Graded on a Curve:
This Heat, This Heat, “Health and Efficiency” EP, Deceit

On the list of compulsory post-punk, This Heat’s records reside near the very top. However, the music of the trio formed in January of 1976 in Camberwell, South London is more aptly described as a riveting and widely influential plunge into the then largely uncharted realms of experimental rock. The two albums and an EP they released prior to breaking up in 1982 present a stimulating interweaving of genre and technique; in the years since the sounds haven’t aged a bit. On January 22 Modern Classics Recordings offers vinyl editions of This Heat, “Health and Efficiency” and Deceit. They’re available through Light in the Attic separately or in a cost-effective bundle.

For nearly their entire existence, This Heat consisted of vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Charles Bullen, Charles Hayward, and Gareth Edwards. Prior to formation Hayward had the most experience, serving in Mal Dean’s Amazing Band and for a few moments in the enduring space-prog entity Gong. He made his recording debut as part of Quiet Sun, playing on Mainstream from 1975 while contributing to band member Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head the same year.

Hayward first teamed with Bullen circa ’74 in the outfit Radar Favourites; other participants included Geoff Leigh (Henry Cow), Jack Monck (Syd Barrett, Delivery), and G.F. Fitz-Gerald (of the cult item Mouseproof). Archival material by Radar Favourites surfaced in 2010 on Reel Recordings, though it’s currently out of print and Bullen’s not on it. The pair was also in Dolphin Logic; upon meeting Williams, This Heat sprang to life.

The primary roles were Hayward on drums, Bullen on guitar, and Williams on bass, and the three eventually settled into their Cold Storage recording space, so named as it was a converted meat locker, and took a studio-based approach to experimentation (a whole mess of live boots do exist, though); this activity is often cited as a harbinger/early example of post-punk, but as reinforced by the ’76-’77 demos, work which resulted in their first airplay via John Peel (their sessions for the DJ are highly enlightening), from the outset there was hardly anything punk in This Heat’s constitution.

Instead, as detailed through Hayward’s activities above they leaned closer to a prog lifestyle, and Krautrock in particular. There was really nothing rudimentary about them, nor did they complicate a model of simplicity; heavily invested in tape manipulation/looping and impacted by dub and African music (they collaborated early on with Ghanaian percussionist/flautist Mario Boyer Diekuuroh), unlike myriad instances from the punk and post-punk arenas, This Heat interacted with their influences fairly subtly, a quality that didn’t curb an aptitude to connect with blunt force.

In terms of the era, they rub shoulders pretty nicely with Throbbing Gristle and Nurse with Wound (and in fact made the legendary Nurse with Wound list) without especially sounding like either, and they’ve inspired a roughly comparable cult following exhaustively served back in 2006 by the 6CD Out of Cold Storage box set.

As This Heat continue to be valued more for the span of their output than for a solitary release the collection was a savvy acquisition, but here, just a few months shy of a decade later the band’s three most important studio efforts are obtainable singly or as a group and are poised to alter consciousness anew.

Arriving on David Cunningham’s Piano label in 1979, This Heat remains startling today in how it anticipates developments of two decades hence and for how thoroughly unmoored it is to the period of its making. Bookended by two audio markers titled “Testcard,” the second leading into a locked groove finish, its proper opener “Horizontal Hold” is a fiesta of room-rattling avant-rock laced with noisy flourishes predicting an explosion of likeminded expression from the ‘90s and further interweaves attributes boldly foreshadowing the phenomenon of post-rock.

Loaded with flailing yet methodical guitar and a thunderous rhythmic attack, “Horizontal Hold” never lingers in one place for too long and its redirections are executed with surgical proficiency. The similarity to post-rock gets strengthened during side one’s final cut, “Twilight Furniture” a fascinating study in precisely delivered nervous tension that gives way to a concluding passage of Bullen’s viola.

In between is “Not Waving,” its slow-drift of abstraction transforming into a lament, a relationship to a canonical poem by Stevie Smith highlighted by buoy-like bell clangs and tones reminiscent of a ship’s horn, while “Water” underscores a background in free improvisation. Both add considerably to a rare level of creative dimension, debut status raising This Heat’s impressiveness substantially, but side two’s opener would basically insure the disc’s importance all by itself.

