Review Summary: Pastoral music for those adverse to conflict.
This is the first of many reviews I intend to write. I'm unsure of how long this will take, but I feel compelled by the sheer lack of opinions for this band on the web. This Nebraskan trio have been releasing albums for years to little or no recognition beyond the recent Captured Tracks box set. Perhaps I should've written some reviews during the revival in the mid-2000's. Never mind, I'm here now writing for you this review and many more in the future I'm sure; they deserve the attention.
For Against are new wave group of unashamed Anglophiles (there is also Half String and plethora of other groups but that's beyond this write-up) .The band have been crafting music for the lapsed melancholic; those who could be happy but prefer to be sad. Their lyrics echo and reverberate long after being heard, transforming moments into memories and vice-versa. Guitars chime with simple and recognizable beauty, and you're reminded of a moment in the past that has not yet occurred. They're additionally minimalistic; they've produced during their thirty year span music that resonates beyond what is stated or intended to be understood. Currently a trio, they've crafted a sound that sounds full, but willing to shatter at a moment's notice.
In terms of musical peers, I'd compare them strongly to The Chameleons and, to an extent, Joy Division - though this is an imperfect comparison - Joy Division existed in different circumstances. For Against are more jangly and maudlin in terms of delivery than Joy Division, but most similar to The Chameleons in the eighties 'we use single coil pickups and flange aplenty' kind of way. The lyrics are concise, sweet and potent, reflecting a subdued and multifaceted melancholy. "I diet of discontent / a show of bad intent", yearns Jeffrey Runnings in the closing track 'Broke My Back' from their debut album Echelons. Somebody's life is in disarray, but why? This remains a common thread for the entirety of their discography; the permanent disparity between your head and you heart and the hordes of people out there that just... won't ever like you. So in the dampness of your bedroom, you scribble lyrics that rail against an unknown enemy. That enemy is yourself.
And so it begins. Echelons bursts into the light with 'Shine', a bright opener with a cathartic key change three-quarters of the way through. You're introduced here to Jeffrey's indirect and non-specific delivery which speaks to you, the subject of the track. "Does that answer your question?", says Jennings with just a hint of desperation before declaring that he's entirely sure who he's asking. The bass line chugs away and the drums reverberate in a very Hannett-esque manner, but the band still retain their distinct Nebraskan routes, sounding like an old dirt road; an insular state where folk prefer to stay rather than leave.
Then there's the title track, 'Echelons', which begins with ominous percussion supported by fragile vocal delivery; of alienation and classic despair. "Someone somewhere waits for me..." declares Jennings prostrating himself in front of the listener to make them understand that someone, somewhere, could be the embodiment of fear... or the other half of a shattered relationship is coming back to haunt him. Post-punk staccato guitar weaves and slaloms through the waves of diminished notes before coming to a steady, but firmly unresolved conclusion.
While 'Echelons' lulls the listener, 'It's A Lie' begins with a thick chorus-laden bass line reminiscent of Peter Hook. Runnings vocals evoke a sense fragility and a certain willingness to give up in the face of adversity. "I don't anymore...", Jennings proclaims not with a shout, but with a whimper. It's one of the shortest, and punchiest tracks on the album along with 'Get On With It' which is delivered in a similar manner.
Echelons is not a long album, but there an elusive amount of depth buried within Runnings' delivery. What seems at first a derivative post-punk band, is a unique and consistent body of songs - especially for a debut album. Considering the album was released in 1987, years after the time represented in the music and before the popularization of grunge; Echelons is a fine example of a lost nugget. It's one of those albums that takes you by surprise and constructs a new-found curiosity. After Echelons, you'll want to hear everything For Against have to offer. This is a highly recommendable pursuit for the sanguine and defeated; the lost and the loved.