The Membranes had always been on my peripheral vision and having been around since 1977 well they should have been. However after seeing them a couple of years back supporting Killing Joke founding member and Louder Than War head honcho John Robb got in touch kindly sending me their last couple of albums ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’ and ‘Inner Space/Outer Space’ for review. It was about time I gave them a good listen and really enjoyed what I heard. Naturally when a download for their brand new album ‘What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away’ popped up I was quick to download it. I have noted that the band have been playing some pretty high profile shows including a 20 piece choir recently and one can always look at them as being ambitious far beyond their formative post-punk beginnings. That is a word you can certainly use here as Nature is a whopping album with a wealth of ideas spanning 16 tracks and well over an hours-worth of music. Through this epic journey be prepared for a host of wonders such as the BIMM choir on many of the numbers, Chris Packham adding to the narrative sources after getting plenty of recent and unfortunate attention from animal abusing scum recently, Kirk Brandon of Spear Of Destiny, The Pack etc English folk singer Shirley Collins and punk priestess Jordan. Talk about keeping you on your toes.
What I love about this album is the sheer wealth of ideas and the volume of styles the band fit in across the tracks, still allowing it to run cohesively and make sense. In fact despite everything I found it a surprisingly easy album to get into and begin to dissect. There are obviously songs that have stuck quicker than others and its some of these I am looking to highlight here. Jagged guitars, hefty drum beats and a patella of harmonious vocals take us in to this ‘Strange Perfume.’ The backbone is gothic guitar structures, brooding bass and Robb’s near whispered vocals over choral parts and what descends into a tribal bombast. It’s loud, proud and rabble rousing, a call to arms and a great introduction for what is to come. The title track sets up the fact this is an album with a message and a narrative, there’s some orchestral parts broadening the sound and no doubt with the full release and having the opportunity to follow the lyrics you will be rewarded with the full scope of a band who always have an interesting story to tell. After ‘A Murder Of Crows’ gives us a boisterous junkyard brawl complete with sneering vocals sounding like Mark E Smith having run out of booze we get ‘The City is an Animal (Nature Is Its Slave)’ a literary sounding monologue sounding like a classic novel being read to us. This is highly effective almost Burroughs like as it tells its tale over a jazz like dubby soundtrack.
It’s really hard talking through this and not mentioning every track as mood, atmospheres and styles are constantly changing and each and every number has something to say and its own distinct personality. If you have been around as long as the band you will find yourself dipping back into the past easily via the Clash like vocals on ‘The 21st Century Is Killing Me’ and the bass tones of Black Is The Colour where I literally had to pinch myself and see if Jean-Jacques Burnel had been roped in for a guest spot (he hadn’t). Longest track ‘The Ghosts of Winter Stalk This Land’ is one to totally lose yourself in and takes another direction back to the dub laden dancehalls of the past, punky reggae parties from The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite and Killing Joke are stirred in the memory from this heady trip. Chris Packham gives us an important lesson narrating ‘Winter (The Beauty and Violence of Nature)’ and after that cold slap round the face ‘Nocturnal’ and its pumped up message to “dance, dance, dance” comes as welcome relief and no doubt will be a highlight live. Last number Pandora’s Box really sums up what this album is all about and without meaning to be clichéd open it up and you will discover all sorts of wonders.
What Nature Gives… is an album to enjoy on many levels, treat it with respect or you may like nature itself get bitten but it is recommended to breathe in its strange perfume; intoxication awaits.
(8.5/10 Pete Woods)