Fall Heads Roll – The Fall
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It’s time again for the Seer of Salford to blast forth his enchanted bombast. With more albums now than anyone can count, and with its title surely a sly reference to the number of foot-soldiers fallen from his ranks in the grand Quixotic battle, a new Fall album stakes its claim. Those who care, care. Should you?
The trouble with a talent this unique rattling out at the rate it does is that it gets taken for granted. Does this album stand out enough to win back those who’ve seen the band’s twisted charm in the past but who’ve got tired over the years?
The patience of the part-timer is tested straight away with first track “Ride Away”, a cranky simplistic diatribe against someone who’s pissed the Great One off; literally one-note in all senses. And yet at this point the faithful (and yes, of course I’m one) will hear that Mark E Smith’s always ugly, tuneless voice has, in the end, taken on an incredible inner-poetry of its own. As I believe John Peel once said, it really would be beguiling reciting the Yellow Pages. And yet once Smith has frightened off the chaff with this lengthy dirge; The Fall are ready to thrill with some of their most defining moments yet.
The sound of Fall Heads Roll is very much riff-heavy guitar based , with a decidedly minimalist primitive moog-synth backing, eschewing most of the dance effects which have appeared on Fall records in the past two decades. Not that there haven’t been great pure-dance Fall moments (“Free Range”, et al) but this particular fan prefers the purer approach on balance. The brilliant minimalism of the early 80s period is evoked.
And what riffs! “Pacifying Joint” is an incredible second track, with a machine-gun snare that will instantly snag anyone who hears it. If they choose to rip themselves off the snag that’s up to them, but it’s as catchy as anything by Franz Ferdinand. And once again the “bla blah blah”‘s of Smith’s voice attain a weird transcendent cohesion. By the next track more incredible hooks with age-old synths are underway. And by the time the pop kids are singing along to next track “What About Us?”, perhaps they’ll scarcely notice they’re chanting from the point of view of an East German rabbit (or is it a Rabbi?) indignantly demanding that Dr H. Shipman gives them morphine…
Smith and his lyrics have generally grown more arcane and opaque with age. While this has entrenched the weird mystery, at times the scabrous social realism and satire of old has been somewhat lost in recent years. Here though, several themes of yore are re-examined to great effect, and while of course there’s still great dollops of the incomprehensibility that makes them what they are, a little bit more sense seeps in. Smith may be a fervent loather of all things nostalgic, this record is by no means a rehash in any sense, and yet somehow some of the best spirit of the old in The Fall is at work here.
One track, “Assume”, goes back to the old legacy of fucking seriously with the English language, and applying strange new laws onto the commonplace populace that sound like they’ve been handed down from some Norse Deity gone schizoid. “If you assume, you are a Hu(l)me. If you half assume, you are a Hu(l)me. If you don’t assume, you are a cap-it-an!!“. That this damned and despised new category of humanity could take its name from either the philosopher David or the run-down district of Central Manchester (more probably both, or neither) just adds to the disturbed allure. Of equal importance – it’s aligned to a gigantic, siren guitar sound that flattens all in its wake. Even if Smith wasn’t around the band at all (and it can happen if you go see them live; take it from me) instrumentally alone this bludgeons the living crap out of any musical opposition standing today.
Elsewhere, the song “Blindness” delves into the extended, grinding, inexorable Canny hypnotism they do so well. The repetition in the music is a brilliant back-drop to the meandering meditation on an unhealthy and paranoid hatred of the narrator’s surroundings “The flat is evil/and full of cavalry and Calvary”. At their best, and they are at their best here, no-one can produce a sound quite as menacing as The Fall. Unlike Slipknot or assorted goth-goons, Smith has always known that true horror ensues when emblazoned on and interwoven with a background of mundanity. In “Blindness”, as in “When The Moon Falls”, “City Hobgoblins”, “Hotel Bloedel” and “Bremen Nacht” before it, they sound like they’ve cracked open a scene of everyday life, and found something unfathomably terrifying seeping out. It’s unnerving and marvellous.
The many supernatural themes from previous forays are also present in the deeply mysterious “Midnight In Aspen”, though this time the backing is the Fall in beautiful and subtle mode, and yes they can do that. A gentle plucked arrangement introduces a delirious description of what seems to be a man attempting to summon spirits in the Swiss Alps by firing a rifle at selected stars. For once, Smith’s periodic preoccupation with the occult seems less to do with Lovecraft and creeping terror, and more the benevolent engagement of a great mind with what may be beyond. And for once thinking it may not be that bad.
That’s not the only time on this record that the grouchiest sod recording today shows an uncharacteristically warm side. In “Breaking The Rules”, a wonderfully light uplifting backing carries a mockingly bemused tale of a man “who tried to break his mind breaking the rules”. Probably the closest Smith will ever come to a wry self-mocking acceptance of his popular image. A sign of the comfort-zone probably unthinkable just a few years ago, during the sorry days of on-stage punch-ups in New York. It seems his fourth (or is it fifth?) marriage, this time to keyboardist Eleni has brought forth something at least bordering on contentment.
I’ve found most Fall albums in the past decade, however many gems in the first half, tend to run out of steam a bit on Side 2. Fall Heads Roll bucks this trend more than any other. Even the sillier ones like “Bo Demmick” (a drum-based-track with a concentrated stream of abuse against one hapless individual – main refrain -“Hey fat-eh!” while conceding “He was called….a lot of things”) make you actually want to listen all the way through. The first track is the worst track, and there is not one silly piece of crap on the whole product. Lover that I am, that is rare. (Put it this way: would you like to listen to a compilation album consisting of “WMC Blob 59”, “Bug Day”, “And This Day”, “Fireworks”, “Mollusc In Tyroll”? Half of the Levitate album? Well, not me.) There’s a fantastic sound going on all the way though here. I thought I’d forgotten it, but here it is again. That others may hear it for the first time is a minor miracle.
If you wanted to turn a friend on to The Fall you’d be just as well playing this to them as the early rockapunkabilly days or the mid-80s Brix poppier rockier period. That in itself is an incredible achievement. Its not just that you couldn’t imagine another band being anything like The Fall ever again, you couldn’t really imagine anything being like The Fall ever again. The blooded moon goes on shining, and is no less respected, and nor should they be.
See also: Slang King– a review of Mick Middles’ “The Fall” and Simon Ford’s “Hip Priest: Mark E. Smith and The Fall”