Posted by: Nick Walters | June 26, 2008

The Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent: A Review

Okay, I’ve had this for well over a month now and listened to it countless times. Now for my verdict!

It’s fucking brilliant. Nothing else, really, to say. Except that there is. I need to explain why it is brilliant, to show why I no longer consider myself mentally unstable in considering The Fall the best band ever to exist. I now no longer think that’s an extreme or an odd view. On the evidence here, and ever since 1979, with a few dips (e.g. 1995’s Cerebral Caustic) it is the truth. The Fall ARE the best band ever to exist.

Except… do I need to explain? Should I have to? If you haven’t got it yet, it’s your loss, bub. Life without The Fall must be unbearable. I pity you! ‘For those who understand no explanation is necessary, for those who don’t understand no explanation is possible.’

This review, then, will hopefully go some way to provide that impossible explanation.

Imperial Wax Solvent was available on download a month prior to its official release. I didn’t succumb like many did, as I am still distrustful of MP3 sound quality, and wanted to hear it blasting out from my KEF Q35 floorstanders, not my shitty PC speakers. I therefore had to put up with a month’s worth of the opinions of others. That the majority of reviews were almost unbelievably positive just added to my almost unbearable sense of anticipation (and, of course, they were right).

It was released on Monday 28 April, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy it on a normal working Monday, and forced myself, with admirable self-restraint, to wait until the Saturday after release. And Saturdays are sacred, blessed by Mark E. Smith himself in Neighbourhood of Infinity off of Perverted By Language (‘I used to have a thing about Link Wray / I used to play him every Saturday / God bless Saturdays.’) I bought it from the newly-opened Waterstone’s-shafting Bristol branch of FOPP on College Green, along with the new Half Man Half Biscuit album CSI:Ambleside, which is genius as usual (quick review: buy it). I didn’t bother with the new Portishead album, because, quite honestly, I didn’t think I could cope with so much new, good stuff all at once.

I found the cover (artwork courtesy of Anthony Frost) initially disappointing, but it grows on you, and makes sense in Fall history terms, as it seems to complete a trilogy of album covers recurring every nine years: Extricate (1990), The Unutterable (2000), and now in 2008 Imperial Wax Solvent:

Extricate (1990)
Extricate (1990)

The Unutterable (1999)
The Unutterable (1999)

Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)
And now Imperial Wax Solvent

I make no apologies for getting too anal. This is The Fall, this is important.

Even before we get to the songs themselves, there’s oddness and idiosyncrasy and just plain flying in the face of convention, logic and received wisdom. It’s a 13-track album, at 47 minutes just enough to fit on one side of an old C90 cassette (TDK ones usually ran to 47-48 minutes per side – showing my age there) just in case anyone out there is still using tapes. Most of the songs are in mono, which gives them considerable wallop. There is minimal stereo separation on the remaining tracks.

It’s bizarrely sequenced, ignoring all the usual laws of album track arrangement. The central 11-minute track is third; the ‘crap cover version’ sits prominently in the middle the album; all the psychedelic stuff is on ‘Side 1’ (showing my age again) and the final 6 tracks (i.e. ‘Side 2’) are all 2- or 3-minute Fall-pop, making it seem very lop-sided and schizophrenic, but it somehow works.

Thanks to the month’s worth of reviews, I more or less knew what to expect. I’d also had a quick preview of each track courtesy of a mate’s I-pod, so when I slid the CD into my ancient, trustworthy Marantz CD player (still going strong after 15 years!) I knew that the first track would be a jazz tune.

Yes, you read it right – JAZZ. The Fall doing jazz. Fall fans will know of previous flirtations with the form on the album and song Room To Live (1982) and on The Unutterable (the dreadful Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes) but this is the most jazz-tastic The Fall have ever been. Nice!

