Odd (or at least seemed odd at the time) pairings have always been joined in music. Some for better, like say electronic and rock for industrial (vague example of what the genre actually is of course), and some for worse, like “actors” and singing (anyone fancy some Hilary Duff? Thought so.) But the history of the marriage between progressive and punk has always been murky. Some people are stupid enough to say that Green Day
were the first with American Idiot
. But it’s safe to say that it begun with the obscure band Cardiacs. Somewhere in the tides of snotty British punk bands from the late 70s, they emerged, equally as snotty, but submerged in the complex chord sequences influenced by 70s classic prog bands like Gentle Giant
and the perplexing time signatures reminiscent of Frank Zappa
. These traits betray their punk roots and sets them into sounding like RIO (Rock-in-Opposition) bands like the legendary Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
And like most RIO bands, Cardiacs cut the crap that the pompous classics had like Yes
and Pink Floyd
, and too much for their own good. The sax player and keyboardist hold the heavy task of shaping the fast-paced and straightforward structures of the songs, while the other instruments seem to sink down, not contributing anything interesting to the mix of craziness. For the very sped up songs, the wide range of keys from piano to organ to Mellotron takes over fully for these zooming jams that sound like a Genesis
instrumental put on fast-forward. Such grandiose traits of these instruments just give a cheesy sound to the punk rockish songs, like Joey Ramone frantically mashing some keyboards to squeeze into Teenage Labotomy
. While undeniably awkward and quirky, Songs for Ships and Irons
creates good melodies.
Unfortunately, with such an eclectic style you expect the songs to vary a lot, but they all follow the same formula, save the couple of unnecessary filler tracks. The songs all begin with some sort of keyboard and saxophone tomfoolery before vocalist Tim Smith, who sounds like a Johnny Rotten impersonator begins to spit out outlandish Syd Barrett
esque lyrics. It follows that cycle, going through small various interludes, the songs not having any real verses or choruses. Ironically these song formulas aren’t really structured at all. In the end, the album does not flow well at all, most of the songs are difficult to tell apart because they all sound like a collage of manic instrument frolicking.
In all the sharp keyboards and densely packed horns and harmonicas, Cardiacs manage to churn out one really enjoyable song, Stoneage Dinosaurs
. Instead of leaping about frantically as if it were going to self-destruct, the song flows smoothly accompanied by a Mellotron and backing choir, though the mood is somewhat ruined by Smith’s bratty English kid vocals. Unfortunately, only one song like this throws the already volatile Songs for Ships and Irons
even more out of balance, but is a nice break in the madness of these twisted rhythms and chewed out melodies. The album is an interesting listen, but whatever interest one had at the beginning of the album had long since disintegrated by the end due the band’s habit of making the music hard to listen to or follow. Worth checking out (if able to be found) if one wants an album of frustratingly unique prog, or frustratingly unique punk. Either way, the key word is frustrating
. Like a guy who spits when he talks, Cardiacs didn’t make it easy for someone to like their third album. Perhaps with some taming of the gnarly yet bland guitars and some more direction, they’d be the cooler kids on the block. But then I guess they wouldn’t be called Cardiacs if they did so.