Review Summary: A lasting testament to who The Chameleons were and what they were capable of
I feel bad for The Chameleons. I really do. Not because they clearly suffered from mental illness and had a very grim perspective on life as made evident by the lyrics of practically all their songs. And not because their band manager faced a sudden death so debilitating to their hearts that they disbanded almost immediately. Not even because they were forced to label their name as The Chameleons (UK) on anything and everything in the states because some progressive rock/folk band already took the name and did absolutely nothing with it. No, I feel bad for The Chameleons because their ratio of fans to good music is so low that I practically forced myself to write this review despite my massive writers block and general disinterest in writing things lately. But alas it has been said by a handful of different blogs across the internet that The Chameleons, a seemingly random post-punk 80's band, “are the best band that you've never heard of”. And while that's a pretty bold claim to make, that sentence can stand true on the merit of literally any of their albums. It just so happens that I find Strange Times
to be their best work.
At the point in their career where they began to craft Strange Times
, The Chameleons were finding enough success to keep them going but were somehow just out of reach of making it to a level of equal recognition amongst similar bands of their time. Which is odd, considering their sound fit in well with so many of the huge UK rock groups that dominated the 80s scene, while also not being derivative of any of it. They had the killer wall-of-sound production, that glossy yet punchy guitar tone, and the angsty psuedo-punk British accents that for some reason resonate within all of us. But The Chameleons managed to keep themselves separated by actually having a sense of awareness to their music. That's not to say bands like U2 had no idea what their sound was, The Chameleons just seemed to write music as an extension of their own expression; it seemed easy for them to write good songs. That's what made each of their albums so fascinating. Each one represented clear directions the band decided to take their music without abandoning groundwork laid by their work previous. And come time to write Strange Times
, I think the band had long realized that no matter how perfect of a post-punk album they wrote, it wouldn't take off. They were just cursed or something, who knows why it was the case. This is the mindset that got them to create their most unique and arguably progressive album in their entire catalog. Strange Times
is the pinnacle of the band's writing and musicianship, and gave a lasting testament to who they really were and what they were capable of. And damn are they capable.
The Chameleons manage to command an atmosphere throughout the entirety of the album that is nothing but visceral. The musicianship is the key factor in their ability to evoke these feelings, and despite the fact that they are clearly competent in their respective duties, they spare us the indulgence with a grasp on minimalism. In doing so they effectively make an album that is as easy to swallow as it is to sit back and say “dammmn, these guys are nailing it”. They use tried-and-true formula as an outline while pouring their undeniable talent into every verse, bridge, and chorus so that each second on the album fits together in its rightful place. Yet surrounding it all is an atmosphere and production so glossy and pristine, that it feels as though the analog tape they recorded the music on was dunked into a vat of ethreal pinkness (this is my attempt at metaphorical imagery, roll with it). It breathes life into every song, even ones like “Tears” which are so basic they begin to feel naked when boiled down to its base structure. Yet “Tears” is such a powerful and fully realized ballad that the guitar melody hits harder than it should, the rhythmic pounding of the skins encompasses your ears, and the blunt lyrics of missing a childhood friend cut the stomach in an anthemic way.
Speaking of lyrics, principle lyricist Mark Burgess wasn't half bad at writing them. He uses a pretty basic vocabulary, but manages to weave together and deliver his lines in ways that don't feel forced or clichéd. In fact, it works to their advantage that they remain upfront and non-cryptic, avoiding the pretentiousness that many rock bands succumb to. It gives a down to earth quality to the rest of the album, which as mentioned before is soaked in a dream-like sentiment. This provides a touch of both surrealism and humanity; two very apposing ideas that when juxtapose so fluidly, offers something very unique. Over a sliding and droning guitar lead he yells:
Picking up the pieces
Half alive in a nine 'til five
Vacant eyes, is it any wonder?
Perhaps the best quality of Strange Times
its ability to bring together its dark, somber mood with a sense of tranquility and comfort. It never feels like a storm is around you, just that the aftermath of a huge one lingers all around. It essentially romanticizes its own melancholy. Songs like the titanic “Soul in Isolation” have Burgess yelling out depressing and frantic cries for help over an incredibly rhythmic drum beat and bass line. Yet the guitar lead and echoing effect on the vocals make it seem like everything's okay, that he'll be fine. Its almost soft and enjoyable. In doing so, it brings out grim similarities to the feeling of substance abuse; a situation where the abuser is rendered immobile by the beauty and of comfort of the drug while knowing the destruction it brings upon them. The band covers topics of substance abuse both early on in the album and in songs of the past, possibly hinting at personal struggles the bandmates faced themselves.
The Chameleons succeeded in creating their peak work with Strange Times
, and it almost seems fitting that this is their last effort before their eventually break-up. It marked the end of the journey they had taken the band with their previous two full lengths, at least until reforming years later with the acceptance that this was a path best left in the past. Its only deserving that this album is adored by the fans that it had managed to reach, because it truly is something worth appreciating. The effort the band put into their work is undeniable. Strange Times
has become one of my personal favorite records, and I find comfort in knowing it is great enough to continue to create fans out of anyone who stumble upon it. At no matter how slow of a rate.