September 1995 – live reviews – Shriekback + Holly Penfield @ Upstairs at the Garage, Highbury, London, 6th September (“a few degrees different… / …madly danceable but bursting with wild and intriguing approaches”)

9 Sep

Holly Penfield, delayed by technical problems, is not having a great night. For those who haven’t previously seen the Diva of Dysfunction, this is maybe not an ideal introduction to her unnerving songbook of emotional explorations, cramped as it is into a shortened set-time opening for Shriekback.

Nonetheless, as she sings out her heart and wrings the notes out of her synth, her quality shines through as she leans on the more conventional songs of her standard set – the vulnerable unwindings of ‘Parts of My Privacy’; the clarion-blast of ‘Calling All Hearts’; the stormy tribute to city derelicts in ‘Over the Edge’. The long frozen yearn of ‘Stay with Me’ is as potent as over; the climactic anthem and disintegration of Misfit still jolting and captivating. Tonight she may seem only a few degrees different from most mainstream songwriting women; but they’re important degrees.

Shriekback may be familiar to those of you who’ve followed the career of XTC. Lubricious singer and frontman Barry Andrews was once part of that band, although now (shaven-headed and muscular in black singlet and leather trousers) he looks more like an escapee from Right Said Fred. Watchers of the ’80s alternative scene might also remember the band as being artily plastic white funkers – during the time when Dave Allen and Carl Marsh made up a fierce creative triumvirate alongside Andrews – but they’ve changed quite a bit since then. Thronging the stage like a post-civilisation white road tribe from ‘Mad Max’ or Circus Archaos (and always seeming to be twice as numerous as they actually are) Shriekback still play what could be described as funk, but it’s a mutated progressive variant: still madly danceable but bursting with wild and intriguing approaches.

The instrumentation has something to do with it. A vast array of percussion instruments played by the entire band, like a mongrelised salsa troupe, include – in addition to the standard kit, congas and bongos – giant mutant tambourines, Arabian dumbeks, Irish bodhrans, cymbal-clappers and what looks like an array of motor springs on a huge chunk of wood. Guitarist Lu Edmonds has dumped his six-string in favour of a couple of electrified Turkish instruments – the cümbüs (apparent bastard child of a banjo and a twelve-string guitar) and the saz (like a bouzouki with moveable frets) – chopping and rolling out subtly different parts. The bassist loops and taps on a full-toned fretless. Courtesy of Mark Raudva, didgeridoo and mandolin both make appearances during the evening. Barry himself plays accordion as if he’s wrestling with a giant python, and somehow manages to extract an eerie sound for a wired-up tree root.

Funky it may be, but “get down y’all” is not on the agenda. Shriekback are progressive funk barbarians with a cunning primitivist edge, as happy with a sort of savage pagan sea shanty or primal drum throb as with a Prince-ly groove. Stately, it isn’t. The wild percussive stomp that opens proceedings is as far from po-faced art seriousness as you can get, and they possess the super-greasy compulsive rhythms of the dirty end of prime funk. Their sheer enjoyment and eclectiveness in the ingredients they brew into their music marks them down as yet another oddball manifestation of the progressive spirit…. and who said barbarians had to be dumb? There’s a roiling intelligence in evidence throughout their set. Barry Andrews has always played the hooligan-intellectual card really well, and he’s not stopping now.

Shriekback follow a different and ever-so-slightly alien logic in the way that they look at the world. You can see this in the list of “un”-things in ‘Un-Sound’ (“unacceptable, unreliable, unheard”) or in the semiotic question/percussion barrage of ‘Signs’, in which traffic signs, car logos and football graffiti are all part of one great rush of urban information which you need to understand and to decode for survival. All of it comes to the fore on the didgeridoo-led nightmare parable ‘Captain Cook Said’, in which Barry narrates the story of Cook’s omen-ridden first meeting with indigenous Australians back in the eighteenth century and of the destructive force of the civilisation which he trailed behind him – “we’re here to transmit the virus called the future…” Some XTC cleverness emerges, too, in the wryly cynical ‘Pond Life’ and in the hard rhythm’n’blues/country-inspired wallop ‘Seething’, with its fierce accordion.

All of this plus the fact that you can dance to this band without having to leave your brain at home. On all counts, Shriekback deliver. If you occasionally need to let the smart barbarian out of yourself, there are few better bands available to help you do it.

Shriekback online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

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