Hex Enduction Hour
or the uninitiated, entering the wonderful and frightening world of the Fall can be an overwhelming experience. Not only does the “band” (which has performed in various incarnations since the late 70’s, but always with the indestructible crux of the perennially trashed Mark E. Smith) have more albums than years of existence under their collective belt, but mucked-up distribution of their records has generated barrelfuls of compilations and odd re-re-re-releases. That said, if you are to delve into three records by the Fall in your mortal life, the recently reissued (cleaned up and expanded) Hex Enduction Hour ought to be one of them. To dispense with the formalities, it’s a good remaster for an album that deserved it, and while none of the second disc’s added goodies are particularly stellar, they nevertheless serve as a little gravy to an already superb record.
Originally released in 1982 as their fourth studio album, Hex demonstrates the culmination of “early” Fall: a monolithic beast of ragged grooves piloted through the embittering miasma of English society by the verbose acidity/Joycean all-inclusiveness of Mark E. Smith. By then, the band’s sound had expanded outwards, having graduated to two drummers and allowing the abrasive patchwork of Marc Riley and Craig Scanlon’s guitars to drift further into clattering abstraction, each player pulling their creativity taut from an invisible center. Along with Wire, the Fall serves as one of the earliest and most successful attempts to elevate punk formalism (i.e. the consciously simple, spirited, and non-virtuosic) to the level of more exploratory, experimental music, an approach that we now call “post-punk,” but whereas Wire turned to icy, synth-laden paranoia, the Fall (at this point in their career) folded in the Neanderthalic kitchen sinkism of early Faust and the lovingly crass fusion of Can, peppering them with some of the thudding, demeaned pop-redux that would come to mark their mid-80’s work.
Immediately, “The Classical” sets a tone that characterizes the entirety of the record: dreary, cluttered, and seemingly decaying, but lurching forward with an unflinching certainty—the only flickering torch song in a cavity of deadened automatons. “There is no culture is my brag, your taste for bullshit reveals a lust for a home of office.” Of course, it’s ultimately Smith that gives a name to the beauteous shitstorm, delivering his dense, volatile rants in a trademark nasal snarl with a sing-speak pace that truly lets them cook, unmasking their dissent and pure poetry, erratically crying out “THIS IS THE HOME OF THE VAIN!,” only to consent that “I’ve never felt better in my life” in a bleary deadpan, ad infinitum, a comment whose inscrutability verges on chilling.
What’s tremendous, singular, and affecting about Smith is that it’s hard to tell where he actually stands: the heartbreaking scope and sensitivity of his lyrics shows a mind not of suffocating nihilism, but keen detachment, cynicism, and understanding, setting him as much at odds with the spitting reactionaries of punk as with the tidy Thatcherite society that fueled their hatred. If “The Classical” partially mimicked the illusory freedom and faux-revolutionary discontent of youth, “Fortress/Deer Park” takes aim at it, exposing the squatter squalor of a Nazi fortress where, after talking in circles “with four left wing kids,” Smith tiptoes by the toilets to the sound of a urine-stained fanfare: “and Good King Harry was there fucking [BBC’s original ‘Top of the Pops’ DJ] Jimmy Saville.” It’s upon his exit that the sky begins to open up for the gloriously apocalyptic scene of the deer park: when Smith says “I took a walk down West 11, I had to wade through 500 European punks” his voice coursing through a droning organ, a single flame on the verge of being blown out, it exudes chaos on the brink of pure bliss, the sound of Smith entering hell itself. The band reaches its boiling point, a relentless Stooges-like stomp tied together by an endless ribbon of gnashing teeth, Smith drowning in the deluge of noise, twisting amidst the inescapable artists, kids, and subculture hawks swarming like locusts all around, cheating out “the young blackies… in the English system they implicitly trust, see the A&R civil servants, they get a sex thrill out of a sixteenth of Moroccan,” a suffocatingly pathetic tableau of disappointments masquerading as hedonistic idealism, an interminably mounting pile of human trash.
And is there a way out? “Just Step S’Ways” is the closest the Fall gets to a motivational moment, and it’s hardly anything to smile about, as Smith leads the Fall Soul-Wrangler Revue trumpeting the empty rah-rah sentiment to “just step outside this grubby place today,” employing the falsely empowering sentiment of advertisements, the illusion of a life-changing consumerism. We’re left with our fists flaccid in the goddamn air with absolutely nowhere to look, before being piled like waste into the subtle, lopsided discord of “Who Makes the Nazis?,” to which the answer is, basically, everyone, from intellectual half-wits to George Orwell to the BBC. If there’s any moral, it’s a difficult one to swallow: everything we see wrong with the world is a conspiracy of our hates and our loves, every antagonist has its circumstances, its foils, its antecedents—more than anything, it’s a plea for thorough consideration of one’s surroundings, a deep-seated skepticism that perpetually disrupts the spirit yet elevates understanding. Smith laments on the loping infinity of “And This Day” that there’s “just no fucking respite for us here… you even mistrust your own feelings.” Like the cover of the record itself, Hex is a concrete chunk of clanging urban graffiti, a haze of cryptically scrawled half-thoughts preached like glossolalia to form a cross section rife with painful contradictions and holes too deep to fill, a picture whose dizzying intersections of raw, loose ends only serve to elevate its bleak beauty.