It’s been 16 months since legendary Mancunian musical genius and cancer victim Mark E. Smith stubbed out his last cigarette and shuffled off this mortal coil, at the sadly premature age of 61. Seven months before he flew away, he released New Facts Emerge, the final album by The Fall, the group which he had fronted through four decades of brilliant studio releases, storming live concerts, and a series of ongoing lineup changes that had long become a music critic cliche by the time he last took a stage before an audience.
That final studio document of his life’s work found Smith supported by his longest-lasting and most stalwart musical crew, guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling. The instrumental trio had worked together with Smith for eleven continuous years by the time of The Fall’s final bow, most of that time spent with Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals, though she was absent for the muscular all-lads New Facts Emerge, having re-emigrated to Germany, where she is now recording excellent droney noise with NOHE NOSHE.
Greenway, Spurr and Melling were left in England to handle the obligatory interviews, and my admiration for them (already high based on their no-nonsense musical chops) increased several orders of magnitude as they gracefully, graciously handled the press in ways that honored and humanized the easily-caricatured Smith, without clutching the spotlight closely in any self-aggrandizing or self-promotional ways. They made it crystal clear that The Fall had died with Mark E. Smith, while also resolutely and accurately noting that they’d become a formidable group over a decade together, and that they had more to say in their own rights. Other key tenets of the last years’ worth of interviews with the trio tended to focus on four key themes: (1) Mark E. Smith was their friend, (2) He was funny, and they had fun with him, (3) He instilled a tough work ethic in them, and (4) They had a process for making music, and it worked with and for Smith, and they believed it could work for them without him.
Based on the audio and video evidence of their new debut album, Gastwerk Saboteurs, Imperial Wax (as the group are now known, invoking the 2008 Fall album, Imperial Wax Solvent, where they first worked together) still hew to that tough work ethic, with a proven process for producing noisy, clattering rock and roll built on titanic riffs with abrasive, creative soundscaping, and they’re having fun still, both as old friends, and with a new colleague, singer-guitarist Sam Curran of post-punk garage rockers Black Pudding. You can certainly hear the sonic connections to the punchy, muscular and weird New Facts Emerge (most clearly in Greenway’s amped up psycho spaghetti western guitar stylings and the Motörhead crunch of the Melling-Spurr rhythm section), but Curran’s strong voice and the heft of the twin-guitar attack clearly mark Imperial Wax as a different sort of beast than its forebears, to everyone’s benefit.
Album opener “The Art of Projection” (which has a dugga dugga dugga Wire vibe about it) and lead single “No Man’s Land” have been floating around online for awhile before the rest of the album’s release, and they provide a fine introduction to the new group’s charms, as evidenced by their entertaining videos, linked herein. Imperial Wax would have been ill-served in recruiting a Mark E. Smith mimic (if one could be found) to handle microphone duties, and Curran shines as a front man, not only just as a different type of singer, but also as a strong and confident vocalist in his own right, with a fresh approach and a range that allows him to deliver shouts and croons as and where needed, with aplomb. He’s got a different lyrical style, too, and Gastwerk Saboteurs is a word-rich album as a result, engaging and direct in the spaces where Smith was often verbally obtuse and elliptical, (wherein lied many of his own unique and irreplaceable charms, of course).
Gastwerk Saboteurs features another ten songs beyond those two teaser tracks, with a pair of short jammy instrumentals (“Wax On” and “Wax Off”) serving as previews of an unexpected album closer, the wordless nine-minute epic “Night of the Meek,” which builds and stomps with the sorts of mecanik precision and power in which Fall-inspirations CAN once specialized. Another long highlight is “Rammy Taxi Illuminati,” a wonderfully weird two-parter that opens with a storming, shouting roots rock rave, then pivots into a lugubrious, syrupy, effects-drenched groove that would have done Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers proud. (Interestingly, Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus forged the link that got Imperial Wax signed to the Texas-based Saustex Records label; they’ve been doing a great job with early marketing of the disc, so it seems a sound connection).
“Turncoat” and “More Fool Me” turn the tempos down a bit, but not the grooves, and they both merge memorable rock riffing with unusual and unexpected production approaches that pop sonic surprises into unexpected crevices. “Plant the Seed” is a classic chugger, and “Barely Getting By” is an inverted blues lamentation anchored in a timely and recognizable sociopolitical setting, rife with dismay and disappointment, delivered with demon intensity. Group backing vocals and processed guitars and keyboards (?) are prevalent throughout, adding density and variety to the record’s sound, which is spacious and warm and invites, nay, demands loud plays on the family hifi, on repeat.
All in all, a wonderful and exciting debut record from a new band forged in the crucible of an old one. It’s not The Fall, not at all, and much credit to its creators for recognizing that the best way to honor their fallen Chief is by forging forward, with the new album, if not the next album after that, standing as the one that excites them most. Bless them for sharing that excitement with us, and kudos for a job well done, under circumstances where most others would have faltered and failed.
Listen/Purchase Here: Gastwerk Saboteurs by Imperial Wax