Part Two – The Endless Not
ow does one approach a band as unruly and provocative as Throbbing Gristle?
An unsteady analogy offers itself, wherein we compare these pioneers of avant-gardening with another confrontational group from the mid-‘70s named after a penis, the Sex Pistols. Both drew as much on Situationism as they did the Beatles, but TG’s art-school non-musicianship was far less attractive to reproduce than the Pistols’ snotty amateurism. Not that this stopped a black-clad minority from trying: The TG meme would resurface in scrapyard metal-clangers like Einsturzende Neubauten (Berlin) and Test Dept. (London), electronic meddlers such as Cabaret Voltaire (Sheffield) and Skinny Puppy (Vancouver), and the entire host of DIY noisenik clusters shat out from Japan to Lowell, Massachusetts.
The secret to TG’s “success” was their embrace of that most un-punk of instruments, the synthesizer, gleefully manipulated with an agenda far more distasteful and obnoxious than even that of the punks. While the Pistols rejected their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nod by referencing urine and feces, Throbbing Gristle are an act far too redolent of such organic waste material to ever warrant the attention of Cleveland. TG never so much as attempted to rock. Their music seethes, gurgles, annoys, screeches, and provokes, but rarely sullies itself with fantasies of rebellion and sexual freedom. It’s grounded instead in the factory, the building site, the gas chamber. And while it may have been created to reflect the increasing dehumanization of society, it also proved a tempting target for accusations of fascism and militaristic fetishism, as the group understood, and at times even reveled in.
So what does it mean that TG resurface in 2007 after boldly declaring in 1981 that “the mission is terminated?” Are we to think that their respective solo projects have simply run their course? Frankly, they have. Psychic TV peaked in the late 80’s, when pandrogynous front-thing Genesis P-Orridge, famously and productively misunderstood acid house as having anything to do with LSD; Sleazy’s group Coil retired with the unfortunate death of John Balance, ending a period of musical innovation that makes TG’s meanderings look rather tinkertoy-esque in comparison.
With everyone from the Stooges to Roxy reforming or threatening to do so, it’s somewhat inevitable that even that most non-bandlike of seminal 20th-century groups would have a go. Truth be told, TG have much less reason to fear that reforming will raise any eyebrows. After all, their operation circulated mystical office memos, evolving out of performance art group COUM Transmissions and aping the behavior of mass-production and corporate facelessness. Avoiding the clichés of rock entirely, TG and their house label, Industrial Records, pretended to nothing more than the dropping of irregular packets of noise on an audience they seemed simultaneously all-too-aware and completely oblivious of. But it’s for an even better reason that they needn’t worry, for The Endless Not is neither embarrassing nor stale, but a welcome addition to a group whose body of work, to be honest, never really reflected their influence.
The most immediate and apparent thing that’s different about Throbbing Gristle Part Two is the lack of overly abrasive, difficult noise clusters deployed to rupture speakers and annoy the audience. Sure, they’ve got yr unsettling atmospheres and schizophrenic synths, but the shimmering walls of ear-bleedery that assault you from almost any period Gristle concert are noticeably absent. Perhaps TG Mk. II are acknowledging their descendants by avoiding elements other groups took to an extreme. Why should they escalate walls of pure noise (way to go, Whitehouse), batter with bowel-rupturing bottom-end (ta, Lustmord), or force their point with disturbing imagery and graphics (thanks, Laibach)? Instead, they do what they were always secretly best at: fuse rudimentary pop music with techniques derived from musique concrète and 20th-century composers like Varese and Stockhausen into an unsteady aggregate of primitive synths and disturbing, alien textures. And whether it’s due to improved recording quality or lessons learned by way of a quarter-century in the trenches, the textures TG Mk. II explore are even more polychromatic than those of their old incarnation, without losing the trademark lo-fi, amateurish grit that made tracks like “Hamburger Lady” or “United” or “Still Walking” or “Weeping” so unique in the first place.
Poised somewhere between the conceptual clutter of D.o.A. and the more seamless, tuneful 20 Jazz Funk Greats, The Endless Not picks up right where TG left off in ’81. Treats like the spoken-word ramble “Rabbit Snare” elevate their style into something resembling a modern art-song, with jazz-noir trappings, spartan melodic touches, and treated crowd samples, framing an oddly emotive set of lyrics. Chris Carter’s “Separated” (sequel to “United,” perhaps?) literally throbs, the sound of mice running through the circulation vents of a warehouse resonant with the sound of distant, dripping pipes—the factory afterhours, slowly releasing its pressurized vapor.
“Greasy Spoon” and “Lyre Liar” are far denser, choppier tracks, somewhat resonant of the early work of the great Nurse With Wound. The first unfurls a web of queasy churning punctuated with sparkling chimes, squirrely tape manipulations and tense metallic shrieks; the latter sharpens the noise into more rhythmic oscillations, the sound of the sea of textured writhing growing stormier still. “Above the Below” and “After the Fall” feel like doodles stretched out to pad an album, but the tracks between more than make up for them: “Endless Not” is a shifting, thundering, heavy piece of pervo-synthpop done up with Coil-esque string leaps and nervous waves of treated vocals and samples, and “The Worm Waits Its Turn” plays the gross-out card they’ve been keeping tucked under their sleeve, a noxious Gen spoken-word diatribe replete with bleeding sonics. Whatever comes next for this quartet of iconoclasts, they’ve passed their biggest hurdle unscathed and returned from a twenty-six year absence with a worthy addition to the catalog.