When I first heard that Jah Wobble and Keith Levene had collaborated again for the first time since 1979’s Metal Box, I was incredibly excited to hear the results, moreso than about any of the ubiquitous reunions abounding today. Those early PiL records played such a huge part of my musical development as a teenager and I’m still in awe of their dark, adventurous soundscapes twenty years later. But unlike Metal Box, the sheer abrasiveness of which I’ve only been able to take in one sitting on two occasions in all those years, I’ve now listened to Psychic Life (which features Levene playing guitar on three songs) four times in the 18 hours since I’ve got it. Had I heard this on its release in November 2011, it would’ve been my Album Of The Year. It is Excellent; what an album should sound like in this day and age. It has the elements – namely dirty synths and post-punk sensibilities – that people have been trying to get right this past decade or so, but in my opinion there’s always something missing. Here the components magically combine – the special force that’s been present in Wobble’s bass playing since the beginning and Julie Campbell (aka LoneLady)’s lovely voice, strong and expressive – to create what a modern record should be. Indeed, Wobble himself calls it a “post-punk album…with a modern sensibility” in this interesting description of how the project came about.
Opener Tightrope has that magic in spades – the killer, classic Wobble bassline over an insistent, robotic beat. Frantic neon lights bursting through deep claustrophobic shadows. In the article above, Wobble mentions that he and Campbell are both “psychogeographer(s) and long distance urban pedestrian(s)”. Campbell’s strong lead and breathy backing vocals fill the scene not just with a narrative but also convey its intensity, evoking a long pointed course through Urban Night. What impresses me most about Julie Campbell’s vocals over the course of the record is that she doesn’t show off. She doesn’t need to. A true singer, she intrinsically knows exactly what is required for each song and with graceful power and subtle inflections she delivers time and again, making each vibrant piece come alive all the more. The song Psychic Life is a spectral Juggernaut, its various parts – busy bass, another forceful beat, effected guitar figure, lush ghostly waves of sound – all majestically pulse in their given regions and when the vocal enters, it is a deep breath that carries us through to a more involved level of the psyche. What I love about this song is how the distinct parts, each seemingly on its own trajectory within the greater structure, occasionally meet and for a moment open wide vistas of melodic possibility, your ear not certain where it is going as it’s drawn towards different directions and parallel levels simultaneously. Phantasms Rise…is the closest sounding to early PiL on the record with Keith Levene providing the inventive guitarwork (at once jagged and fluid) he’s best known for over a busy yet tight rhythm section.
Feel is one of the best Pop songs of the Millenium thus far. One of those rare, magnificent Pop Moments you can lose yourself completely in; a cosmic wave of Dazzling Pop Perfection. Everything about this song is Gorgeous – the passionate lyrics and vocal delivery, the lovely melody, the shimmering octave synth, the beautifully sparkling sounds. The remix on the Psychic Life EP is possibly even better.
Ruinlust is both warm and commanding, a fuzzy melting funk groove. Again a sense of power, of majesty. Spoken word verse confidently strolls through a vast landscape flooding with lava – boiling reds, yellows and oranges – slipping into a sexily sung chorus. Slavetown Parts 1 & 2 are airier funk, complete with horns, properly sounding like the 1970’s, the real deal (putting me in mind of Herbie Hancock and early Prince). The breathy, soaring vocal once again perfectly suited to the soundtrack. Bare Square, heralded by beatbox stabs, plunges us back into the murky atmosphere we began in. An eerie sense of space as Campbell describes the location of the title to us, a heavy bass dropping in and out to move the song along between phantasmal expanses. The slow, brooding Isaura rounds off the record, a moodier counterpart to Tightrope, cementing the feeling of the journey begun there. The sparse arrangement – effected percussion, dub bass, vocals (strong and steady, a wide range of feel), solitary synth pad – nevertheless evokes a gigantic arena, looming overcast and shadowy.
I am thrilled with this record. I wasn’t expecting it, or any current releases really, to be this good. Highly recommended.
2011 Cherry Red Records/30 Hertz Records