The song is called Alton Towers – why, God knows, though someone has pointed out the similarity between the menacing, descending bassline and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice song from Fantasia which Alton Towers park uses as its theme tune. Can’t hear it myself – to me, the song sounds like an old Style Council instrumental b-side, or a warped cousin of Yello’s La Habanera. Indeed, you can actually sing ‘La Ha-ba-neee-ra’ along with Alton Towers. Contact Boris Blank – a Yello Fall remix would give me my biggest fangasm since the Dalek/Cyber smackdown in Doomsday!

This aural soup meanders on for about three minutes with odd swirling and swooshing noises in the background, and Mark E. Smith muttering about ‘the spawn of J. “Loaded” Brown and L. Laverne are laughing’ – a clear reference to his infamous interview with Lauren Laverne. It’s an intriguing, rather than exciting, opener.

Then we get Wolf Kidult Man, which, basically, kicks ass. It begins appropriately enough with some bizarre lupine howling, then the drums kick in and a vicious snarling riff is unleashed. It’s the most kick-ass thing they’ve done in a while, one can imagine Beavis and Butt-head digging this, it’s exactly that type of riff. The subject matter seems to be one of M.E.S.’s perennial targets: boy-men ‘Modern Parents’ types refusing to grow up and live in the real world. ‘Where is your mob? Your power is gone,’ he snarls. It ends, bizarrely, with a sample from the Twilight Zone episode, The Printer’s Devil. Why? M.E.S. alone knows.

Next up, the centrepiece of the album, 50 Year Old Man. Much has been written about this. It’s simply stunning. Eleven minutes of utter genius. Lyrically, it’s M.E.S. belligerently growling, ‘I’m a 50 year old man – and I like it. I’m a 50 year old man – what ya gonna do about it?’ A line can be traced all the way back from here to the young M.E.S. of 1978 and Psycho Mafia. (If anyone says ‘growing up disgracefully,’ fuck off.) In this song Mark E. Smith is flying in the face what is expected of ageing rock stars. In fact that is irrelevant, Mark is or never has been a rock star, that’s so far beneath him it’s like a grain of sand to the Moon. Rather, I think this song is M.E.S.’s gleeful, joyous Fuck Off to those who would pronounce him past his best. The music backs this theory up: though it’s 11 minutes long, 50 Year Old Man is – unlike, say, Systematic Abuse off the last album or And This Day from Hex Enduction Hour – 4 or 5 songs all mashed madly together. It works wonderfully, though it shouldn’t (a sentiment which seems to sum up both this album and The Fall itself).

The first section, which bursts incontinently out of the speakers falling over itself in thundering mono, is 4 minutes of drum and bass with the main 50 Year Old Man riff familiar from live versions. It’s breathtaking – the drumming is spectacular, some of the best I have ever heard on, well, any album ever. M.E.S. rants against Steve Albini and Virgin Trains, pisses on hotel towels, berates the bouncers on the Manc club scene, and bellows, memorably, ‘I’ve got a three-foot rock hard on – but I’m too busy to use it.’ An image I am more than happy to share.

Mr Mark E Smith at 50

‘I’m a 50 year old man – what you gonna do about it?’ Mr Mark E. Smith, 51, enjoys a fag

The second section is the most talked about: the completely unexpected (on first listen) banjo interlude.

That’s right – BANJO INTERLUDE. I’m in awe at the balls of this. It makes me want to take all my Radiohead albums and hurl them under the wheels of the next bus. It sounds a bit like the Steptoe theme, which conjures hilarious images of Mark E. Smith as Old Steptoe; surely an intended musical joke.

Then the main riff resumes, slowed down, with sinister synths courtesy of Mrs Eleni Smith, whose work is much better integrated into the Fall sound this rime round. Hilariously, Mark accuses Steve Albini of being in collusion with the trains against him, before reminding us that our narrator is ‘still up for it.’

