“I’m so sick of Snow Patrol,” bristles Mark E. Smith on “Mask Search,” in the gurgle-y growl he’s developed over the last couple Fall albums. Less familiar in his armory are the Tarzan impressions which surface later in the track. To quote the late DJ John Peel, The Fall are always the same, but always different, and it’s as true of the band’s 29th studio as it was of their second.
Smith, since The Fall’s inception 35 years ago, has reveled in sniping from the margins. As decades come and go, he becomes an ever-accumulating force against corporateness, whether targeting poor old Snow Patrol, or his latest bugbear, the computer industry and its attendant social networking jive. At one point on Erstaz G.B., he mutters angrily about “laptop ignorance” (see “Laptop Dog”) — the fact that he’s a good few years behind the pace, hardware-wise (keep up, Grandad, it’s smart phones now!) somehow renders the putdown all the more belittling.
The Fall, in its umpteenth line-up, but steady since ’07, remains staunchly analogue. Both Smith’s wife, Elena Poulou, and guitarist Peter Greenway conjure sounds of the most primordial kind: Even in the album’s one wistful moment, the delicate indie-pop of “Happi Song,” to which Mrs Smith contributes wondering, Nico-esque lead vocals, a filthy-dirty electric guitar strums away at its core, while Poulou adminsters strange, retro-futurist blooping noises.
After Smith’s longest-serving henchmen quit in the late ’90s, the band abdicated from its often joyless experimental high ground and returned to garage-rock basics, with an ever-present tilt towards Krautrockin’ grooviness. On that ticket, opener “Cosmos 7″ launches off on a breathless high-speed motorik beat, and Greenway slashes out backstreet licks from rock & roll’s most primitive neighbourhood.
There, and on the labyrinthine “Nate Will Not Return,” the listener is invited to picture the quintet somewhere dimly lit, cramped and moldy, jamming for hours on the central rhythm, letting its pulse fluctuate and progress, until a full track’s worth of exciting stuff has occurred. Just like the group did on 1977′s “Repetition” — the same, but always different.
Smith’s wordplay, too, feels less thought-out than on, say, the convoluted gothic horror of the late ’70s gem, “Spectre vs Rector.” He remains, though, equally impenetrable and compelling. Is there, behind that withering title, a conceptual dissection of post-millennial Blighty, of David Cameron, the riots, Facebook, etc? That really is anyone’s guess. However, whether ranting about “trenches in Hounslow” (from “Monocard” — it’s a grim suburb, adjoining Heathrow airport) or the burgeoning new media which he can’t even be bothered to keep abreast of, Smith still corrals an exhilarating low-rent ruckus, second to none.