23 Skidoo: Urban Gamelan; Shriekback: Jam Science

I DON’T KNOW whether it was the film of African boys being circumcised or the self-important and gimmicky drone that accompanied it, but back in ’81 I walked out of the 23 Skidoo experience, I thought never to return.

That is, until ‘Coup’ thundered over the horizon earlier this year. A mighty 45, ‘Coup’ is a vinyl TV cop-show car-chase driven by ex-Linxman Sketch Martin’s bass, with Aswad’s horn section blazing away in hot pursuit. ‘Coup’ is to Ye Moderne Dance what Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’ was to the Harold Macmillan generation — all revved up and ready to go!!!

A pity there’s nothing half so much fun on 23 Skidoo’s new LP. Urban Gamelan, as you might expect from its title, aims to evoke the magic of folk ritual as manifest in South East Asia, Megastore and other exotic locations; and vaguely integrate it within the traffic-jam of Western listening habits, thereby arriving at a paradoxical harmony of contrasts…And then again, maybe not.

Whatever, gathered here today we have a shambling sequence of bite-size ethno-astiche chunks that individually wouldn’t tax the attention span of a hyperthyroid mayfly, but collectively err on the soporific side. No single piece is allowed to unfold and grow, thus remaining little more than a series of tintinnabulating percussion work-outs occasionally rounded out with other instrumentation, distant chants and Jah Wobble-ish humorous asides.

Shriekback operate much closer to Richard Skinner’s mainstream, but share with Skidoo that stress on “rhythm” which is often the way cerebrally-inclined rockists strive to compensate for their lack of “authentic”, “primal”, “rootsy” “feel”. The results of such self-consciousness are usually horribly dry and forced. Whilst Shriekback’s first LP Care suffered from this, as did to a lesser extent their Tench EP and various singles, their new album Jam Science lays down a much more appealing groove.

Here, as they’ve always been able to do live on a good night, Shriekback mash it down with vigour and invention, massaging spine with bassline, shifting clinical ass and almost letting you forget the irritatingly obtrusive fact that they don’t half reckon they’re a bunch of clever bastards.

And they don’t half go on too, like David Byrne and Howard Devoto put through a blender. I only know this because they print the lyrics: Carl Marsh’s mercilessly unyielding insect-rant normally deters normal investigation. But a full and shiny production has integrated that awful voice into just another, sometimes agreeably abrasive element in the mix.

For Jam Science‘s pleasure lies not only in its muscle-flexing backline, but also in how those dry-funkin’ old bones have been flesh out with some icily luxuriant pop-toons and tones. Melody! Vocal harmonies! Echo-o-o! Peculiar noises!

A bit too modular and even-tempered to bust my clapometer, but Jam Science will nonetheless deservedly set hip toes tapping this season. That is, until the next Art Of Noise record.

© Mat SnowNew Musical Express, 11 August 1984

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