Saturday, June 21, 2014

Therapy?'s "Troublegum" + "Infernal Love": Music Review

cover artThese paired re-releases from 1994 and 1995 feature the best moments of this Irish trio. Therapy? combined the aggression of Killing Joke with the riffs of Metallica, and the concision of Nirvana with the catchy appeal of Husker Du. Having suffered the familiar fates of line-up changes, musical differences, and label mergers, the band soldier on.These deluxe editions may draw in new fans now.

"Troublegum" broke free from the grungy muck of their earlier indie releases. Chris Sheldon's production (as with Butch Vig's for Nirvana) ranks him as an equal to the industrial-punk-metal pound and punch this record delivers. Michael McKeegan's bass and Fyfe Ewing's drums solidly support leader Andy Cairns. His sneers and shouts dominate, and his knack for memorable riffs and clever lyrical fragments widens the band's appeal as songs drill down while their volume pumps up.

It's remarkable how consistently the first eight songs in this well-sequenced album stalk the stage where arena-rock metal meets pub-dive punk. Sheldon's production matches the grittiness of Cairns' jaundiced world-view to the band's ear for punchy rhythms that last a few minutes and then scamper away, ready for the next track to enter to throw its sonic weight around in the pugilistic mood here.

"Knives" opens with Cairns' growling: "My girlfriend says that I need help. My boyfriend says I'd be better off dead." The pummeling commences. "Screamager", an earlier single reprised here, represents their best moments, with Cairns' swirling guitar introducing a put-down, of the singer or his subject, or both: "with a face like this, you won't break any hearts".

With "Hellbelly" efficiently churning on, "Jesus without the suffering" comprises the chorus of a stadium-ready anthem. "Stop It, You're Killing Me" marries the telegraphic patterns of Wire with the hard-rock of Judas Priest, indicative of key influences on the bonus disc's live covers. Another terse transmission hammers out into "Nowhere". This rivals the best songs from the first half of the 1990s with its compression into a few minutes of what feels endless and epic, or rushes by in seconds.

Similarly, the slight slowing down from this point on into "Die Laughing" reveals the intelligence behind this record's construction. Cairns' admits "I think I've gone insane" as the guitars descend upon him, the drums hesitate slightly, and the bass carries the singer down. Then, it shifts into higher gear, with more guitars whining and whirling over "lost in world with no reality". This might be cliched in many cases, but the confidence with which Therapy? grips its methods convinces you.

For a band from the North of Ireland, religious tensions suffuse lyrical fragments. "Don't belong in this world or the next one" asserts Cairns in an altered, less growling style. He chooses a half-croon, and the departure from the earlier screams and shouts demonstrates a proper emotional response. This song, however, lapses more than the previous tracks into a standard hard-rock style and while competent, one wonders if the band has worn out itself after the energy of what has preceded it.

A burst of "Trigger Inside" puts aside such doubts, and "I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels" snaps the listener from the gloom, as the singer confesses his loneliness over a buzz-saw arrangement. "Lunacy Booth" challenges "Christ!" over and over: "Reveal yourself to me, like cheap pornography. Picking at my gills with promises of hell." Quite a pick-up line. 

Joy Division's "Isolation" gets suitable treatment, and the song blends with Therapy?'s approach well. Cairns lifts the original content from its dirge-like progression in the chorus, while returning to a mood akin to Ian Curtis's in earlier verses. This effectively pays homage to one of this band's mentors, while showing off their own interpretation as adapted for an industrial-hard rock fusion.

"Turn" broods about "barging into the presence of God," and reminds one of Bob Mould's solo efforts. "Femtex" introduces itself: "Masturbation saved my life." It continues: "You never smile when you make love." Gloom permeates "Unrequited" as the downward spiral continues. Guest cellist Martin McCarrick accentuates the sparer anguish of this song, which points in the direction of the next album. But first, or last, "Brainsaw" by its title conveys the general tone of "Troublegum."

A second disc offers live tracks. Along with alternative mixes and odds and ends from the band, covers of Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" The Stranglers' "Nice 'n' Sleazy" Wire's "Reuters" The Membranes' "Tatty Seaside Town" and the blues standard "C.C. Rider" feature on the third disc.

 cover art

That range, evident by these choices, narrows on "Infernal Love". Turning to Belfast-born d.j. David Holmes for production, the trio throws away the big riffs and catchy choruses. While the lyrical darkness increases, the textures the band prefers enter as the title promises into blacker terrain.

"Epilepsy" signals this descent. Intricately locked guitars overlap Cairns' overlapping, squalling voices and buried gasps from Ewing's drums. McKeegan's bass wanders down the path to perdition. While the songs aren't that much longer than on their predecessor, they often feel turgid and sluggish.

"Stories" tries to be an anthem, but it can't resist introverted passages that wind into themselves. "Happy people have no story", the chorus insists. Piano opens "A Moment of Clarity" as the band alters its intensity for a troubled ballad, which recalls Metallica's slower tunes, or Guns 'n' Roses. 

Beyond its title, "Jude the Obscene" narrates the tale of a misfit but doesn't move much beyond "you trawled [?] your way through our grim school" in terms of a plotline of a bad education. Like much of this album, it's ambitious but rarely grips the listener as much as its predecessor. "Bowels of Love" boasts depth in Holmes' expansive control of its soundstage, but it plays out as homage to Nick Cave.

The songs keep getting darker. "Misery" begins with weapons fired, as it at least leaps into action. Drums clash, the bass responds, and the guitar finds a chord progression to dig into. But this would have been a b-side on "Troublegum", or found on one of its bonus discs, by comparison.

Nothing pleases Cairns on this album. "It's a beautiful day, but I don't see it that way", as "Bad Mother" confides. Still, its slightly hangdog beat, integrating a hint of reggae guitar warped into rock, shows its smarts by this arrangement. But the guitar stays restless, and wanders off the groove. The song stops in layered "you really mean it" phrases. Then industrialized dub enters, surprisingly.

By the eighth track of "Troublegum" the tension had sustained itself so long that a respite was needed. By contrast, by track eight, "Me vs. You" growls by processed vocals as the singer tries to reconcile himself with a lover. Again, a few minutes in, the song ends and studio noodling returns.

This might annoy more than it amuses, the second time running. "Loose" returns to Husker Du attitudes, with any negative vibrations offset by jauntier choruses above melodic power-riffs. "Let me try on your dress" ends this tune, for once showing a different side of the character Cairns inhabits.

Speaking of the Huskers, "Diane" earns its cover treatment with a spare grinding before McCarrick's cello plays out the score. Cairns manages to rally an almost wistful tone as he seeks to lure his prey.

"30 Seconds" takes seven times that long. It concludes "there is a light at the end of the tunnel" over and over, as the album succeeds in confounding whatever expectations its major label might have had for a popular follow-up to its radio-friendly and critically acclaimed companion in these two releases.

Acoustic versions, live tracks, and remixes fill a second bonus disc. The package, reviewed as MP3 files, may have other features not given me for preview. Whatever the format, the five discs total the bulk of what listeners unfamiliar with Therapy? will want to hear, and this repackaging, for all the promise and the peril of the paired albums, presents this fractious trio as they meant to be heard. (PopMatters 4-3-14)

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