It has been a few weeks since the last entry. This has been partly down to being incredibly busy and partly down to procrastination. Procrastination because the idea of writing about Hex Enduction Hour is pretty daunting. Its a work of epic proportions in a world where the currency of the word ‘epic’ is at an all time low. A particularly good sandwich, a mobile phone call plan or a video of a cat falling off a slippery work surface are not epic. Epic is big, expansive in idea, ambition and execution. It dwarves its contemporaries and proves them to be wanting. As a quality, it is rare - it has to be, because we are talking about scale.
That’s one thing then, the epic nature of Hex makes it a difficult subject to get started on because in some way you have to translate the scale and the way it hits you into some sort of sensible collection of words. Back to the old cliche of dancing about architecture.
I’ve made some notes. Looking back on them I find I’ve seemed to favour World War II military terminology, suggesting the impact and sound of the record might be analogous to blitzkrieg or the assault of a Panzer division, or full on total war conducted by the Wehrmacht. I’ve gone even further down this particular metaphorical cul-de-sac to suggest that there is very much a last days in the bunker, fight to the very last man, bombs falling, barbarians at the gate sort of scenario. However, that’s a bit one dimensional.
1982, but it may be at any time - there’s no frame of reference to mark it as contemporary to anything much. Nothing stylistic speaking, and where lyrics hit on known reference points, the framing is abstract. The music is an extreme final gasp - a dinosaur cackle, a pterodactyl cackle, before extinction. Back to the bunker. Presentation - angry, measured, sardonic. The Fall never sound this gloriously deranged again, but that’s OK, there’s many more avenues to explore in the future.
Some background - supposedly this was supposed to be the last Fall record. The one where they bowed out to mainly indifference with a final, totally uncompromising fuck you. They made the record they wanted to make, but luckily for us, the rest of the plan failed - unexpected success - 71 in the mainstream album charts. No mean feat.
After spending a large proportion of my life listening to music too loud in headphones, I’ve fallen foul to tinnitus. The high pitched whining in my ear is a tedious nisance, but I can live with it, the ear doctor advises that the best thing to do is not listen to music at an ear splitting volume and to take regular breaks from standing in front of amps etc. As I am a lot more sensible that I used to be, I follow this advice - with a couple of exceptions - listening to Hex Enduction Hour being one of them. If there is ever an album that should be listened to at a very loud volume it is this, it is almost feels disrespectful, if that makes any sense whatsoever. The other exception is Raw Power - for the same reason.
Jesus. That’s some meandering preamble. I apologise. Summing up so far at this waypoint - intense, angry, extreme, sardonic (so therefore humorous, darkly) and should be played loud.
A word on personnel - this is the one where The Fall make like the glorious and unfairly maligned by association Glitter Band by utilising two drummers. Karl Burns is back and he’s beating the living crap out of those drums in tandem with Paul Hanley. What a team! Hold tight - I’ve been misleading you a little, Hex isn’t all full assault - there are also quieter, more trancier moments where the drummers get intricate and do some cool intertwining complex stuff.
The album, opens with the bombastic The Classical, which is one of the best openers to any album I’ve heard, on a par with the marching boots that announce Never Mind The Bollocks. Booom! We’re in - a funky, scathing tirade. An exasperation with the great British tolerance of mediocrity perhaps:
You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new high profile razor unit - made with the best British attention to the wrong detail.
‘Hey there fuck face!’ - another Fall state of the union, pearls before swine. Anyway, it’s big, brash, poppy and it has a fucking bass solo in it.
Jawbone and the Air Rifle - which we’ve visited before, honed over a series of years, the version on here is great - still retaining the weird lysergic Chas and Davisms, but with increased confidence in the delivery and story telling.
