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Animals and Men - Revel in the Static

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Artist: Animals and Men

Album: Revel in the Static

Label: Hyped 2 Death

Review date: Apr. 17, 2007

It’s tempting to see rock history as a straight line, one that leads from jump blues to early R&B to Elvis to the Beatles and, eventually, on to punk rock, circa the late 1970s in the UK, and from there into a million different directions. And yet the line has never been straight, has always eddied and backed and swirled around itself, with anomalous jumps forward and retro steps back. So if you view rock’s progress as a kind of sporadic, nonlinear evolution, it almost makes sense that a band like Animals and Men might start out as the purest sort of scrubbed guitar, eighth-note heavy, staccato sung, alienated punk – and end up singing chilly girl-group anthems to Bo Diddley backbeats and Chuck Berry’s chord changes. It’s sort of like the fishes that dredged themselves on shore, grew lungs and feet, then jumped back into the water – a devolution, in a sense. Not that one phase of the band’s existence was necessarily better than the other, any more than a modern tiger is any better than a sabre tooth – just that one is usually before the other, and Animals and Men bucked that trend.

Revel in the Static, an expanded, repackaged version of a CDR collection put out in 2001, traces this anachronism in 25 songs recorded between 1979 and 1983. It covers both halves of the band’s existence, the earlier Delta 5/Kleenex/Liliput-leaning days of icy vocals and minimal chord shifts, alienated lyrics and hard, rock-simple bass lines, as well as the later forays into clanky, machine-stomped blues riffs...something like Chuck Berry interpreted by Devo.

The band came together in 1978 in Bristol, members Susan Wells and Ralph Mitchard meeting up for the first time at a Wire/Adam Ant concert, gathering bassist Nigel House and Geoff Norcott for impromptu practice sessions, and naming themselves after an Adam & the Ants song. Their earliest single, “Don’t Misbehave in the New Age” backed with “We Are Machines,” was recorded just a year after this initial meeting, its frantic, clamped-down guitar strumming moving in unison with Wells’ deadpan vocals. The tone is dark, anxious and alienated – a sort of 1984 set to pogo beats. In “Don’t Misbehave,” Well’s spits out lyrics like “If you stop to think / You’re as good as caught / You must take care / You must beware / You must keep watch because they’re always there” with hardly a flicker of inflection. Scrubby, staticky guitars scrape away in the background, snare drum thwacking away at the 4/4 beat. The tension between the frantic instrumentals and Wells’ calm, chilly voice is classic 1979 punk, as ominous as it is propulsively rhythmic. The other side, “We Are Machines,” is even better, brutal thunder bass colliding with scratchy guitars, and Wells singing mechanically about a wholly mechanical universe. “We are pure engineering / They don’t make better than us / And they don’t need to buy new ones / We go out and make them ourselves / And if they get too many / They stop production with wars,” she intones, in a voice that never blinks.

The earlier songs are all punk short as well, with most coming in just at or under two minutes. Yet by 1980, with a slight change in line-up, the band had begun to try longer, more complicated forms out. “Shell Shock,” which came out in June 1980, is slower and dronier. The guitar notes, previously clamped and short, are allowed to ring for sustained periods, giving the song a hazy hallucinative feeling. And, for the first time, you can hear a bit of the blues influence in the repetitive guitar patterns. “Shell Shock” was backed with “Terraplane Fixation” (also called “Car Crash Blues,” both versions are on the disc), a bass heavy, galloping drum rampage through nightmarish scenarios. It was reportedly inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Crash, though Wells also had a lifelong distaste for automobiles.

These cuts are perhaps the turning point, for shortly afterwards, Animals and Men shifted personnel again and changed their name to Terraplanes. From this point on, the band became more and more influenced by 1950s blues rock, girl groups and R&B. Lyrics change too, from end of the world, man against machine bleakness to songs about hooking up. Where a year ago, Wells had been singing about a grim mechanical dystopia, now she’s setting lyrics about shopping against an unmistakeable Bo Diddley riff. (Try singing “Hey, Bo Diddley” against “Shop Talk.”) “I Never Worry” slips a surf run worthy of Dick Dale into its girl-group chorus, while “It’s Hip” has a goofy rockabilly strut. “The Man with the Spiked-Toed Shoes” rocks like Chuck Berry in a robot costume, and there’s a sense of good time abandon in the novelty-ish “Baby Scratch My Itch.”

It’s so abruptly different that you have to wonder what would have happened next if the band had continued. Would they have continued in this vein, putting punk’s ironic remove atop R&B and blues’ sizzling riffs, or would they have moved even closer to the 1950s roots rock source? Or would they have found a middle ground, somewhere along the lines of blues-garage-punk musicians like Dan Melchior and Billy Childish? Unfortunately, the Terraplanes disbanded in 1983, so we’ll never know.

Revel in the Static does a fantastic job tracing the history of this little-known band, refusing to take sides in the post-punk versus blues-rock argument. The songs are about half Animals and Men and half Terraplanes, with no obvious difference in quality. There are four newly-discovered songs that weren’t on the earlier retrospective, as well as different versions of two other songs. Liner notes, as is usual with Hyped2Death reissues, are informative and interesting. But mostly it’s the songs, whether ominous and propulsive, like the earliest material, or blues-rocking and playful like the later ones, that hold your attention. This is great material from a band you’ve probably never heard of, and if they didn’t move in sync with rock’s historic flow, that’s just another reason to find them fascinating.

By Jennifer Kelly

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