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23 Skidoo - The Gospel Comes To New Guinea

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Artist: 23 Skidoo

Album: The Gospel Comes To New Guinea

Label: Ronin

Review date: Feb. 16, 2003

23 Skidoo traced a pretty distinct path throughout the entirety of their vastly underrated career. Then again, perhaps it was somewhat underrated in retrospect because the band spent equal amounts of time trying to adhere to so many different infinitives. After all, there’s the tense, agit-prop ethno-funk that colored a lot of their music, thus linking them cohesively to a lot of great British post-punk in the earlier eighties. There’s also their affinity for the odd tape loop experiments and their collaborations between such noted esoteric pioneering electronic outfits like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire that veered close to industrial territory (the latter whom 23 Skidoo almost joined together with at one point). Even still, there’s also an intense devotion to other types of world music, notably the Eastern flavored gamelan sounds they appropriated on their Urban Gamelan album. All of this, too, before they began to head in a distinctly electronic-dance direction towards the end of the ‘80s.

Thankfully, there’s a much needed reissue program headed up by Ronin Records that gives the listener the ability to hear Skidoo’s twisted sonic world. No matter how eclectic and varied their body of work sounds, most of it is pretty great. The Gospel Comes to New Guinea, a collection of their mostly classic singles and hard to find tracks, is an essential sampling of their various directions and sounds. For the newcomer, this disc serves as an excellent introduction to the band and all that they were capable of. For the already initiated, it serves to tie together many of the loose threads left hanging by their full-lengths.

The first three tracks on this disc were co-produced by Cabaret Voltaire, coming from releases on the Fetish label in 1981. “The Gospel Comes to Guinea” remains as one of the bands finest moments, staggering circling drums and driving bass lines along with Eastern pipe sounds into a 10-minute mix of some of their most rhythmic and funked explorations. In retrospect, “Last Words”, the following track, sounds a lot more conventional than you’d probably expect from 23 Skidoo. It’s still great, though, mixing a driving beat and urgent bass in with snaking guitar lines and excellent percussion. You can hear the influence tracks like this have had, especially recently, resurfacing in such great bands as Out Hud.

“Tearing Up Plans” comes from 1982 and sports a distinctly more experimental approach, coming closer to dub than anything else. This track works a simple piano line against the percussion, allowing the echoed effects to bounce in and out of the background. “Just Like Everybody” is a heady bit of tape experimenting, layering loops of disembodied voices over swells in sound. The idea here is the odd juxtaposition between the ominous background sounds and the growing discussions of torture, coercion, and commercial detachment. For a band that never really had any hits, “Coup” comes about as close to that as possible. This is down right funky, sporting a bass line that’s resurfaced in places too numerous to name in detail (the Chemical Brothers stole it for “Block Rockin’ Beats”, for one). Driving drums, scattered grunts and chants from the chorus, and of course the various samples of screams and explosion combine with some excellent steel drumming to make for one of the more engaging and instantly accessible 23 Skidoo tracks.

In 1986, as evidenced by the two tracks from an Illuminated twelve-inch, the band began measuring their affinity for dub, dancehall, and reggae with a new ear towards electro and hip hop. “Assassin” mines the latter direction for a great track wrought with tight-fisted guitar lines, punctuating keyboards, some nifty scratches, layered percussion, and of course, the standard 808 drumbeats. “Ooze” is even better. Here the tempo is slowed down a bit, allowing the drums to echo off, while the horn lines wander in and out of the mix to clash with the detached vocals. The latest track on the disc, 1987s “Magrehbi” showcases the band’s final path, a nigh on industrial electronic funk band. It’s still a great track, even thought it misses out on some of the energy from their earlier more acoustic based material.

The remaining tracks on the disc are odds and ends that managed to slip out of print. “Healing/Fanfare” and “Gregouka” are both explorations for tape loops and percussion, using the sounds of metal and drums, respectively, to lay a groundwork for the ominous tape sounds. The final track is also the earliest one on the disc. “Ethics”, dating from 1980 and produced by Marc Bedford of Madness finds the band in their early days as a down right jangly post-punk outfit, not out of place amongst the likes of the great Rough Trade acts of the time like the Raincoats. It’s far different from anything else here, but still worth the listen, partly because it’s a good track, but also because it’s interesting to see how far the band progressed in a single year.

All in all, The Gospel Comes to New Guinea serves as a much needed collection of finer moments, most of which never made it onto 23 Skidoo’s still worthwhile full lengths. It’s good to see this band getting a lot more of the credit they deserved as founding members of the British post-punk sound, an era earning rave reviews left and right these days. At the time, I suppose it could have been said that the band was guilty of aiming too high, of trying to gain some sort of synesthesia between too many types of disparate music. Now, however, it mostly just makes sense.

By Michael Crumsho

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