So, here is the eagerly-awaited new release from The Fierce and the Dead, their first on Bad Elephant Music, and it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate title. Whatever else might be meant by the title, the music that you’ll find here is quite rightly described as “spooky action.”
Those who were paying attention probably caught the effusive note that I wrote for Progarchy back in May, just after I had really discovered TFATD. I was ushered into this sound-world from the antechamber of guitarist Matt Stevens’ solo recordings (apparently, just as Matt himself fell into TFATD). Do you remember that scene from the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door from the spooky (artfully unsettling) black-and-white Kansas landscape onto the spooky (attractive, but even more unsettling?) color landscape of Oz? That first experience was, for me, that powerful, that attractive, and that blissfully unsettling.
Does Spooky Action live up to the expectation set by its predecessors? No. “Live up to” is (if I may resort to somewhat technical language here) totally lame. What we have in the music of TFATD, and what shines as brightly as we might have hoped on this new set, is the spooky action that is music-making. Not just writing songs and playing them. Not just outstanding playing (though it certainly is that too). The music that these guys make is a sort of alchemy, transforming sonic base metals into gold. Gold, that is, of the sort that gives in just the right way when you give it a trial bite.
Naturally, a number of earlier influences make themselves known in these tracks. As with earlier TFATD, I hear the sort of minimalist spirit that made its way so strikingly from Steve Reich into the early XTC. I hear the grungy (not grunge, but grungy) soil-like qualities of early 1970’s King Crimson. I hear collages of textured audio drawn from some of the same esoteric tomes consulted earlier by Sonic Youth. But what makes the musical action here so spooky is the alchemical feel, the je ne sais quoi that makes the sounds you are hearing music in the deepest and richest sense. Rhythmic complexity doesn’t come across here as contrived, as “lookie what we can do that isn’t 4/4,” but as a breathless invitation to join the band in an invigorating dip into a pool of ecstatic expression. The making of music should be a spooky action, and here it is so.
Do any of the tracks on Spooky Action have weaknesses? Limitations? Faults? I bet I could find some if I keep listening. But some music gives up its weaknesses early on, and having listened to Spooky Action twice now, it gives with an open, immediate generosity and profundity that outshines about everything new that I’ve heard lately, except perhaps the very different but equally enthralling sounds of Big Big Train. If the first listens are considered as a surface, at which I splash tentatively, gently lowering my face into the liquid warmth, then I see no immediate evidence that it has a bottom. There’s no measure for its depth available to the naked ear.
Having some familiarity with prior work by TFATD and by Matt Stevens, I suspect that one of the main ingredients in its depth is an overt avoidance of excess gravity. (Hmm. Can an avoidance be overt? I think it is here.) This is music that reaches the depth and richness it reaches precisely because it does not take itself too seriously. These guys are having fun, and that’s one of the keys to their achievement of a nearly perfect level of seriousness. The shortness of the tracks (especially by prog standards) enhances the intensity of the fun but fierce and deadly seriousness.
At a time when a fair amount of good music is being released at a fairly steady rate, The Fierce and the Dead have already made recordings that stand out, and by my initial listenings, Spooky Action is no disappointment. Matt Stevens, Kevin Feazey, Steve Cleaton and Stuart Marshall are an amazing unit.
Listen to it! And in case you haven’t seen it yet, here again is their delightful video for “Ark”: