Monday, November 19, 2012

General Surgery "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" EP (Relapse): The Garlands "The Garlands" (Shelflife)

It's definitely deep autumn now, as these fleeting November days skew between last flashes of sun and pre-emptive blasts of icy air. While some prefer the full-on haze of midsummer sunshine (amply evidenced by a virtually unbroken chain of summer-lovin' new wave and indie-pop classics, still epitomised by "Here Comes The Summer"), I can't help feeling the "lazy sunbathers" are missing a trick.

This - what we have now - is optimum weather for walking, for admiring the sights, for being out and about, for indulging the beauty of nature, for sinking on to a park bench and trying to catch up with highlights from the history of recorded music (again). And yet the place we grabbed our takeout coffee from this morning was full of young people sitting on their own, breathing in air-con and staring sullenly into laptop screens. What they need are these two blasts of *absolute* fresh air, borne on the north-easterly wind... yes, after our last post repped Germany, we now shift our focus to the ever-inviting shores of Sweden.
 
One of the reasons that so many of us Brits have such love for the Swedish nation en masse, aside from fuzzily generalised notions of Scandinavian liberalism, is the way it has taken concepts birthed on our island (you know: indie-pop... metal... um, detective fiction) and then produced the definitive versions of them. This post attests to the first two: we'll wait another day to bore you with our take on Laasgård vs Henriksson, etc.
 
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Now the five fine gentlemen who make up Stockholm combo General Surgery rarely disappoint: their last outing "Corpus In Extremis - Analysing Necrocriticism" -

"15 tracks, you know, arrayed from the short-burst grindmath of "Necronomics" and "Adnexal Mass" through to the joyous five-min sludge of album pivot "Virulent Corpus Dispersement" yet perhaps peaking in sheer excitement with the fierce higher-tempo riffing of "Exotoxic Septicity" and "Restrained Remains""

- was one of our top five albums of 2009, and given that General Surgery are hardly prolific with new output, it's a happy surprise for them to deliver up a spanking five-track (orange vinyl!) 7" EP a mere three years later. And "Flying Limb" presents a neat contrast to "Corpus In Extremis": for whilst the finest song on that was an epic elegy to "Symphonies Of Sickness", this is a beezer EP notwithstanding that the whole thing lasts barely eleven minutes: the faster passages seem much more fevered, suggesting the band have consciously decided to up the blastbeats-per-minute and go for broke. Perhaps they took a listen to Napalm's "Utilitarian" and, having eventually picked up their jaws from the floor, decided to try and match its intensity.

Whatever the motivation for it, this new approach is particularly apparent from the breakneck opening of "Like An Ever-Flying Limb" itself, before the song eventually settles down into some more varied tempos. It's that title track ("no chance of reassembly!" gurns Erik Sahlstrom cheerfully) and the closing "Dark Cyanotic Hypostasis" which are the two true pearls from this selection, the ones on which General Surgery best indulge and interweave their favourite pursuits of (a) punishing, grind-imbued axe thrashing and (b) groovalicious, early Carcass-tastic riffery. Normally we're all for a full-on, hectic, hell-for-leather, neighbour-baiting racket, but this lot profit from mixing it up, twisting between the dark and light. And the guitar riff on "Hypostasis" is possibly the best we've heard on a record this year, as primeval as Wolfhounds' "Skullface", as frankly danceable as the hook to Coldworker's "Monochrome Existence".

Not that our plaudits for those two songs should be seen as a dis to the remaining melodies: "Rhythmic Epidermal Clamor" starts with one of those brief, rushing bass-led intros which we particularly adore ici at le palais d'in love with these times, in spite of these times before ploughing its way through a minute and a quarter of sizzling metallic din; the hurtling "Seizures" is one of their shortest songs (and titles!) but veritably thrills for all 40 of its Earth seconds; and the remaining longer tune, "Ejected Viscous Mucus", suffers really only by comparison to the majesty of the title song, which it follows.

The all-round production of the EP, like the LP, is satisfyingly strong (we know that abysmal production is oft-viewed in goregrind circles as merely an occupational hazard, something that just goes with the territory; but unlike black metal or some lo-fi indie subgenres where poor production rather adds to the charm, we've not sure that anybody benefits from groups who can actually play drowning in the sludgy quicksand of a cheap mix).