Which brings us on to the classic Hip Priest. I don’t think it’s autobiographical, but its a tempting conclusion to come to - ‘He is not appreciated’. He hits motorway services. ‘All the young groups know they can imitate, but I teach’. Seething and shimmering, pulsing, ringing harmonics. All enveloping with a hint of menace, narration up front, right in the ears. Hip, hip, hip, hip, hip hip priest! ‘Clean as a packet of chocolate treats’
And in a series of high points, Deer Park is now prepended with Fortress, a tale about a humdrum BBC radio panel assignment in a the dreary warrens of one of the broadcasters buildings:
And here on the Vitamin B glandular show...This almost throwaway, but like everything else on the record, it works - stateliness heralded with Casiotone preset.
Much discussion in boiled beef and carrots
A pause. I am growing dissatisfied with just running through the tracks like this, it seems that by breaking down the constituent parts we fail to do justice to the whole. I’ve attempted to outline a general feeling of what this record is about, but it is a complex, slippery beast, which is part of its appeal. It continues to yield treasures for over repeated listens and its a different album everytime. At the risk of pretension, how you see it depends on where the light is settling on that particular day. Oof- that’s tortuous.
A word on Iceland. This record was part recorded in Iceland, and I like to imagine that this is where the more hypnotic, inwardly contemplative part of this record stems from. You can definitely hear it in the song Iceland, written on the fly with the band running through a something delicate, repetitive, ancient, a plinky piano figure running through it. A general air of finding a spiritual home in the desolate edge of the arctic. Incantations:
What the goddamn fuck is it?Incidentally, the rest of this record was recorded in Hitchin, which having lived there for some of my teenage years, I can confirm is an absolute shithole. Perhaps this album wasn't going to be so angry until the group had spent a couple of days in this backward little market town. I digress...
That played the pipes of aluminum
A Memorex for the Krakens
That induces this rough text
And casts the runes against the self-soul
And humbles in Iceland
Backing up to Just Step S’ways. More garage, but made super-huge and magnificent by the double drum attack. Most importantly:
Just step outside this futurist world todayand then the killer:
Just step right round this...today
The Eastern Bloc rocks to Elton John.
So just step sideways from this place today
To be a celebrity you've gotta eat the past, nowadays
But who wants to be in a Hovis advert, anyway?I’m tying myself in knots here really, so going to wrap up, hopefully Pete has been a little more lucid. And This Day, the piece of music the record ends on is ridiculous and extraordinary. Excerpted from some point in the middle of a 26 minute recording, this is a slice of extreme strait-jacketed bonkers in an industrial unit business, where it’s all cranked up, pummelling onslaught with sick on the waltzer woozy fairground organ. Taking the repetition to the logical extreme, with ranting, hectoring vocals -
‘Everywhere no fucking respite!’And just when you think there isn’t, it ends. And then you want to listen to it again.
In conclusion - Hex Enduction Hour. It is extremely good, but I’ll be damned if I can convey how good it is. So I suggest you listen to it.
In my experience, there are certain albums that, when you even simply go to pick them off the shelf, seem to spark and fizz under your fingertips. They have an electrical, tactile quality even before that physical moment - they seem to loom large in the mind, to pulse expectantly next to their peers, seemingly knowing of their own power and weight. It isn't just that they are exceptional - though for me such albums as 'Kid A' and 'Blood On The Tracks' undoubtedly are - and very occasionally they're just ('just' he says, with a wry smile) really good - for example 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space'. No, its something more. That sense of magic, that notion that this little sliver disk represents something greater than mere notes and words and rhythms. Its a slippery sort of intangible kind of weird potency. It can almost be overbearing. Its clearly impossible to define. It can be unpleasant, like riding on a roller-coaster in the dark again and again. And for me at least, in the whole of The Fall's cannon, only one album truly encapsulates this illusive quality, and that album is Hex Enduction Hour.
