The Student Playlist

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REVIEW: The Fall – ‘Sub-Lingual Tablet’ (Cherry Red Records)

Front cover of 'Sub-Lingual Tablet'

Front cover of ‘Sub-Lingual Tablet’

by Ed Biggs

Seriously, what’s actually left to say about The Fall? The countless line-up changes, the on-stage fights, the record number of Peel sessions… it’s all been documented on so many occasions. But the brilliance of The Fall is that, while there may be little new to say about them in 2015, its leader Mark E Smith always seems to have something new to say about the world around him: a Britain that he didn’t really like the look of back in the ‘70s as a young man and which now, in his late fifties, seems to justify all that cynicism he’s been lobbing from the sidelines of the indie and pop worlds for thirty-eight years and nearly as many albums. This far into their career, what that Fall fans are reasonably expecting of Smith is lower than in their ‘80s heyday – it’s much more about whether Sub-Lingual Tablet, their 31st LP, is a fitting addition to a flawed yet utterly compelling body of work, not whether it’s another Bend Sinister.

From the point of view of most of their oldest fans, they’ll be glad to know that MES is back to his usual method of vocal delivery, though in some places he has retained the unnerving growling, gargling noise he seemed to have adopted over the last couple of albums. As far as any central theme goes, Smith seems to be taking aim at the prevalence of social media and technology in our lives. But Sub-Lingual Tablet belongs firmly in the bottom third of the grand list of Fall albums, bringing very little in the way of new sounds to the table and yet suffering notably from a lack of consistency to compensate for it. The bass rumbles steadily, the keyboards carry the tune, snaking in and out of the mix, while Smith grumbles, mutters and hollers impenetrably away in the foreground. Luckily, there’s just enough classic moments to prevent it from being as forgettable as the listless Ersatz GB (2011).

Things start in ebullient fashion, as ‘Venice With The Girls’ snorts into life with its grungey, dirty garage rock riff. The addition of a second drummer, Daren Garratt, seems to have bolstered the noise-making capabilities of the band. However, some of these harder, louder moments seem to be affected by a lack of direction, as if the noise is disguising a lack of content or forgettable tune. ‘First One Today’ busily announces itself and then departs having left no impression, and the initially promising ‘Facebook Troll’, with a hypnotic, buzzing keyboard riff, tails off disappointingly, and ‘Snazzy’ bafflingly fades out mid-lyric. The irritating, pointless racket of ‘Pledge’ is the worst offender.

Strangely, Sub-Lingual Tablet is at its best when the band lays off the garage-punk thrash, which somehow sounds more dulled and smoothed-over than on recent Fall records, and allows Eleni Poulou’s idiosyncratic synth tones to dictate the terms of the music. Take the delightful oddity of ‘Black Roof’, full of keyboard effects whizzing and banging around the mix, or the moody, menacing atmosphere she lends ‘Dedication Not Medication’. That’s not to say none of the garage rock moments work – the second drummer works very well on the tremendous stomp of ‘Junger Cloth’, and the hilarious ‘Stout Man’, apparently an altered cover of Stooges rarity ‘Cock In My Pocket’, sees Smith scowl and rant over a dirty blast of punk energy – “a big fat man pushing a little pram!” he observes incredulously.

The highlight of the set is unquestionably the ten-minute ‘Auto Chip 2014-2016’, on which Smith and his band take the time to explore an idea together rather than just brain-dumping onto record. Despite the amusing potshots Smith takes at people addicted to technology (“why don’t you just quit that phone / why don’t you just live alone?” he snarls disparagingly on closer ‘Quit iPhone’) and the handful of indisputably great Fall moments, the overall package just isn’t as spiky or as loud as it could be. The unacceptably half-arsed artwork is a clue as to what’s specifically wrong – Sub-Lingual Tablet feels unfinished, rather than effortless. Recent Fall classics like Your Future Our Clutter and Imperial Wax Solvent felt inspired in their one-take, casual nature, but that simply isn’t the case here. It often sounds, dare I say it, a bit phoned-in? But such relative disappointments remind us of the joy of Fall fandom – you never know when they’ll be back to their very best, but they will. (5/10)

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