Review Summary: A zany offering of abrasive post-punk genius
The Fall are the greatest band you’ve never heard of. No, seriously. Coming out of Manchester in the United Kingdom, a locale firmly imprinted in the group’s identity, the Fall are the all-time favorite band of famous British BBC DJ John Peel. They have been consistently making music since 1976, their lineup ever shifting around sole constant member Mark E. Smith, also their founder, main songwriter, and lyricist. Grotesque is the Fall’s third album, following underground favorites Live at the Witch Trials and Dragnet, featuring a five-man lineup of the multitalented Mark E. Smith (handling vocals, tapes, guitars, and kazoos), as well as a guitarist/keyboardist, second guitarist, bass player, and drummer.
The Fall’s music is, in a word, abrasive. Loosely rooted in post-punk, it is based on monotonous repetition and the use of often atonal riffs, and centered around Smith’s ever-present uniquely caustic voice. It takes an open mind to appreciate this album. The eight-minute rant “C’n’C-s Mithering” is composed of one whopping acoustic riff with some simplistic drums thrown in and crowned by Smith’s resentful lyrics (I’ll describe the lyrics, a force quite unto themselves, as well as Smith’s voice, later). “New Face in Hell” is similar: a basic acoustic riff laid upon a drum beat, with only an intermittent meandering kazoo to break the monotony. Indeed, in one of the only songs with more than one main section, “The NWRA”, Smith abruptly screams SHIFT as the musicians begin the next part, as if in self-reference to his band’s tiresome repetition. Mindless repetition, although key to the Fall’s sound as a band, certainly doesn’t constitute the whole of the album. Many of the songs, such as the opener “Pay Your Rates”, “English Scheme”, “Container Drivers”, and “In the Park” can be best described as a rough, harsh, yet spirited form of rockabilly punk.
If any other vocalist were to sing over these songs (although sing hardly encapsulates Mark E. Smith’s vocals), they would probably be terrible. But, to use a trite cliche (and who doesn’t love those"), Smith is the glue that holds the Fall together. His voice, a warbly, atonal sound that honestly defies description, is like no other. It is truly its own instrument, ranging from bizarre off-key pseudo-singing to a strange chant, his Mancunian accent always shining through. One of his voice’s most notable idiosyncrasies is the final “-ah” that he puts at the end of most of his syllables, adding a strange accent to his speech.
No discussion of Mark E. Smith would be complete without a description of his lyrics. Cryptic, hyper-literate, wryly sarcastic, I could spend hours on Thesaurus.com trying to find a good way to describe them and I still wouldn’t have it. His lyrics range from absurdist tales to acidic rants, and are often quite difficult to deconstruct. “Impression of J. Temperance” tells of a “never seen dog-breeder” named J. Temperance widely hated by the peasants in his town and the hideous creature discovered at his home, while “New Face in Hell”, delivered in lyrical spurts resembling newspaper tabloid headlines, tells of a “wireless enthusiast” who “intercepts government secret radio band and uncovers secrets and scandals of deceitful type proportions”. “C’n’C-s Mithering” is more or less a long, drawn-out rant against the music industry:
“All the English groups / Act like peasants with free milk / On a route / On a route to the loot / To candy mountain / Five wacky English proletariat idiots / Californians always think of sex / Or think of death”
“You think you've got it bad with thin ties, miserable songs synthesized, or circles with A in the middle. Make joke records, hang out with Gary Bushell, Join round table. ‘I like your single yer great!’ A circle of low IQ's.”
These excerpts hardly serve to fully describe the greatness of Smith’s acerbic lyrics, but they serve for a decent approximation.
All in all, this is an incredible album, one with practically no salient faults. It would make a solid contribution to the repertoire of any music lover, but particularly to those whose taste tends toward the out of the ordinary.