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Band Of Holy Joy: City of Tales (Vol. 1 and 2)

Reviewed By: John Clarkson
Label: Exotic Pylon
Format: Tape

The long-standing London-based group, the Band of Holy Joy, released two of the most sublimely and epically beautiful albums of literary rock in recent years with 2011’s ‘How to Kill a Butterfly’ and last year’s ‘The North is Another Land’. Anyone expecting something similar with ‘City of Tales (Vol. 1 and 2)’, their abrasive new double album, might be in for something of a shock. ‘City of Tales’ in an entirely different way is, however, equally remarkable.

It is being released on a limited-to-100 double cassette, which immediately sold out on pre-sale, and otherwise is only available through download. Tape, however, suits the 29 track ‘City of Tales’, which using early synthesisers has a lo-fi and scuzzy sound, and the two volumes of which were recorded almost three decades apart.

The sixteen-song first volume was recorded by the original incarnation of the Band of Holy Joy, from which only front man Johny Brown remains, in 1985 in a squat in New Cross in East London. It lay unreleased and presumed lost for years, only recently being rediscovered by former member-turned-filmmaker Brett Turnbull, who then did a Herculean job of restoring it, apparently involving oven-baking, tampons and alcohol. Its thirteen-track companion second volume was recorded in Brixton in South London last year, and was co-ordinated by the group’s current synthesiser and piano player, James Stephen Finn.

Brown is from Newcastle originally, but has spent over thirty years living in London, and has made his adopted city his main focus. He conjures up a dystopian world in which chaos reigns and brutality and violence are the norm.

The opening track of the first volume, ‘Vanish Everyone and Leave the Children Alone’, opens with the chiming sound of a child’s music box. Any thoughts of innocence are instantly banished though amidst the scuffling hum of tape distortion; echoing industrial noises, and a shrieking two-beat synthesiser rhythm which quickly take over the rest of the song. Brown’s vocals are melancholic and bruised as he howls the title of the song and also “You must be out of your mind” over and over again.

This in many ways provides a blueprint for what follows. The music is a combination of grinding and shunting industrial beats; clattering rhythms that rapid-scale erupt forward and then as suddenly drift away, and cold and eerie synthesiser sounds. Brown’s lyrics are only half audible, drifting in and out of mix. “Drink, drink, drink...” he spits on ‘A Great Binge’, and “I love you/Do you love me?” half confrontationally and half desperately on ‘Fishwives’.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the title track, ‘City of Tales’, in which a woman’s voice in French bids her listener to go faster and faster, amidst what starts out as cries of pleasure and the sound of a fairground ride, As the whirring sound of a synthesiser which has accompanied all this crumbles into distortion, those cries of pleasure turn to screams of pain and agony.

Only the last track of the first volume, ‘The Tide of Life’, is softer, having a shimmering, hazy sound and its only fully hearable lyric. Its tone, however, is once again bleak, telling of a romance that has gone badly awry and sunk into sado-masochism. “You regret the day that you met me,” croons Brown, before adding with a similar sneering melancholic glee later on, “You thought you could change me/Your good intentions didn’t last very long at all.”

The second volume also forays too into the avant-garde and experimentalism. The music again combines rumbling industrialism and icy synthesiser sounds, and augments this with waspish violin work from Christopher Brierley.

Johny Brown’s lyrics have here more of the narrative tone of ‘How to Kill a Butterfly’ and ‘The North is Another Land’. While those albums had equally hard-hitting subject matter - the effect of Mad Cow Disease on the British countryside, the death of a lifelong partner, complete social ostracism and alienation - they concluded on a note of hope. ‘Vol. 2’, however, depicts a form of Ellroy-ian hell.

A prostitute, having already survived one beating, disappears and is presumed murdered on the opening track, ‘Empty Purse Found in Lobby’. A world-weary policeman who has been thirty-five years in the force comes across something so horrible that it leaves him reeling in ‘He Ordered Her to Spit like a Porn Star’. Corrupt coppers cover up the killing of a suspect in ‘Met Police Tries to Hide PC’s Disciplinary Record’, and a woman suffering from heart disease accidently drowns like Whitney Houston in the bath of her hotel room after participating in a cocaine binge in ‘It Just Beats Up Their Heart, He Said’.

‘City of Tales Vol. 1 and 2’ is challenging and confrontational, but, like David Bowie with his equally abstract, demanding ‘1: Outside’ and the work of Pere Ubu, it is never unlistenable and always under-scored with a hard core of melody. Johny Brown’s lyrics are off-kilter and scratchy in the first volume, and enflamed with a Technicolor lushness in the second. His and the Band of the Holy Joy’s vision of London is unorthodox as it is unique, and as a result, while never easy listening, completely enthralling.

The video for 'Traders Losses Double to 4.4BN', one of the songs from 'City of Tales (Vol. 1 and 2)' can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=-dlRTpNDaZ8

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