THE A CERTAIN RATIO anatomy of melancholy breaks down to a curdling rattle of bones, distant whistles, a few whispered words and a trickle of flat trumpets seeping through the floorboards. It’s too unsettled to sooth, yet not desolate enough to be dismissed as abject misery. Their melancholy has a positive edge that works its blues – check those woe-filled horns! – up into an exorcism of bad feelings and cold city dirt.
For those who haven’t seen The Tin Drum, dream of a solitary drink-sodden bugler blearily blowing away his guilt from the second story window of a Northern port apartment and you’ll begin to catch the mood. Don’t let it frighten you. A Certain Ratio’s urban voodoo is only as threatening as you allow it to be, there dabblings with notions of evil – it’s a confrontation, not a submission to it – being the element that elevates their music above the exotic reproductions of the pan Afro or Cuban copyists. If they wanted to limit themselves to that league they could’ve easily pursued the percussive pulses of their first LP To Each…
On their second LP Sextet, however, they’ve returned in spirit to the loopy mysticism of the brilliant 12″ ‘Flight’/’Blown Away’, updating that record’s concrete rhythms to the present, eerily disembodied dance form which is infinitely more mobile than the absorbing dirges of that first LP.
This could be explained by the group’s ditching of producer Martin Hannett. He’s probably too rational for what they need, having a tendency to reduce drummer Donald Johnson’s busy-ness to a regulated snappy snare slap. Johnson deserves better than that, as the group hook their fragmented motions onto the various leads he throws out to them. Johnson’s multiplicity of percussion effects provides Sextet with its consistency, thus allowing the rest of the group to indulge their irrational temperament. The production compensates tot any gaps left by their flightiness by phasing the disparate elements into one colourfully dense whole inside which only Jeremy Kerr’s wonderful rich bass lines achieves prominence.
Few complete phrases filter through this lush density of sound, but those that do go something like this: “I’m sorry/I can’t remember your name.” (‘Gum’). They’re as simple as that, banal if you like, and they’re often feyly floated across the surge of bass, percussion and, in this case, warcries. So why am I moved? Possibly because the voice on ‘Gum’ and indeed most of the record, belongs to new recruit Martha Tilson. It’s not so witheringly sceptical or witty or downright down as Simon Topping’s, it acts more as a contrast to the record’s sombre moods and trips through the mix acting like a memory trigger, prodding the listener to fill in what’s been left out.
Or maybe Sextet improves on To Each… because A Certain Ratio don’t sound so frighteningly earnest this time round. They’re not afraid to be corny when the occasion warrants a special effect. A windswept seashore sound presages ‘Crystal’, baby warcries dot around the aforementioned ‘Gum’ and running water links up with Johnson’s cymbal splashes on the LP’s best track ‘Knife Slits Water’ – which might be an abstracted domestic murder mystery and if it’s not it doesn’t matter.
The words only contribute to the mood, they don’t describe it. Clarity has never been A Certain Ratio’s prime concern and it isn’t now. Sextet is a strange, enchanting ritual of a record that demands participation of some sort. Exactly what I’m not sure; its random editing techniques proscribe dancing conventions, while the lack of narrative defies easy listening. If all else fails try twitching.
© Chris Bohn, New Musical Express, 16 January 1982