If Dragnet were a grimy flat with angry dreamers inside, and Grotesque a run-down council house with the fantasist working class, then Hex is a skyscraper, all glass and steel, defying vision, defying light even. You stare at it for ages trying to comprehend, and then realise your gaze has slipped to your own feet as you remain there, abashed and dumb. Inside, myriad people, a city's worth of people, so many people that individuality has become meaningless, even meaning has almost become meaningless. There's just recurring, vague, angry trends of thought that bubble through the legion. They could be aliens for all I know, as the reality of Hex seems just so far removed from anything I perceive, and while you can try to latch onto a train of thought, but the time you have the train has left the solar system. It feels paradoxically like 'essence of fall' while also feeling quite removed from anything else by the band ever, like the way that a tomato glances over at tomato puree and goes 'what the fuck?,,,'.
Let's illustrate this by looking at the two weakest things here (and let's get our terms of reference right - we're talking 'weakest' as in 'still can lift those huge round rocks, and almost made the finals of world's strongest man' weak). When we thought about 'Jawbone and The Air-rifle' some time ago there was a latent sense that it was, for whatever reason, destined to end up on Hex. It just seemed to condense the HP Lovecraftisms of MES with that pounding rhythm section, clanging guitars, meshing together words and song in a way that felt like the bastard son of 'J. Temperance', 'Spector vs. Rector' and all the great singles we've had - it just seemed to be a call from the future, a sign-post to the heart of Fall-land. But now its here, proudly sitting as track two, my god, doesn't it feel like a throwback? I mean, surrounded by all this noise and sense, and nonsense, and everything in-between, strike me down but doesn't it feel... well, twee? It's a cheeky tale of a curse with a proper old-fashioned narrative, the driving and grinding is comparatively one-dimensional, the vocal delivery is (in Hex terms at least) very straight. What we thought sometime ago was the calling card of the future is merely the man at the gate. And yes, I am overstating the facts to make a point - its a great tune, its a good choice at track two, and anywhere else in the Fall's early cannon it would standout - but there is something very functional about it.
Compare that with And This Day - fucking hell, if ever there was a 'song' that defied you actually hearing it its this one. Its pretty clear that each instrument has a sense of where it is in the song, which bit it should be playing, but as to how everything fits together its a blimmin mystery. It just whomps along, sustained primarily in its own obstinate belief in itself, with hooks falling as it goes, shot down in isolation - a bass one hits the ground, a drum one rises above the parapet, another Tommy with a inevitable look in its eye and a prayer on its lips. Bang. Gone. And yet not gone, 'cos on and on it rolls, whipping the listener up into an emotional state best described as terrified bewilderment, "The whole Earth shudders / The surroundings are screaming on the roads" and don't we just know it, and yet another lurching riff on that insescent organ smacks you in the ear. And yet, after everything that has gone before you can't help but feel this is an appropriate end to the listening experience that is Hex - I mean, what else could come here? I don't resent And This Day for being hard, I'm not complaining about the way it makes me feel, as you can't finish something as powerful as Hex with anything less than a hammer. If in this instance we're being pulled about by our expectations of how a song should feel then I'm a better listener because of it. And Hex deserves a significant send off.
So we have two extremes - Jawbone (though top) feeling like a trad. Fall song (a concept that, in itself, is so ridiculous, and suggests perhaps just how indoctrinated I have become) and And This Day being the most extreme example so far of how hard The Fall can push you while still being artistically/musically valid (there will be gibber at some pointin the coming weeks, I am sure). Everything else here doesn't feel like it can truly exist, like those elements at the end of the periodic table which fall apart before they actually formed. All the other songs should never have been able to drag themselves out of the swamp because in so many aspects they stray so far from the norm, from convention, that conceptually I cannot even begin to imagine how they got from head, to guitar, to ear. To even begin to picture a song like Hip Priest causes the brain to give in and die, and lets be honest, this does not bode well for whatever I am to write next...
