The Membranes – What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away

Posted: 8 June 2019 in Albums
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Cherry Red Records – 7th June 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

The Membranes’ very long and even more unusual career reaches a new landmark with the release of What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away marks the release of their ninth album. Forming in 1977 and releasing their debut long-player in ’1980, it would be 26 years between To Slay The Rock Pig (1989) and Dark Matter/Dark Energy following the band’s return in 2009.

John Robb’s career fronting Goldblade from 1995 onwards, as well as a music journalist and Louder than War’s head honcho, with occasional TV ‘talking head’ appearances kept him occupied for much of the intervening time. The fact he’s sustained most of these activities since resuming activity with The Membranes is beyond staggering. How does he do it? The level of energy the man puts into a single gig would leave me crippled for a week (and I’m hardly a layabout).

Anyway. The new album. 16 new songs. While Dark Matter/Dark Energy was concerned with the enormity of cosmic existence, What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away places its focus more closely on existence closer to home, exploring ‘the beauty and violence of nature’. Inevitably, there’s a human perspective on this: most creatures simply adapt or die in the face of nature’s force: only mankind marvels at nature, while at the same time believing it can harness, defy or otherwise conquer its unstoppable force. Yes, as a species, we’re smart, we’re highly evolved, but we’re completely deluded.

The press blurb pitches it as being ‘a game changer in the tradition of Manchester bands like Joy Division’ (can an album that forms a lengthy tradition be a gamechanger? Surely it must cut free from tradition in order to do this), and it features appearances from Kirk Brandon (Theatre of Hate, Spear of Destiny), and 84-year-old folk singer Shirley Collins, one of England’s premier folk singers of the ’60s revival. Chris Packham also contributes, as does the ‘legendary’ Jordan, who practically invented the punk look in 1975.

What Nature Gives… probably is justifiably a game-changer in that it reaches far beyond the parameters of post-punk and expands massively on The Membranes’ output since their return. Sonically, it’s an immensely expansive piece, featuring as it does the 20-pieceBIMM Choir, pitched against dark drones and heavy atmosphere – and of course, driving bass and choppy guitars. What were you expecting, some ambient/prog crossover effort?

It gets off to a strong start as ‘A Strange Perfume’ weaves a tripwire lead guitar over tribal drumming and a driving bass while choral vocal soar in and out before exploding into a grainy blast of distorted guitar. It’s a hell of a rush, and the production while full, is up-front and punchy.

Robb’s bass on the expansive title track is pure Peter Hook, while his vocal is stark, flat, metallic, calling to mind Ian Curtis. But the soaring lead guitar, strings, and layered backing vocals take it to another dimension. ‘A Murder of Crows’ offers something different again, a furious blues/funk attack that kicks like The Screaming Blue Messiahs at their most manic.

Steve Albini once said something about putting your best songs at the start of an album, and it may be the case that the initial force dissipates after this on What Nature Gives… as the band explore deeper, darker, more expansive territories. But this is considered, paced, and musically articulate. ‘Deep in the Forest Where the Memories Linger’ is evocative and forceful in equal measure, with ethereal choral sweeps swooping over thrusting guitars, before ‘Black is the Colour’ – a song about ‘the dark heart of winter’ and ‘the time when nature’s cycle in at its lowest ebb’ – is delivered in a style reminiscent of The Fall, sneering and spitting over a stocky, cyclical bassline. That this song features on the ‘Summer’ side of the vinyl’s seasonally-themed four sides is telling in terms of the mood: Winter is a recurrent theme here, and maybe I’m projecting my own feelings into the songs, but the urge to hibernate or hang myself are strongest during the bleak months of long, dark nights spent indoors brooding and reflecting on all shades of melancholy. ‘The Ghosts of Winter Stalk this Land’ and Winter (The Beauty and Violence of Nature) pursue the same theme, with the latter exploring synthy territory as a backdrop to Chris Packham’s spoken-word narrative.

‘A Murmuration of Starlings on Blackpool Pier’ continues the theme of ‘A Murder of Crows’. And builds the drama, with samples crackling in over brooding strings and tense, hushed vocals, while ‘The Magical and Mystical Properties of Flowers’ mines a classic loud/quiet grunge dynamic, blasting out with a storming three-chord riff.

It’s all there on ‘Nocturnal’ with a crackling synth-driven verse, thumping bass groove, choppy Gang of Four guitars, and a hook that references Joy Division’s ‘Transmission,’ and in context the press release makes more sense: this is an album which actually harks back to and connects with the touchstones which lie at its roots. It’s not derivative, but intertextual in construction. But the most important point of note is that it’s incredibly well-conceived, and the execution of an album that’s so ambitious in scope is outstanding, and What Nature Gives… sees The Membranes hit a new creative peak.

Membranes-Frt

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