Note: Click here to see all entries in this ongoing series.
Who They Are: Shriekback began as an ’80s-era independent super-group featuring keyboardist-singer Barry Andrews (ex-XTC and Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen), bassist Dave Allen (ex-Gang of Four), and singer-guitarist Carl Marsh (ex-Out On Blue Six). Drummer Martyn Barker joined a couple of years later, and the group has sported a variety of long-term supporting players over the years, most notably guitarist Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned and PiL) and singers Wendy and Sarah Partridge (The Sidneys). Shriekback achieved their greatest acclaim in the United States via their underground dance-club hit “Nemesis,” a brilliant groove that forced a generation of late-night dancers to consider the concept of “parthenogenesis;” the video for the song is also an era epic, and I recommend you hit the prior link to check it out. Shriekback evolved through the ’80s via subtraction, with Marsh first and then Allen departing, leaving the group and brand to serve as an Andrews-helmed entity for much of the ’90s and ’00s. There were some great, though harder-to-find, albums from that period, including a most interesting and unexpected acoustic era. Eventually, Barker and Marsh returned to the fold, and Shriekback’s latter-day work, built around that trio, happily compares very well to their brilliant initial run, with their most recent albums standing among the best of their long and convoluted catalog.
When I First Heard Them: Shriekback are another band I heard of before I actually heard, back in those primitive pre-Internet days when you couldn’t get everything you wanted in instant gratification time. I don’t remember what music magazine featured it, but something I read at the time informed me of the group’s inception, and given my strong and active interest in Andrews’ and Allen’s earlier groups, I was excited by the prospects their collaboration offered. That said, I’m thinking it was a solid year or more before I was actually able to score any Shriekback records at the local stores available to me in Annapolis during my Naval Academy days. I think I acquired their 1984 LP Jam Science first, then was able to work backward to get their earlier EPs, singles and albums over the next couple of years. Certainly by the time that “Nemesis” became a minor hit in 1985, I am pretty sure I had their complete back catalog, at not-insignificant expense in days when I had to actively manage my tobacco, alcohol, food and music (the four basic pillars of civilized culture) budgets. I’ve acquired everything they’ve done since then, and throughout all of the line-up and stylistic changes, there has always been something there of interest, even if that something was a completely different thing than any of the things that had come before it.
Why I Love Them: Musical and lyrical genius, at bottom line. Allen and Andrews had proven their chops to me long before they became band-mates, and Marsh and Barker showed over the years that they were equally formidable players and composers. Shriekback often mine insanely infectious and unusual rhythmic realms, are adept at creating ear-worm caliber melodies and (perhaps most important to me, as a writer) Marsh and Andrews are both incredibly brilliant and creative lyricists, rendering so many of the very best Shriekback works as songs of note, with texts of equal note. And it’s not just about being clever for clever’s sake with Carl and Barry. Yes, they use arcane words in odd ways, and they tend to be deeply wordy, always, but they don’t do it just to be flashy, but rather they create meaningful, significant statements of artistic, social and cultural intent with their songs, little testaments to the ways that smart people can say smart things in smart style, when and if they’re not afraid to do so, cowed into dumbness by their more-commercial peers. It’s rare, in my obsessive listening experience, to find artists who are so adept at both the musical and the lyrical aspects of music-making, but Shriekback have long sat at the sweet spot where those two art-forms collide, a creative collective of deep and abiding significance for those open-minded enough to embrace their truly eclectic musical worldview. They’re not quite like anybody or anything else in my collection, and I’m grateful for their shocking originality and admirable tenacity in hewing to their singular creative vision, so many years on from their inception.
#10. “The Reptiles and I” from Big Night Music (1986)
#9. “Flowers of Angst” from Life in the Loading Bay (2010)
#8. “The Painter Paints” from Why Anything? Why This? (2018)
#7. “The King in the Tree” from Without Real String or Fish (2015)
#6. “Lined Up” from Care (1983)
#5. “Bollo Rex” from Some Kinds of Light (2020) (Note: Advance the video to 4:35 if it does not do so automatically in your browser).
#4. “Sexthinkone” from Tench EP (1982)
#3. “My Spine (Is The Bassline)” from Care (1983)
#2. “Mothloop” from Tench EP (1982)
#1. “Agony Box” from Some Kinds of Light (2020)