The song then morphs into an early krautrock monster with a bubbling bassline and swathes of shimmering cymbals. It sounds like something of one of the early Tangerine Dream albums, maybe Alpha Centauri or Atem. Three minutes or so of this and the gear shifts into a conventional, choppy descending garage riff over which M.E.S. rants against record company types – a perennial target – and it’s worth repeating this verse in full:

If they care so much, why don’t they try eating
some of those cardboard cut-outs themselves
And they stuff the complimentary catering down their neck
Do the fifth re-take of their attempt to be scruffy
On a train
And go back to counselling and communicating

There’s a really, really cool bit where the riff breaks down and cavernous drums kick in. Immensely satisfying. The track ends with a speeded up riff over which Mark self-referentially announces ‘here is the fade-out’.

Whew.

Three songs in, and we’ve already covered at least 5 genres of music. And it gets madder: I’ve Been Duped is a 2-minute bubblegum-pop tune with Eleni on vocals sounding like Nico and singing lyrics surely penned by Mark (‘two hairy men digging up Scotland.’) It’s simple, short and sweet, and the way Eleni sings, ‘I’ve been duped – HAVE YOU BEEN DUPED?!’ is, somehow, very sexy indeed.

Then comes the by now obligatory cover version – this time it’s the Groundhogs’ Strange Town. And what a, well, strange version it is; around 6 minutes long, recorded very badly in mono, with what sounds like a radio being tuned to various stations in the background. It stops the album stone dead – but once you get used to it, it becomes the album’s still point, the point of relative sanity amidst all the madness. And I get the feeling if they had recorded it ‘straight’ then it would be boring as heck. As it is, the song meanders along with its catchy riff and excellent vox from Mark. There’s a hilarious bit in the middle when the song breaks down and M.E.S. laughs and counts the band back in, and carries on. Never fails to make me smile.

Another genre-shift comes with the enigmatically (anagramatically?) titled Taurig. This sounds like nothing The Fall have ever done, whilst somehow still sounding like The Fall – a trick M.E.S. somehow still manages to pull off. If anything, this resembles something from one of the Cluster albums – another nod to 1970s krautrock. It’s dominated by Eleni’s synths and really is quite beautiful.

After Taurig, the album settles down somewhat. The last 6 tracks are all 2 or 3 minute bursts of perfect Fall pop, catchy as hell, riff-laden, funny and exciting. It’s an odd way to sequence an album – put all the weird shit up front, and the more ‘mainstream’ stuff at the back – and on initial listenings it does seem as though you are somehow listening to the album ‘backwards.’ But once you get used to it, it’s great – you leave the album exhilarated, buzzing, totally wired; immediately wanting to hear the whole thing over again.

Can Can Summer kicks off this run of fun. It’s insanely catchy, with a riff that recalls the Steve Miller band’s Abracadabra and Captain Beefheart (who else but The Fall could bring those together?). God knows what it’s about. ‘You are no dog – stop twitching,’ deadpans Mark. At one point, the music stops and he shouts: ‘My boss, he has, the imagination, of a gnat.’ Why? God knows. And – who’s M.E.S. boss? One shudders to think. Darth Vader? Davros? The wife?!

Then comes Tommy Shooter, the most identifiable Fall track on the album, cosy as fuck. A catchy ascending riff supports a driving tune over which M.E.S. shouts ominously, ‘See the clouds are darkening, with wings of chickens, they’re coming home to roost!’ and! ‘reduce your knees to noodles, your Doberman Pinschers to poodles!’ It makes perfect sense to me after 8 pints of Stella.

Then comes Latch Key Kid (the original title of the album). If there has to be a ‘worst’ track, then it’s this; but it’s not actively bad, just overshadowed by its stablemates. It’s got a beetling bassline, a catchy keyboard riff, but little else musically, and it borders on the irritating. The lyrics amuse: ‘I’m a latch key kid,’ sings Mark. ‘BABY!’ Hilarious – as if that announcement would impress the ladeez.