Let's mop up a couple of bits before more strangled gushing. Two drummers - Hanley, who in my head is just a solid, tuned in drummer, and Karl Burns, who I know was mental and I like to think drummed like it. It's this unusual arrangement that creates the musical template for Hex - rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Beats and strums and sounds crashing in and over each other, fighting their way out of the murk. Also, please don't ask me how, but while the production values here would cause an audiophile to weep the sound is perfect in every way, and whether through intent or accident the nature of the sound goes a long way to lending Hex the otherworldliness that befits the lyrics and songs. Even before you get into the nitty gritty of what is being said and how its being presented, Hex just seems to be one of those records when everything got nailed all at once.
We've already looked at a number of songs here beforehand, so lets just recap - Deer Park, which impressive left me a little tiny bit nonplussed in its Peel Session outing is made here by a simplest of tricks - The Fall whack a whole other song at the start of it. 'Fortress' is far shorter than Deer Park, a little more expansive in its riffage, but when prefacing it provides the perfect scene setter. Lyrically the two seem to rub up against each other without really making too much literal sense, which in microcosm is exactly like the rest of Hex. Who Makes The Nazis allows itself to be a little more musically bonkers with tapes and goodness knows what else cluttering up the sound, but I still stand by my analysis of what its doing lyrically - using the power of nonsense to undermine our labelling of the world. And Winter is just achingly wonderful - my only criticism of it is that due to the fact that we've moved from a musical medium which you actually have to get up and interact with to hear the second half of the record the splitting of the song into two parts (last track of side one and the first of side two) doesn't work quite as magically as it should do. But that's hardly The Fall's fault - Hex lives and breathes in a world of its own creation, so who would think of future-proofing it?
There are five tracks remaining that I haven't mentioned, three of which are easily among the greatest songs that The Fall have ever done, while the remaining two are merely phenomenal. Iceland is a companion piece to Winter, so much so in fact that the weird ennui that infects the latter tune in Salford almost moves lock stock over to Reykjavik. A jammed meditation with the startling opening "A plate steel object was fired / And I did not feel for my compatriots" it almost, almost matches its chilly partner. And with Jus Step S'Ways we have a strong contender for best Fall riff ever, with everything slaved to it and MES entertaining us with such weighty insights as "the eastern bloc rocks to Elton John" and "who wants to be in a Hovis advert anyway?" Simply marvellous.
… I've three songs left to write about. I have just reread their lyrics yet again, and thought really hard about the whole of Hex to try and start to pull this together, but this record defies any sort of analysis, pinning down. I suppose the bottom line is this - for a lyricist that was already off piste Hex sees MES just going fucking off on one, and when combined with the focused, yet clattery music, it just leave this listener an awestruck mess. The words here just sweep and judder,with as many odd phrases that catch the ear on one album as the Fall have had in total so far…
"Hey there fuckface"
"There's been no war for forty years / And getting drunk fills me with guilt"
"I got my last clean dirty shirt outta the wardrobe"
"Much discussion in boiled beef and carrots"
And, of course Mere Pseud Mag Editor's Father which is fucking fantastic. You have to read it times to actually work out what it means, and then in the context of the song it seems utterly irrelevant anyway. Anyway, basically, its a character study. It's Fiery Jack turned up to nine hundred and eleven. It's about a bloke who sounds a bit of a twat really. But thats not the point. The point is, for a pop song (and deep down, its a pop song), its a right fucking mess. It's the same rhythm over and over again, with various instruments playing the same thing over and over again, occasionally on the 'right' notes though its actually anyones goes what those notes really ought to be. It's a lurching monster of a tune that comes and goes without much fuss, apart from the fucking chaos, with MES just oodling away one the top, aside from when he gets a bit excited about watching Rowan Atkinson. It's even got a middle eight that exists to reiterate how punishing the main body of it is, and - get this - a weird, strummed intro which he fucking croons over like some demented Dean Martin type. It is brilliantly pointless, dazzlingly inconsequential.
