The Sisters of Mercy
First and Last and Always
he most astonishing thing, of course, is that a record with “The Sisters of Mercy” written on it has been released in 2006 in the first place. Naturally, it’s a reissue—but considering the last physical release to emerge from the Mercy camp was 1993’s A Slight Case of Overbombing (the optimistically subtitled “Volume One” of Greatest Hits), you can understand the surprise. Yet here we are. On the back of an extensive “Sisters Bite The Silver Bullet” world tour, someone at their eternally estranged record company has decided there’s gold in them thar vistas of dry ice. Dust off that back catalogue and prepare the bonus tracks, it’s time to squeeze the bovine and hope it sounds out a reassuring ker-ching!
What Andrew Eldritch thinks of all this activity is a bit of a mystery, although the only concurrent movement at the Sisters’ online presence was the sudden announcement of a winter trip to Moscow. Perhaps an oblique statement. Regardless, it’s safe to assume that there was minimal input from the artistic side of this equation. Which leaves matters in the hands of the Warner Music Group. Have they managed to avoid doing a half-arsed job?
Well, based on how First and Last and Always has turned out, yes ... and no. Of all the Sisters previous works, their debut was most in need of some care and attention. The pre-existing CD version was notorious amongst fans for sounding like it was coming through the tar-ravaged larynx of a heavy smoker. What’s more, the mastering was based on the Japanese vinyl release—which contained inferior (so sayeth the consensus) remixes of various tracks. This reissue uses the original UK/US vinyl mixes for the first time. Plus, there’s some ever-intriguing “remastering” to be enjoyed.
The upshot being that this version sounds a whole lot better. Whilst the updated mastering can’t solve any problems relating to what Eldritch described as “iffy production,” the clarity of sound is much improved. Space between instruments is now actually discernible, switching the emphasis from perpetually doomy echoes towards an altogether punchier attack—the difference between some deft swordsmanship and a slow bludgeoning with a knobbly club. Those alternative mixes serve to enhance the effect, with the title track in particular now gleaming with newly streamlined power. “Black Planet” also benefits from having more room to breathe. With the current concerns about climate meltdown, it also makes the lyrics seem slightly less silly than usual. And speaking of lyrics, it’s now far easier to hear what’s going on in “Marian.”
So far, so good. The extra track haul is also welcome, though far from complete (no room for period pieces like “Afterhours” or “Body Electric (1984)” it seems). There is also the question of whether any interested Sisters collector could really have managed to avoid getting hold of b-sides like the Gary Marx penned “Poison Door” or the languid pathos-fest that is “Bury Me Deep” for the last few decades. It is, nonetheless, certainly handy to have such things gathered together in one place.
Undoubtedly of most interest is an early demo version (it must be a demo, it features cheesy drum machine handclap effects being used without irony—though the basic musical structure is recognizably complete) of “Some Kind of Stranger.” Here, we eavesdrop on Andy in sorrowful mood, belting out slightly different words and sounding even more like he might break down sobbing than in the finished version. It’s a curiosity piece, but still fascinating to hear.
And you’ll hear it clearly, because for some perplexing reason the bonus songs are at least two or three notches louder than the main album. Presumably this is because these tunes have not been especially tampered with, but it surely wouldn’t have been an especially tricky process to even everything up. The fact that this hasn’t occurred demonstrates a fairly unforgivable lack of care. To a lesser degree, level problems also affect the original album—channel balance in particular being a touch suspect. Though in truth, this may have been a “feature” of the original recordings too.
On the patented scale that runs from “cynical cash-in” to “loving reissue,” this effort falls somewhere in the center. As well as achieving the necessary minimum (using the original vinyl mixes, improving the sound somewhat) this edition also makes some small changes that will be much appreciated. The original artwork has been restored (you’ll need to look closely for that one) and the full title of “Amphetamine Logic” is reinstated, finally throwing off the censorship hysteria that saw it reduced to “Logic” the first time around. There’s a fancy gatefold sleeve and a trendy booklet. Yet it would be remiss to overlook the kind of sloppy approach which slaps some b-sides on at a different volume and excludes other potential extras with little explanation. Without question, this is now the definitive CD version of First and Last and Always. But there’s still room for improvement.