Vega in the Lyre is the second album by Hands Up Who Wants To Die.
Now in the interest of full disclosure I feel it’s my duty to tell you, dear readers, that I – the very picture of an impartial, morally unimpeachable and unbiased critic – do have a slight bias towards this band. I was present at their inception in Berlin many years ago, I lived with the guitarist and was in two bands with him over the course of seven (I think) years. Seven glorious years… well… seven years anyway (I think). I’m friends (or at least I think I am, we’ll see how they feel after this review) with the rest of the band and have seen them a whole bunch of times, gotten drunk with them more times than any of us can remember, supported them more than once and was even in a short film/work of genius with one of them.
Hands Up Who Wants To Die is a cheery name isn’t it? Yes, it’s the opening line to Sonny’s Burning by The Birthday Party and they were a band who embody everything that REM ever said about shining happy people weren’t they? Yes they’re a happy-go-lucky bunch of scamps. Civic and community minded, animal lovers and friendly to old people and kids. No really, I know them and they’re sound. No, really they are. They’re really nice, really gentle, lovely people. Seriously… they really are.
As are most goths.
Yes – I’m calling you out Clynes, Lennon, Breslin and Heddigan. This is your goth record isn’t it? You’ve been going around mentioning Edgar Allen Poe in interviews and recording records in bomb shelters in Germany. You’ve been trying to hide in plain sight keeping your goth proclivities under wraps by liking sports and cycling and being all chipper – but, as soon as you all return to your lairs, you’re hiding in the darkness listening to Bauhaus and The Cure, wearing black and re-watching Nosferateu and The Hunger aren’t you? C’mon admit it? You’re probably sitting around right now in ruffled black shirts and black suit jackets with black jeans under a black trench-coat, petting a black cat, drinking black coffee getting tattoos of bats on your tramp stamp areas, not eating anything and smoking Johnny Blue with the paper dyed black. You probably even call them Johnny Blacks don’t you? Don’t be fooled – they play it all ‘normcore” for the cameras but I heard they have a seance before every practice and try to communicate with the ghost of Robert Smith’s career.
How else do you explain making a record so inescapably dark?
Make no mistake: this is one seriously dark record. Previous effort Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo was dark, sure, but next to this it sounds like a Kylie Minogue covering Right Said Fred at Graham Norton’s birthday party.
Everything here is dark. The guitars sound like glass bottles being smashed across Bram Stoker’s headstone at midnight on a moonless night. The bass and drums are like HP Lovecraft trying to hypnotise you on a black train rolling down a black track in a tunnel to … I don’t know …eh…. Blackville, Idaho. Fuck sake. Everything here sounds like Cthulu was held down and eye fucked with black dildos carved from a fucking coffin ship.
Last time out, singer Barry Lennon was banging on about dead babies floating down canals. Although it’s hard to make out much of it here what I did manage to interpret sounded like the whole thing is a rock opera about a wrongly convicted man, sentenced to death, who survives and is sealed inside a black coffin and buried under fifty feet of pure black earth. Yeah… he’s in there scratching his life story on the black wood with his black finger nails and this is the result (okay I made the last part up but you get the idea. It’s fucking dark stuff).
To be fair can I point out now that I really like this record.
In most cases albums which are as dark as this eventually end up being a bit silly. As though the protagonists are so obsessed with producing something intentionally oppressive they eventually cast so much levity away from the project that it eventually becomes a form of self-parody. What is so impressive about Vega In The Lyre is that this doesn’t happen. In fact it’s so far from happening that it’s pretty much miraculous. This isn’t darkness for the sake of it, it’s never portentous, mercifully rarely pretentious and in spite of its darkness there’s so much energy that even if it’s never going to illicit a feeling of unbridled joy in its audience there is a palpable sense of catharsis here and that in itself is enough to make the record well worth investing time in.
What’s striking here is the sense of control. These are songs which feel as though they’ve been painstakingly constructed. In his recent documentary, goth prince Nick Cave (utterer of the original statement “who wants to die?” all those years ago) talked about songs being beasts which had to be controlled and roped in, in order to make a record. Here HUWWTD manage to find some large, stinking, hairy, brutal beasts and not just tame them, but bend them to their will. If anything this album has even more buffalo only this time out the buffalos have been designed by HR Geiger and not just controlled, but trained to do tricks. The songs here are dense and arresting, taut and well structured. The bass and drums pummel their way into you while the guitar clash and bang around over the top of it. Vocalist Barry Lennon seems to be performing a one man show, confessing something horrid one second and then accusatory the next – howling at you and generally creeping you out.
And yet there’s never a sense though that anything here is unwieldy. At thirty six minutes in length and with songs lasting anything from a minute and a half to seven minutes, nothing here is formulaic. This isn’t ‘verse – chorus – verse’ or ‘quiet bit – loud bit’. Everything here is loud – there are few choruses or hooks, and yet, it works because of the skill involved and the directness of the approach.
What carries it along is the production, every sound here is crisp and (of course) dark and jagged. Though this has the warmth of a band in a room it eschews the clinical detachment which often renders dark work such as this even more hilarious. There’s a sheen here. It’s a jagged, deftly constructed and wholly solid sculpture of a record and the production is like a coat of pitch black veneer which renders the whole thing earthy, substantial and shimmering. It’s as though the whole thing emerged from a bath of oil (oil …oil…the blackest of earthly substance…am I pushing it now with the gothic black thing?).
In the end what HUWWTD have managed here is to make something dark, foreboding and oppressive without making something utterly silly and pointless which is commendable because, lets face it, all that major chord, happy-go-lucky surf pop can really go fuck itself at this stage. This album will probably be too dark and impenetrable for some but it’s something you grow into with repeated listens. Stick it on as a soundtrack to Lektion in Finsternis and let the bad times roll!!! Then go see this band live and marvel as the singer appears behind you screaming.
If anything Vega in the Lyre is more of what makes the band great: more energy; more power; more fucking buffalo. A band not so much at the height of its powers, but more a band discovering and revelling in its growing potential.
Vega In The Lyre is a fine record. An improvement and a step forward (although probably towards a cave).
A five buffalo album.
Or seven bats, nine black cats and six hundred and sixty six ravens. Next time I see them I expect they’ll be wearing PVC pants and leather coats. See you in Fibbers lads, I’ll buy you the blackest Buckfast they have and help you do your eyeliner.