Is This New follows, which is absolutely fantastic, one of the best tracks here. A spiky stop-start guitar that sounds like King Crimson dominates the first section (on Words Of Expectation, a Fall song from decades ago, Mark drawls, ‘if we go on like this, we’re gonna end up like King Crimson’ – looks like it’s happened, Mark!) It ends with a marvellous infectious riff that sounds like the theme tune to a 60s cop show. It’s far, far too short – this track should have been 5 minutes not just over 2 – which is my only criticism of this album, really; that some of the songs are too short, but that’s a minor niggle.

Then comes Senior Twilight Stock Replacer, a live favourite that has been in the band’s set for well over a year. Here, it’s expanded from the thrashy shoutalong seen on stage into a swaggering beast with an extremely satisfying deep bass groove. Sing along now – Senior! Twilight! Stock Re-placer! – you can almost see the bouncing ball.

The album ends with Exploding Chimney, an odd, almost industrial thrash with weird wobbly bass interludes. Again, this could be longer, I’ll own. Here the album title is referenced – well, almost; Mark mentions a ‘universal wax solvent’ at some point. And it ends with Mark addressing the audience, his fans, the media, YOU: ‘believe me kids, I’ve been through it all.’

And that’s it. All killer, no filler. Not even the usual ‘pisstrack’ [a Fall fandom term for one of their weirder, more experimental, tuneless tracks e.g. Papal Visit, W.M.C. Blob-59, Mad.Men-Eng.Dog, Crew Filth, Tragic Days, Symbol of Mordgan, etc. Go on, look ‘em up!], though maybe the contrariness of Strange Town goes some way to redress this (if redress it be; some Fall fans hate pisstracks, others love them. Guess which camp I am in? MOLLUSC!).

After one listen I knew this was a fantastic album, certainly – at the very least – immediately entertaining. I was suspicious at first, as, often, what seems appealing on initial acquaintance can quickly become annoying [Ting Tings, I’m looking at you]. Not in this case: this is the best Fall album, in this reviewer’s opinion, since Levitate. Many Fall fans consider 2003’s Real New Fall L.P. to be the last Fall pinnacle; I disagree, it’s a fine album but far too clean and unadventurous to really ignite this Fallfreak’s fire. The follow-up, 2005’s Fall Heads Roll, was frustrating, trad and tiresome in places yet brilliant in others, with a criminally awful version of Blindness. Last year’s Reformation Post T.L.C., pronounced moribund by many, was a vast improvement, featuring more experimentation, better grooves, more fun and an overall bizarreness missing from Fall albums since Are You Are Missing Winner. Imperial Wax Solvent is clearly a better album, though I will always have a soft spot for Reformation. IWS seems like a clearer, more focussed expression of the Reformation ethic; I have a suspicion that the presence of Grant Showbiz has a lot to do with this; though the ultimate responsibility is Mark’s, Showbiz is the most sympathetic Fall producer of the last decade, being responsible for The Unutterable and Real New and now Imperial Wax Solvent.

Of late Mark E. Smith has appeared to be (though can hardly really be) a ‘media darling,’ appearing in broadsheets, reading a Christmas horror story for the BBC, playing a vision of Jesus in the BBC3 comedy Ideal, reading the footie scores, appearing at literary festivals and now publishing his biography (the ghost-written Renegade). One could conjecture that, as he has reached and passed the half-century, Mark is beginning to realise that he can’t do the (for want of a better term) rock and roll thing any more, and is moving into other media – but that is, clearly, UTTER BOLLOCKS, as one listen to 50 Year Old Man will attest.

The Fall are still the main point and purpose of Mark E. Smith, and Imperial Wax Solvent is incontrovertible proof of this.

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Responses

  1. Lovely review. Like it a lot, as I like the album. I heard it before the official release, couldn’t stop myself (I have bought it, though, as I have bought all of them).

  2. Excellent review

    Feed your Fall hunger here

    https://sites.google.com/site/reformationposttpm/reformation-post-tpm

  3. sorry.. wrong comment!!1 but anyway!!! this review is pretty cool

  4. can’t shake the fall bug once it’s in you……if you haven’t already, check out the version of Latch Key Kid ‘from the vaults’ on youtube….completely good.


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