plus the outstanding “One Silver Dollar.” Careening with brute force from the hearty “motherfucker” that begins the album, propelled by steadily grinding rhythms, the nine cuts pile on phasers and untamed guitar squeals to create a constant blur of noise. Belting through the thick assault with a gravelly wail that sounds more spoken than sung, Rankine is especially prominent on “T.F.A.,” “On the Motorway” and “One Silver Dollar,” but she occasionally drops back in the mix. “Weird Shit” breaks up the chaotic swill with some jarring grooves and occasional primate-like shouts, although the high-pitched guitar squeals are trying on the ears.
With production guidance from crunch master Steve Albini, Silverfish hammers through the more playful Fat Axl. While equalling Cockeye‘s steroids dosage, the album tries out rhythmic twists and lyrical turns and ties the guitar tangents closer to the grooves. There’s even a slightly funky, blown out version of Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” complete with sireny guitar parts and Rankine’s near-rap delivery, a sign she’s experimenting with vocal ideas. The trace of black humor behind that possessed spirit leads to such pungent similes as “Like a funeral procession who’ve forgotten the hearse” (in “Shit Out of Luck”) and this wry observation in “Spoon”: “Too much sugar/Too little taste/Got the right arse but the wrong face.”
The Fuckin’ Drivin or What three-song EP features the epochal “Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal” (also included on Organ Fan). It’s hard to say no when Rankine asks “Are you afraid of me?”; there are a few phrases on “Texas Tea” where she sounds like a witch.
By Silverfish With Scrambled Eggs and Organ Fan (the EP is included on the domestic edition of the album), Rankine had begun to sing rather than always scream; the more focused music creates an effective vehicle for her voice. “Crazy” (a number learned from the soundtrack of a 1969 Italian flick) is as close to a love song as Silverfish ever got. “This Bug” toys with harmonies, though the lyrics still acknowledge Rankine’s gruff persona — “Sometimes I feel like Joan of Arc/The way I bite and spit and bark.” Still, lyrics about revenge, guns and male anatomy surface (in “Mary Brown,” she sings, “But I’ll get a knife and a big fat wife/With a shiny shiny knife she’ll cut the balls off the fuckers”). “Joos” resounds with bold and brassy Foetus-isms courtesy of Jim Thirlwell, who produced the album and plays brass in a few spots. He emphasizes Rankine’s role and leads the music toward broader gestures, though there’s still the wound-up “Suckin’ Gas” and machine gun beats of “Fuckin’ Strange Way to Get Attention.” Silverfish also does a fairly conventional version of David Essex’s “Rock On” in which Rankine occasionally sounds like Joan Jett.
On the Damn Fine EP, also produced by Thirlwell, Rankine switches between a smoky delivery and her coarser self, blended over repetitive rhythms. The EP contains live versions, recorded in London in ’92, of three Organ Fan tracks.
By the end of ’93, the tensions expressed in the music became a reality for the band and Rankine called it quits. She relocated to Seattle (temporarily, as it turned out), formed Ruby with multi-instrumentalist Mark Walk and shed the sexless Silverfish look for a sultry chanteuse pose. With no trace of the Silverfish howls, the mood on Salt Peter (which cuts a surprising line between Garbage and Portishead) is still dark, the lyrics strong — if not quite as blatant. The single “Paraffin” is filled with sexual innuendo: “trap him in my flower bed and then I’ll feed him with my paraffin.” Her odd lyrical timings, comparable to Björk’s, match Walk’s quirky arrangements. (Walk and Rankine met in Pigface. Better than traffic school…) Their mix works best on the edgier cuts, like the dance-heavy “Tiny Meat,” which (like “Swallow Baby”) veers into Luscious Jackson territory. Former Ministry drummer William Rieflin breaks through the trip-hop haze on “Pine” and “Flippin’ tha Bird.” The music on “Swallow Baby” doesn’t ever gel, however, and Rankine sometimes pushes too hard on “Bud.” Rankine has refined the pure adrenaline spunk that made Silverfish such a rush into something more sophisticated and seductive, but Ruby could still use some more polish before it goes out.