Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This Heat - This Heat (1978)

Rating: 9.7

Those who claim that the 1980s had nothing to offer by way of good music miss out on some of the greatest bands in the history of progressive music. The 1980s saw excellent releases from bands in both the first and second waves of Rock In Opposition (which officially began in 1978) as well as the burgeoning movement known as post-punk, a genre that, while not entirely progressive, was by its very nature inherently progressive, and which drew greatly from progressive ideals (just as the original punk bands did). Chief among these post-punk bands, at least for me, was This Heat, who remain to this day one of my favorite bands, largely due to their excellent Deceit album. However, their eponymous debut should not be overlooked, as it, too, is an excellent album (though, for the record, it was released in the late 1970s).

Even if you don’t like punk music, don’t automatically dismiss This Heat. While they are post-punk, they sound nothing at all like the Sex Pistols. In fact, they are more musically aligned with bands such as Faust than they are with any of the punk or even post-punk bands of the time. If you don’t like Faust, you might have more of a problem with This Heat, but even then, I’d still urge you try them because they manage to condense the musical explorations of Faust into a more concrete structure. Don’t get me wrong, this album is still remarkably obtuse and does not invite confidences, but it is, at least, easier to see (at least at first) where this album is going than it is with Faust.

Enough with the Faust comparisons, however, as This Heat carved their own unique niche in the musical world. They manage to combine the best aspects of all sorts of krautrock with the frontal assault of punk in ways no one had done before or has done since. On songs like “Not Waving,” we can hear strains of Zeit by Tangerine Dream, but mixed with the off-kilter vocals of Charles Hayward. This is a song that will take a while for the listener to figure out where it’s going (unless, of course, you’re a fan of Zeit). If you don’t think that’s what you want in your music, however, have no fear. “Horizontal Hold,” the first real “song” on the album (“Testcard,” which opens and closes the album, is merely electronic buzzing), rocks like few others while still incorporating aspects of the dissonance that made Faust legendary in the krautrock world.

The rest of the album lives somewhere between these two extremes. “24 Track Loop” is a bouncy track using… 24 track loops. The unimaginative title masks what is a very imaginative song, one of the best examples of electronic music ever conceived, and it doesn’t even sound like electronic music, really (at least, not in the sense of Kraftwerk or even Tangerine Dream). On “Water,” the drones of “Not Waving” are mixed with the extraordinary drumming of Charles Hayward. It is this drumming that is the crucial element in the brilliance of This Heat. While the contributions of the other two members should not be ignored, Charles Hayward was the mastermind of This Heat and it is his drumming patterns that lift This Heat’s music onto the high pedestal on which they belong. He is a serious contender for my favorite drummer, and you need only listen to “Twilight Furniture” and “The Fall of Saigon” (which, not coincidentally, are, along with “Horizontal Hold,” the main highlights on the album) to understand why. He is not a drummer that excels, as Chris Cutler (another contender) does, in variation. Instead, he is best viewed as a “beat creator.” His drum beats rank among the very best, up with those of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit (the third and final contender).

Unlike their magnum opus, Deceit, This Heat is not a concept album. However, the lyrics do reflect the band’s political leanings. For example, in “Twilight Furniture,” we hear Hayward croon, “careless talk costs lives,” and, of course, it’s not hard to guess what “The Fall of Saigon” is about. The lyrics tend not to rhyme, and the vocalization is probably as close a human imitation of the drones of “Not Waving” as can be achieved, but the effect is marvelous. I do not lie when I say that This Heat rank among the greatest lyricists of all time. This is seen better on Deceit, but the lyrics here still reflect this. As for the vocals, some will complain about the lack of emotion present and that Hayward doesn’t have a great voice, to which my response can only be what I’ve already said: “the effect is marvelous.” The vocals on Deceit are probably better (they are certainly closer to standard vocals, which isn’t really close at all), but they’re so good here that I see no point in nitpicking.

The only three tracks I haven’t talked about yet are “Diet of Worms,” “Music Like Escaping Gas,” and “Rainforest.” These are arguably the weakest songs on the album, which is really saying something, since they are excellent drone pieces that expand on the pioneering work of the original krautrock greats. I especially point to the captivating (even though it’s extraordinarily simple and slow) guitar work on “Music Like Escaping Gas.” In the midst of the seemingly freeform, we have this one obvious element of structure, and I find I must, once again, repeat myself: “the effect is marvelous. On “Rainforest,” a bit more happens, but it is still similar in style to the previous two, building up to the amazing climax of “The Fall of Saigon.” When I listen to these four songs (including “The Fall of Saigon”), I find they tend to meld together into one, each picking up where the last left off.

When the weakest three songs on an album come one after another and still manage to captivate you completely, you know you are dealing with something special, and special is exactly the word I would use to describe This Heat’s eponymous debut. The only fault I find with this album is that the closing “Testcard” goes on for too long, but this is such a minor fault when all the actual music on the album is so perfect. I would recommend that you try some of the songs from this album and from Deceit (using e-music or Rhapsody or a similar service) and, if you like it, shelling out for the amazing box set Out of Cold Storage, which presents everything This Heat produced with the added bonus of an amazing and informative booklet. Some of the best music ever creating, hands down.

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