Out of Cold Storage
his Heat have a discography more compact and approachable than a six CD boxset sprawl might suggest. Pull the CDs out of the card slipcase and, as well as a thick booklet, you’ll be looking at two LPs, two singles, a compilation of their John Peel sessions, and a disc of unreleased live material, all of which begs to be fitted together to create a narrative.
First out the box is the 1979 debut album, which is either titled Blue and Yellow or eponymously depending on whose history you’re reading. It’s a curious, baffling rats nest at first—track one, “Testcard,” is forty-seven seconds of computer cassette loading spuff, mastered low so that the totally necro proto-black metal grind at the beginning of “Horizontal Hold” blasts out unexpectedly loud. Charles Hayward’s drums are the horizontal hold, a mini-to-maximalist spectrum of almost swing holding the track steady as it swerves between precisely tweezered funk and hair dryer guitar blast. It’s Gareth Evans’ organ “solo” that is the heart of the piece though, a convulsively shaken primitivist Sun Ra shockwave. Whereas Hayward and guitarist Charles Bullen were both accomplished musicians—Hayward having even played non-more-prog drums in Quiet Sun alongside Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera—Evans was a non-musician (something which in pop only means something when that person is in a band with virtuosos) who proved fearless behind bass guitar, keyboards, and cheap tape recorders.
If “Horizontal Hold” shows This Heat as a ‘live rock unit’ paying attention to room tone and of-the-moment dynamics, even if only chimerically, then “24 Track Loop” demonstrates their other side most ably; at core it’s a loop of a drum break, a randomly hit woodblock, and a drawn out chord dubbed in at multiple speeds—raw material that’s echoed out, slapped back, viciously EQed, and fed through a harmoniser pedal. It’s raw and writhing and alive. Hayward says, “We played it as we mixed it.” This could be the beginning of jungle or ‘ardcore or the more rhythmically committed parts of the Mo’ Wax discography, or it could be the logical terminus of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” (But it isn’t any of these things.) Other points on the map are “Rainforest,” recorded at This Heat’s first show, which sounds like night-time insect chatter pitched against trees being uprooted, and “Water,” processed gamelan-like improvisation.
This Heat’s second album Deceit, originally released in 1981, is leaner, song-focused, less interested in experiment and continues from where the vocal tracks on the first album—“Not Waving,” “The Fall of Saigon”—finished. Despite the concentration on songs, Deceit may be more difficult. It’s a measured, sombre listen, the work of a band in asymmetric warfare against itself. The group often sing in an English folk influenced harmony, but as well as suggesting unity, that this could be anyone and everyone, it sounds like a loss of the individual voice, that in the end there would be, was, no-one singing. Even as This Heat protest you can feel the inevitability of the Thatcherite destruction of community—in Brixton where their studio was located (riots began on April 11, 1981) and of the band itself. Gareth Evans would leave the band around the time that the LP was released.
Despite the second album’s shift to songwriting, This Heat’s greatest song—their “Ace of Spades,” their “Crazy In Love”—was released between the two albums. “Health and Efficiency” begins as a tightly marshalled and triumphant two-chord swing “about the sunshine” before shifting to a tectonic plate lock groove under which Hayward, for once, and appositely for a song celebrating the body, cuts loose with hyper-kinetic, blazing fills. Bottles smash on the floor. It speaks of the times that Hayward can say, “it seemed to be quite a radical idea to be happy, healthy, acknowledging the sun.” (This is why New Pop had to happen.) Even here This Heat shield themselves with irony—Health and Efficiency is the name of a British nudist magazine, notorious as one of the only places that British men could sneak a peak at tits and arse in the repressive atmosphere of the fifties and early sixties. On the flip is “Graphic/Varispeed,” the non-rhythmic components of “24 Track Loop” stretched into a tidal ebb and flow of dronework. Originally pressed to play at any speed, it is presented here twice—as it would sound at 33 and 45rpm.
“24 Track Loop” also reappears as “Repeat,” a reworking released in 1992 that almost quadruples the length and removes a lot of the effects, from the drums in particular. It’s straighter and also more physical; the spacious downbeat heavy reworking that latter-day b-boys may have imagined if they heard the original.
Made Available collects two Peel Sessions that the band recorded before their first album was released. It feels cruel to say of a band that paid a high price emotionally, physically, and financially to work autonomously and at their own pace, but the versions of their songs from the first session—recorded at speed and with outside engineers—are maybe even better than their LP equivalents. Stripped of overdubs, tape cuts, and processing they’re possessed of a brutal forward motion. They are sometimes very guitar heavy; parts of “Rimp Romp Ramp” don’t sound that different to the music Venom would be creating at the other end of England a few years later.
And as with almost all box sets, there’s a live CD. It doesn’t bode well for the promised further live CDs that this one is to-be-listened-to-once disposable. Even the one great recording, the controlled explosion of “Health & Efficiency,” fades out before the end.
This Heat were stupidly sure that they were going to be huge, but they embodied the social and political landscape of their Britain too well to ever be successful in their lifespan and (unfortunately) they seem to fit with our times increasingly well too. This is music made by people slowly reaching the point where they can’t take any more, people who were making themselves ill whilst trying to get away from what Hayward calls an “ill health aesthetic,” but this is also music of joy and energy, some of the most energising and exciting and beautiful ever recorded.
Reviewed by: Patrick McNally
Reviewed on: 2006-06-29