Archive for the ‘Gang of Four’ Category

Gang of Four — What Happens Next

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Anyone who’s ever participated in a first year philosophy class would be aware of Theseus’s ship; a thought experiment that asks whether or not the eponymous trireme, with all its constituent parts replaced, can still be called the original vessel. This philosophical puzzle can be applied to the newest release from Gang of Four, an iconic band whose foundational members have slowly whittled away to the point that only guitarist Andy Gill remains. It’s a little easier to decide here than in the original scenario, because the basic components of the band haven’t entirely been replaced yet; Gill’s trademark contributions are still present, heard in familiar, single-note guitar riffs played to clattering staccato beats. The politics also remain, with songs like “Obey the Ghost” and “First World Citizen” making passionate social commentary on our consumer-focused, technologically saturated modern world. But just about everything else has changed, leaving few connections to the band that came before. Inconsistency itself is not a problem, as Gang of Four have always been experimental, but it does the question remains: are they still really Gang of Four?

“Where the Nightingale Sings” starts out strong, with the angular instrumental interplay of Gang of Four’s older work translated into funky minimalist synth rock. But by the start of “Broken Talk”, the record changes into something else, adopting a guitar and synth sound strongly reminiscent of KMFDM’s 1995 album Nihil. Guest vocals from Dead Weather/The Kills vocalist Allison Mosshart only strengthens the comparison, making the song sound like a weaker version of KMFDM’s single “Juke Joint Jezebel” but without the speed or edge. “Isle of Dogs” sounds a little better, with ringing parallel guitar riffs and poppy vocals above a grinding right-panned saw-tooth synth, and “Dying Rays” is lovely too, with miserable lyrics over soft-piano, and delicately layered electronic instruments, taking full advantage of guest vocalist Herbert Gröenemeyer’s crooning and melodic voice. “What I wanted… disappears in the haze,” Herbert sings, as Gill’s guitar riffs softly behind him. It’s a beautiful song, even if it bears little resemblance to anything the band has done before. But it isn’t particularly innovative; it’s the sort of ballad played by aging rock stars from Robert Smith to Liam Gallagher, and while it’s very nice to listen to, it’s not enough to recommend the album.

In fact, this is edging on a criticism of the What Happens Next as a whole. This feels like more of an evolution of Andy Gill’s personal creative expression rather than anything attached to the wider history of pop music or the name Gang of Four. It wouldn’t be a problem were he writing as a solo artist, but Gang of Four was always more than just Gill. His guitar work offers the album a connection to the past, but it isn’t strong enough to attach it to their legacy, and its even downplayed in a lot of cases — part of a wider shift towards a more electronic sound that characterizes this release. It wouldn’t be so bad if the sound was more original, but all of these tracks cover musical ground that should be very familiar to most listeners in 2015. This, coupled with the relative lack of connection to any of the work that came before, makes it a difficult album to really recommend, though there’s enough here to inspire some hope for the future. “Dead Souls” and “Isle of Dogs” transcend their roots in punk and electronic rock to come to an interesting convergence of the two, and the increased emphasis on harmony from the new vocalists coupled with the rattling guitar and funk influences typical to Gang of Four might lead to some interesting new developments. But right now the mixture seems a little incomplete.

What Happens Next isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t really interesting either. For a 35-year-old band whose debut album almost single-handedly re-defined many of the genre tropes of modern rock, this kind of banality is disappointing. And really, that’s the problem with the album. Gang of Four tried to do a lot of things, but they were seldom ever boring. What Happens Next is confused, naïve to its strengths, and nowhere near as innovative as it wants to be. It is simply a collection of listenable, generic rock songs pulled together into a largely forgettable album. It’s Gang of Four in almost name alone. If Andy Gill wants his solo work to live up to the band’s historic reputation, he needs to do a better job than this.

What Happens Next is out now on Metropolis Records.