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Gods Gift - Pathology: Manchester 1979-84

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Artist: Gods Gift

Album: Pathology: Manchester 1979-84

Label: Hyped 2 Death

Review date: Nov. 20, 2009

There were plenty of good reasons why Manchester’s Gods Gift never made it big. They were, after all, a bit madder than the Fall, bleaker than Joy Division, and more apt to wreak havoc live than the Happy Mondays. (The liner notes have a fantastic description of a riot that Gods Gift started when opening for the Dead Kennedys in late 1981.) Just don’t imagine that it had anything to do with the music – harsh, droning, feedback-drenched, prone to chaos and, at least some of the time, claustrophobically brilliant.

Gods Gift came together around two school friends, Steven Edwards and Stephen Murphy, who ditched their office jobs to go to work as psychiatric nurses at the Prestwich mental hospital near Manchester. Prestwich, in the late 1970s, provided employment to a good number of post-punk rockers. Una Baines from the Fall and Blue Orchids worked there for a time, and some people think that Mark E. Smith developed his rant, in part, by listening to the inmates wandering around the grounds. Edwards and Murphy, though, seem to have absorbed the place’s ethos into their work. Several of their best songs deal directly with mental illness in a very realistic and unromanticized way. “Jacqueline’s Admission,” for instance, is five and a half minutes of bass-clanking, monotone description of a young girl’s descent into schizophrenia. Nothing is glamorized. Nothing is explained or excused. The details pile up in depressing succession – the girl drowns her dog and attacks her father – and a droning, repetitive beat reinforces unease.

“Jacqueline’s Admission” may be the most directly influenced by Edwards work at the hospital, but you can hear an aura of unhealthiness elsewhere. Even the songs that are about other issues (“Good and Evil,” “Soldiers”) seem to borrow some of their intensity and surreal focus from observation of the psychiatrically troubled. “Discipline” churns an acid froth of guitar distortion under its rackety beat, the sound boxy and enclosed and tormented. “Na na na na na na na na ….discipline,” chants Edwards in the slots between verses, and you can almost see him holding his head, rocking back and forth. And yet, it’s a great song, slyly ferocious as it mocks “a lack of discipline” in its slacked-out, ferally unambitious groove.

Even by late 1970s Manchester standards, Gods Gift had an unusually confrontational relationship with its audience. Edwards habitually performed with his back to the crowd, turning around only to bait the first few rows. Fights were common, and you can hear one, in progress, mixed into “People.” The song sounds like it was recorded in a cement cave, its guitars plonked maniacally in discordant time with the drums, a de-tuned sax mewling wounded in the background and first bass player, Laura Plant, chanting glassily. It’s shockingly spare, bare and violent, making nearly no concessions to conventional song structure.

The band also had a penchant for what they called “mad bits,” or sudden flights into dissonance and arhythm. Listening to “Soldiers,” recorded as a 12”, is like hearing a song dipped into an acid bath, its hard riff dissolving in a corrosive splatter of feedback. “Creeps In” is even wilder, almost entirely freeform with only a rant and a squall of guitar noise to hold it together.

Pathology comes with a long, stream-of-conscious history of the band, told more or less in their own words by Edwards and Murphy, with contemporary photos and a song-by-song commentary. It’s an entertaining read, reminding us all of how commodified punk rock has become and how genuinely dangerous it used to be.

There’s a seemingly endless trove of forgotten post-punk bands getting a second look these days, and if you’re anything but the most dedicated fan, you may, by this point, be getting exhausted. Still, suck it up one more time for Gods Gift. This is fantastically intense, idiosyncratic stuff, and it would be a shame to miss it again.

By Jennifer Kelly

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