And then there's The Classical which as opener sets the tone perfectly. Two drum kits whacking away, thudding Hanley bass (and even a solo of sorts) and those scabrous guitars that we've come to know and love, but a light year - a fucking light decade - on from anything before, even maybe New Puritan which in hindsight pointed the way much more accurately than Jawbone did. Lord only knows what its all about - something to do with creativity possibly, highbrow verses low - but all viewed from a Fallian prism, all mashed up and spewed back at you, unrelenting, unforgiving:
Too much reliance on girl here… and finally, goodness me. How to describe the genius that is Hip Priest.
On girls here, behind every shell-actor
Too much romantic here
I destroy romantics, actors,
KILL IT A !
KILL IT A !
Y'know all those rappers that dedicate so much time and rhyme to self-aggrandisement? Both Ed and I have a soft spot for such things, but really its a dirty, cheap little habit isn't it? You know - "I've got a bigger vocabulary/gun/cock than you". Childish. Well, lets bow down to the master. MES not only manages in one song to declare himself the greatest… whatever he is, but wraps it all up in a little fantasy that teases and delights, is equally as boastful as it is knowingly pathetic. This weird little character study is so perfectly put together that we can feel this hip priest, we know him, even though we can't really say why or how (though, of course, being so blatantly autobiographical helps)… and you know, I could quote any number of lines at you. Lord knows, I've been quoting this song since the day I heard it, often straight in bemused people's faces, who have no idea who Dan is, nor why someone is not appreciated, nor why they can imitate, but I teach. But what's the point. This is a vocal tour de force, an insanely rare perfect combination of writer and singer, showman and artist. This is someone demonstrating exactly what he's talking about by doing it amazingly - for those of us that get MES, that buy into it, this is like a fucking mantra.
But lets hold on one moment. If there is any song that we need to redress the MES = The Fall balance, then maybe this is the one. Yes, I and a many others like (and unlike) me believe MES to be a genius, a unique talent in music that should be celebrated (though that would ruin him), honoured (though he would hate it, probably), bought by every single red-blooded Britishman (… that'd go down OK I suspect). But while he must take plenty of credit for shaping them, MES would be the bloke in the corner of the pub spouting rubbish were it not for his team - The Fall. Hip Priest is such a strange musical experience, and he must pay homage to our aforementioned drummers, Riley and Scanlon playing guitars and maybe keyboards, and the might Hanley on bass. The tangled mesh of music that these people weave, which builds for so long with plucked strings and taps, creating a sparse and lonely landscape with nowhere to hide, just the right environment for MES to unleash the full force of his talent. The way the song builds for so, so long, the level of control and understanding required to keep things in check before the inevitable, yet still unnerving rush of the loud bits. Go back to the Peel session and then listen to this - there's no doubt that MES has pushed and moulded, but that little guitar noodle, those bass drops, the way the keyboard can knowingly, perfectly just belt out whatever so long as the rhythm is right, the fact that so many little things have grown and been flooded into the melee must mean that there are skilful players here, and I utterly refute any fool who considers The Fall to be that Smith bloke and his backing band. Hip Priest is both the best thing that The Fall have done up until this point, and it is a perfect demonstration of just what makes Hex sublime - everybody on the absolute top of their game, and everything else just falling into place as everyone must hope it does when they open the door to the recording studio.
And I write so much, and convey so little. Hex astounds and delights and you get to the end flustered and sweaty and short of breath. It says so much but doesn't allow you the dignity of comprehension. It breaks you down as a music listener, and disdainfully walks away leaving you shattered but aching to learn. Its astounding… and yet, I still prefer Grotesque! For all the magic of it, the unyielding invention, there's something about its supreme confidence in itself that makes you think back to NWRA, to S Mithering, those snotty tunes that at least patted you on the back as they prepared to fuck you up. It's splitting hairs, and really, truly, its nothing more than personal preference, but of these two astounding records the earlier one just manages to tick the boxes that I need filled.
… but having said that, Hex is there on my shelf right now, humming, buzzing to itself, dominating the space, jutting its elbows into its neighbours and waiting expectantly for the next time...