Of course, though, General Surgery aren't really goregrind (not least as goregrind is a bit rubbish, really): the lyrical themes remain medical, so are "gory" in the sense thatany NHS treatment table might make even the strong-of-stomach turn a touch queasy - albeit that the concept of the words and samples on this EP is about how *death* is essentially a medical condition, albeit a rather severe and irreversible one - but the music is a still-irresistible combination of Swedish death and British grind influences, as you might expect, with ye olde Steer / Walker / Owen-worship still at its core. A delightful little record.

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And then there are the Garlands. The Garlands rule, rule hard. Remember their half of that Atomic Beat EP ?
 
"two absolute zingers, songs so storming that they could fell trees and boundary fences for miles around"

Not to mention that excellent single on Big Pink Cake last year, "You Never Notice Me". Nor their coquettishly sweet Cloudberry CD-r in 2008, which led off with the bite-sized but razor-sharp "Why Did I Trust You ?"
And now ? Shelflife, who are on fire at the moment, have released this first Garlands album. Just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it's a record born in Stockholm yet released via a US label: just like "Ever Flying-Limb", it kills, kills hard. It almost seems counter-intuitive for a band as instant, as made to make POP singles, as the Garlands to release a whole album (a whole Talulah Gosh album would never have worked, much as they were sort of the best band ever, while there's a reason that even Free Loan Investments' most sprawling work, released on Shelflife and praised on our pages a whole ten years ago, only scraped the ten-minute mark) but somehow, they've pulled it off. Indeed, in a touch of true genius, a further nod to their stellar singles pedigree, the vinyl version of this plays at 45 rpm. At 26 minutes, "The Garlands" is longer than any of the best five LPs of last year, but still probably around optimum length for an album (see also the last Math & Physics Club outing).

Over the course of a dozen scintillating tracks the newly fleshed-out five-piece Garlands, albeit still with Roger and Christin at the helm, unleash pure, merrymaking indie-pop carnage: there are melodies strewn absolutely everywhere, like rose petals. You'd expect nothing less, given Roger's track record with the unimpeachable :-) Nixon (whose new 45 on Cloudberry is pretty much perfection, btw) and those adorable Free Loan Investments, but even so this a heady and powerful brew, an elegant complement to the leaves that are tumbling down all around us this quite stunning autumn. There are versions here of both "Open Arms" and "Why Did I Trust You ?" as well as "Tell Me" from the Atomic Beat 7" and "David" from the Cloudberry 3", but there is no point in singling any particular songs out, because (alert the cliché police NOW) they would all stand comfortably as own-right singles. Um, especially "Chandeliers".

Since those earlier releases their sound is slightly slicker, as you might expect from a fully-fledged fivesome, but none of the excitement of the earlier singles has been sacrificed. Indeed, "Open Arms" is even faster out of the traps than it was before. Come to think of it, what we said about that M&PC album

"a sea of smart, shortish, melody-led numbers that show that you don't always need to slow proceedings down, or to drag them out, to extract occasionally gut-gnawing emotion"

could just as easily apply to this one, for the Garlands have risen above any temptation, à la Shop Assistants, to make every third track a glockenspiel-coated slowie. Apart from some very mild relaxation of pace on the final tune "Your Words", there's ne'er a hint of b*ll*dry, and quite right too. That's not to say that the lyrical sentiment shares the same unfailingly sunny disposition as the music: just like Free Loan Investments, there is plenty of emptiness and anger in the words, more of that "gut-gnawing emotion", if you like; indeed, we'd hazard that there's almost enough heartbreak, betrayal and desolation here to fuel a Harper Lee album. So we'd definitely cast this as an autumn record, not a summer one.

But ultimately, whatever the season and whatever's in season, "The Garlands" is still just a gurglingly brilliant album that chimes with the very best pop music from down the ages: a little gem as pristine as Christine, as gorgeous as George. Back in the '80s (and bringing it back to the brothers O'Neill) we had a phrase for this kind of thing: "manic pop thrill". It's a phrase that fits the Garlands to a tee.

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