Like that other notable contemporary band of philosophical noisemakers, Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept. originally eschewed all musical tradition to play stunning ultra-percussion with an industrial bent. Like their Teutonic soul brothers, this enigmatic British organization uses large metallic objects and power tools to add stark modern realism to the drum overload, but also brings more structure and rhythm to the assault.
Ecstacy Under Duress is a compilation of ’82 and ’83 efforts. Beating the Retreat — two 12-inch EPs comprising a single-length album — adds occasional vocal effects (not singing) that do little to vary the din, which is simply awesome in its intensity and singlemindedness. But several startling tracks take a wholly different approach, offering sparse ambient sound and effects that blithely incorporate real instruments like cello and harp. Shoulder to Shoulder, proving the band’s political commitment and activism, gives half of its running time to the 90-member Welsh choir. In one truly strange exercise, the two seemingly unconnectable forces collaborate on a track.
The Unacceptable Face of Freedom, with an unwieldy fold-out cover Hawkwind would be proud of, is a powerful record, both in its potent musical attack and ongoing political convictions. Real drums seem to have replaced most of the steel-bashing, and the instrumentation also includes Fairlight-built orchestras, taped voices (speaking and singing), sequencers and bagpipes. Observations about the state of British life are angrier than ever — “Statement” features a miner giving a firsthand account of picket-line police brutality, while recurring military themes in the music drive the point home even harder.
A Good Night Out continues their forceful manifesto, although the execution has progressed from the tribal pounding of early work to ambitious performance art. Much of the LP was recorded live in London and Amsterdam in what was, judging by the cover photo, a huge multi-media extravaganza — some sort of Marxist military opera. Lyrics which continue to spew bitter, sarcastic and intelligent tirades against the domestic policies of the British Empire are more powerful than ever. Pretentious perhaps, but A Good Night Out also shows Test Dept.’s abiding commitment to their beliefs — social, political and artistic.
The only information given on the cover of Terra Firma is a brief libretto for each of the five tracks (which range from five to fourteen minutes each). Try “While the melancholy piper Alistair pipes a lament, the lovely Nadka grieves” on for size. No, you haven’t picked up a Russian novel by mistake. The stories all lead to a concluding call for all world citizens to unite on firm ground (hence the title). The omnipresent drums shape four of the five cuts (the one exception being the inadvisably sung “Dark Eyes”), with other instrumentation — pianos, tapes, horns, (other peoples’) voices, etc. — providing each with a distinctive signature. Another ambitious effort that only Test Dept. could have undertaken.
Gododdin is the result of another collaboration, this time with Brith Gof, a Welsh theater group, and some of the lyrics and liner notes are in that beautiful and unusual language. The performance from which the album developed is based on an epic Welsh poem, and was originally staged in an abandoned car factory in Cardiff. (It was later performed in Hamburg, Germany with sponsorship from Mobil and Philip Morris; a rather ironic capitalist twist.) Despite the militaristic theme, the music is more haunting and less bombastic than A Good Night Out. A chilling work.
The live Materia Prima, recorded around Europe between 1986 and 1989, contains much of the same material as The Unacceptable Face of Freedom.