Burn to Shine -This Heat's Out of Cold Storage
“History repeats itself …
This Heat - “Cenotaph”
It was one of those conversations I was having in the mid-1990s with as many record store employees as possible, picking up as many historical trails as I could in an increasingly convoluted network of musical influence and advent. A hipper-than-thou type was drawling at me with affected detachment until he found out that I’d never heard This Heat. “Oh man … OK, look, forget all that other stuff I told you to listen to – how long you got?” He then played me a worn-out cassette of some BBC sessions, apologizing throughout. “The albums sound better than this. I don’t have ’em, I could never find them, but I’ve heard both.”
“So,” I ventured politely, “What do you like so much about this?”
“They were ahead of their time!” the clerk almost shouted. “How often can you say that?”
Some 12 years later, having access to this six-disc box set of their entire officially released catalog, I’m inclined to agree, but the situation is rife with complexity. This Heat stood inside and against musical and sociopolitical trends and developments in the late 1970s; any assemblage of musicians boasting the proper chemistry has the potential to achieve similar results, but the rhetorical scope and ambition with which Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen and the late Gareth Williams approached music sets them miles apart from their contemporaries. This new box allows, at long last, the most complete appraisal so far of this short-lived but absolutely seminal trio’s work.
As is the case with previous RER sets, the accompanying booklet provides superb historical and analytical documentation from several angles; this is particularly appropriate in This Heat’s case, as the group’s historical and compositional interactions are as multicolored as the music they produced. Hayward had made an album with Roxy Music veteran Phil Manzanera’s Quiet Sun that went some way toward prefiguring the diversity of sound that would become the trio’s domain. Bullen and Hayward began performing as an improvising duo at a time when “prog,” supposedly drowning in its excesses, was actually morphing into the forces (glibly called ‘punk’ and ‘new wave’ in hindsight) that would later attempt to suppress it. Even in its earliest documented incarnations, This Heat existed in the spaces between genres. Gareth Williams, the “non-musician” of the group, brought with him a love of experimental music, a devotion to history and Oriental culture that was shared and fostered by the others; a fragment from their first gig as a trio, a cacophony of sound amidst a poetry and music festival, was recorded and later titled “Rainforest,” appearing on the trio’s debut full-length.
From the beginning, tape – its manipulation and the consequent temporal implications – was integral to the group aesthetic, The freedom to fracture and reassemble history having been gained, in large part, when the group acquired its own studio space in 1977, called Cold Storage (it had been the cold room of an abandoned meat pie factory). In the lengthy booklet interviews, the two surviving members liken the process of recording at Cold Storage to being able to make intricate modifications to a painting; the fact that the equipment was set up permanently meant that when the trio returned to work after a night’s break, everything was as it had been, leaving time for extreme intricacy and detailed development of the smallest gesture.
This approach allowed thematic unity of a sort to manifest itself on each of the band’s two albums proper. These are not concept albums, at least not in any traditional sense; rather, they explore, blur and willfully crash boundaries between emotive states, acoustic environments and modes of listener perception. On the 1979 self-titled disc (also called Blue and Yellow after the cover design), the track “Test Card” turns out to be an extension of the searing guitar solo on “Fall of Saigon,” the album’s conclusion. Beyond this overriding circularity, the disc is full of striking quasi-repetitions. “Horizontal Hold” consists of several juxtaposed and misshapen beat-driven loops of varying intensity. Nothing on the disc, though, prepared me for “24 Track Loop,” one of the most stunning examples of studio trickery in the band’s catalog. Based on a drum and organ groove that was prematurely aborted, the trio decided to loop the 24-track tape, with some of the sub-sections also containing smaller loops. These were “played” on the mixing board and recorded in real time, then edited down to the nearly six minutes released on the first album. The resemblance to various cross-pollinations of dub and dancefloor is still striking almost 30 years on; the groove folds in on itself, bucks sharply or gets a drenching in delay before drying out again just as quickly.
On the opposite extreme are the two “water” pieces; “Not Waving” and “Water” are studies in chilling contemplation, again using skewed repetition, the former a series of overlayed drones, the latter a wash of semi-stagnant percussion swells. While the improvisational roots of the music are in constant view, slithery structures become apparent on repeated listening; “Saigon” is a sort of dark ballad that is meant, very consciously, not to resolve properly, but a song it most definitely is.
Many fewer overt stylistic ambiguities haunt Deceit, recorded and released by Rough Trade in 1981. In the booklet interview, the two surviving members point to a new but intuitive venturing into song craft, into what they now call a more lyrical world. The whimsically experimental tendencies are certainly still there – notably in the radio broadcast rhythms comprising the hauntingly hypnotic “Radio Prague” and in both sides of the LP beginning the same way – but they are subservient to the ingenious blending of words and music, the two in tandem producing one of the defining albums of the period. All of the trappings of ‘punk’ are in evidence, especially in “SPQR,” a two-chord rocker concerned, somewhat cryptically, with ‘Roman’ conformity in the face of the “straight road” oppression and violence fostered by modern-day Pax Romana.
Bullen and Hayward are very quick, though, to point out that if This Heat stood for anything, it was for cultural transgression. As Hayward puts it, “All our contemporaries were telling us that it was an us and them situation, all that punk bullshit.” The Romans in “SPQR” do not have a foil because, as the lyrics point out, “We’re all Romans, and we live to regret it …” Similarly, ‘the boys’ in “Cenotaph,” quoted above, are given the unbearable responsibility of individual universality. There is something so poignant about that vision of the world, so heartbreakingly direct about the way war and impending return are portrayed as a roar approximating cannon fire is heard just before the last line. It is a defining moment on a disc chock full of such revelations.
Even so, a track like the incendiary and guitar-heavy “Makeshift Swahili,” concerned with duplicitous language on one level and with the White appropriation of Native Americans on a more microcosmic plain, reeks of an anger that still bespeaks contradiction and opposition, leaving the group’s lyrical legacy, like its music, open for discussion, debate and recategorization.
I have left very little room for summation of the rest of the box, as the two discs are certainly the project’s corner stone and each deserves volumes of analysis and commentary. Health and Efficiency was recorded between the two albums and released as a maxi-single, here regrettably still a separate disc, with the fascinatingly slow-moving “Graphic Varispeed,” which can be played on any speed afforded by a turntable and still sound really great! “Health and Efficiency” is its polar opposite, a minimalistic, rocking, paint-peeling epic dedicated to the sunshine that morphs into a beat-heavy but crystal-clear hypnodrone that features kids at play in the foreground. Many of the album tracks get interesting alternate readings, both on Made Available, the disc devoted to BBC sessions, and on Live, a disc of previously unreleased live material. The latter is the most disappointing of the set for me, as much of it suffers a bit in terms of recording quality; it does, however, give a taste of how terrifying the trio could be live – air-tight and brutally loud. Repeat presents a 20-minute remix of “24 Track Loop” and an industrial romp called “Metal,” both assembled and completed in the early 1990s; for good measure, there’s a version of “Graphic Varispeed” at another of its sanctioned playing speeds.
The box’s chief advantage is the remastering. The sound is better, by leaps and bounds, than on any previous issues of this music. Deceit especially has been radically remixed, and while I miss a few of the old balances, the pay-offs are more generous on each listen. Even those already owning the previous issues of any of this material — and everything but the live material has been available before — should really give the new versions a try, especially given the moment-to-moment shifts in perspective and environment that was such a huge part of the band’s sound.
By Marc Medwin