Formed from the ashes of the "legendary" underground Cleveland band Rocket From The Tombs (from whose ranks also spawned the Dead Boys), Pere Ubu immediately unleashed two superb singles that formed the heart of their 5-song Dataplank In the Year Zero EP (1976), which was subsequently collected along with some later less essential (with one notable exception) but still largely enjoyable non-album tracks on the 11-song Terminal Tower: An Archival Collection. The first of the phenomenal aforementioned singles, "Heart Of Darkness" has an air of menace that indeed conjures visions of Joseph Conrad's novel and the movie Apocalypse Now, while the apocalyptic "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," with its edgy, angular riffs and intense, chilling music plus equally ominous lyrics warning against nuclear warfare, delivers real "end of the world" stuff that's hard to shake. Although lumped in with the punk movement, its ambitious 6-minute running time is a far cry from say the Ramones, and I prefer the band's self-imposed label of "avant-garage." Anyway, "Final Solution" (the exception noted above not included on the Dataplank EP) is even more magnificent and for my money is not only Pere Ubu's best song but is one of the best songs ever, period. An epic dirge centered around teen angst, it's a powerful builder of a track that seriously rocks. I love those surprisingly poppy girl group-inspired "ooh" backing vocals, the guitar solo by the late great Peter Laughner (who only played on the early singles and OD'd soon afterwards) is suitably heroic and unhinged, and singer David Clayton Thomas' shouted "solution!" exhortations towards the end provide powerful exclamation points. After that fabulous 1-2-3 punch it's not surprising that the rest of the album fails to maintain such a high standard; if it had this would be a serious contender for "best compilation album ever," after all. But most of the rest of the album is recommendable as well, though a couple of (very good) tracks ("Untitled" which would become "The Modern Dance" and a live version of "Humor Me") would later appear on The Modern Dance, albeit in different versions (clearly superior in the case of the former, though I probably prefer this live version of the latter), and later tracks like "The Book Is On The Table" and "Lonesome Cowboy Dave" are failed experiments that I no longer ever feel the need to listen to. Still, though it's certainly less ambitious than the above-mentioned highlights, I like the thrift-store keyboard sounds and sharp, spidery guitar lines on "Cloud 149," the atmospheric "My Dark Ages" intriguingly includes the "calm before the storm" dynamics that would later become alternative rock staples, the reggae-tinged, funkafied, and hook-filled "(It Feels Like) Heaven" is surprisingly poppy and disarmingly catchy, and "Not Happy" is insane and silly but also catchy and cute. Still, though I enjoy the vast majority of these songs, it's the brilliant first three songs that really make this album a must-have for any fan of adventurous, exciting, and flat-out different non-conformist alternative rock music.
The Modern Dance (Rough Trade ’78) Rating: A
After their terrific first few singles came the band's also-terrific first full-length release, the monumentally strange The Modern Dance, on which the band boasted a dissonant, unsettling, decidedly urban sound that was as startlingly original as The Velvet Underground or the Ramones but which was much harder to replicate or even describe. They were unlike anything before or since, really, as they were arguably among the first "industrial" bands in the way that they creatively played with "found sounds" such as static and broken bottles, the better to deliver their darkly experimental vision. Of course, tracks such as “Non-Alignment Pact” and the title track are also quite catchy, with shouted choruses that reek of an off-kilter brilliance. Obviously bashed out without a strict blueprint, the album nevertheless works amazingly well, with the various synthesizer sounds of Allen Ravenstine battling the psychotic, yelping vocals of David Clayton Thomas (an acquired taste perhaps but likely a major influence on Black Francis among others), and Tom Herman’s barbed guitar bits baiting a gurgling rhythmic grind supplied by bassist Tony Maimone and drummer Scott Krauss. Ravenstine's noisy, at times otherworldly and futuristic sounding effects mingle with the rest of the band's also-weird melodies, which rarely approach basic song forms, but the heavy, churning grooves of “Street Waves” and other tracks (like the aforementioned "Humor Me") build to a tremendous power (both tracks feature some great guitar too). "Laughing" may feature a bit too much noodling, but its intense vocals make it another standout (and I kinda like the sax noodling as well), while "Chinese Radiation" is mellower (kinda reminds me of R.E.M.) for the most part and shows off an impressive musicality (if these guys were just a bunch of artsy weirdos who simply made a racket I wouldn't be giving this album an A rating now, would I?). Granted, neither "Over My Head" and "Sentimental Journey" are much of a tune, but even here the band still manages to make cool noises at times, while "Life Stinks" could pretty much be their theme song. Long associated with punk, Thomas actually despised the movement, thinking it anti-social and adolescent, and Pere Ubu were far more sophisticated and inventive than almost all of those bands. Their initial blasts of brilliance weren’t heard by many, but this excellent album proved to be highly influential and had a polarizing effect on those that did hear it, as the people who embraced this band were waiting for just this type of total deconstruction of the basic principles of rock music.
Dub Housing (Rough Trade ’79) Rating: A-
Although not quite as great as Terminal Tower or The Modern Dance, Dub Housing is still pretty darn great and marks the end of what most consider to be their prime period (not to discount some of their undervalued later stuff, some of which I may review at a later date). The band again combines punk, funk, and avant-garde dissonance - you can always count on Ravenstine to weird things up much like Brian Eno did for (the also out of this world) Roxy Music - with jumpy, disjointed melodies and yelping vocals into an overall sound that's much better than it has any right to be. Simply put, the early Pere Ubu records still sound fresh, exciting, wackily inspired, and new all these years later, and though maybe this one has a few songs that are overly experimental and/or noodly or that simply don't do all that much for me (culprits: "Thriller!," "Drinking Wine Spodyody," "Blow Daddy-O"), the majority of the album is outstanding. It helps that several songs here ("Navvy," "Caligari's Mirror," "I Will Wait") feature oddly catchy shout along choruses, while others ("Dub Housing," "Codex") offer interesting gothic overtones, at times with a flavorful Middle Eastern vibe. The keyboards on "On The Surface" simply rule, while "Ubu Dance Party" is among the most instantly accessible songs here (p.s. it would have to be one strange dance party where they'd be playing Pere Ubu tunes!). I don't have much more to say about this album, like I said in my earlier review Pere Ubu are a hard band to describe, but suffice it to say that when they don't go too far "out there" their songs are cacophonous but still tuneful, and they have a knack for stringing together strange, seemingly nonsensical sounds in ways that shouldn't work but boy do they ever. This is an album where I discover new things each and every time I listen to it, which means that it's an album that I'm likely to return to again and again (if not always frequently, as I'm not always in the mood to tackle such challenging music), which surely is the hallmark of a noteworthy album, is it not?
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