“24 Track Loop” is so prescient of ‘90s electronic sub-genres a la jungle that it’s frankly uncanny, the justly celebrated piece rendering a whole bunch of subsequent musical action significantly less groundbreaking. Perhaps not as remarked upon are the following series of entries essentially leaving conventional song structure in the rear view mirror; “Diet of Worms” again suggests free improv, “Music Like Escaping Gas” conjures a chilling atmosphere, and “Rainforest” investigates the intersection of early Industrial and abstract noise.

“The Fall of Saigon” offers tunefulness and in due course rising guitar squall blending into the second “Testcard”; the name refers to the patterns television stations once transmitted at the start and end of the broadcast day, and the title and placement on This Heat bring an appealingly ambiguous conceptual angle to the fore. Hypothetically, the other selections might represent programming (“Horizontal Hold” actually pertains to an image control function of analog TV sets), and the locked groove ending possibly symbolizes a viewer asleep on a couch as the TV hovers in sign-off mode.

1980’s EP “Health and Efficiency” (also for Piano) revealed them inching toward the post-punk playground as it underlined essential uniqueness; holding only two tracks, the a-side’s title cut begins with a gorgeous guitar figure as This Heat launch into rock territory simultaneously eclectic and accessible. Once established, they redirect into a midsection of trim repetition and sound layers, a finely calibrated Krautrock engine bursting forth and then giving way to a loose coda and fadeout.

Totaling eight minutes, a length is at odds with post-punk’s general retention of brevity, and its flip “Graphic/Varispeed” nearly doubles the duration as it undertakes a hearty exploration of a drone scenario that stressed their reality as experimenters and doubtlessly irked a portion of the (admittedly then minuscule) audience as a waste of time, the band’s encouragement to play it at four different RPMs likely instilling thoughts of a lack of seriousness in some observers.

Time has vindicated “Graphic/Varispeed” as a prelude to a sizeable amount of ensuing underground motion, and by comparison Deceit is easier to peg to 1981 in large part through sharpened political content, specifically the threat of nuclear warfare. Far from severing prog affiliations, This Heat became ensconced in a punk friendly wing amongst Can, Henry Cow, Art Bears and Robert Wyatt, with whom they shared a label.

The association with Rough Trade is indicative of a heightened, though far from anti-climactic, post-punk sensibility; for heavy-duty fans of the Pop Group, Gang of Four, the Raincoats (Hayward drummed on their Odyshape LP) and the early work of Adrian Sherwood, Deceit will be the most immediately rewarding entry in This Heat’s discography.

Much of the record exudes anxiety in line with its subject matter, but opener “Sleep” reveals an ability to enter a neighborhood in the vicinity of pop song craft, though that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close the norm then or now. Landing securely in the midst of the post-punk upheaval, “Paper Hats” retains multi-tiered prog facets nodding to stylistic descendent math-rock. It leads into “Triumph,” a mix of improv, DIY and vocals bringing God Bless-era Red Crayola to mind.

It markedly contrasts with “S.P.Q.R.,” its near breakneck momentum counterbalanced by well-controlled tandem vocals, a tactic carried over into the post-rock environs of “Cenotaph.” Beginning side two in apocalyptically tribal mode, the sub-two minute length of “Shrink Wrap” additionally points toward increased concision that’s accentuated by the almost as brief avant-garde spurt and clamor of “Radio Prague.” Interestingly, where many of This Heat segments flowed together, approximately the same percentage of Deceit registers as methodically spliced.

The transition into the barely contained rage and menacing aura of “Makeshift Swahili” is a notable exception. Lending the LP a standout, it couples well with the rhythmically massive and crisply electric “A New Kind of Water.” Between them, “Independence” reasserts the interest in global sounds amid a recitation of the USA’s founding document.

It’s a risky maneuver greatly intensifying the punkish thrust; hearing it, Hayward’s reported drumming with Crass is rendered unsurprising. But the attitude never feels tacked on (rather, This Heat’s tenor seems honed by current events), and Deceit culminates with the generous collage of “Hi Baku Shyo (Suffer Bomb Disease).”

Ending abruptly, it completes the least enigmatic of This Heat’s releases on a note of sonic mystery, in the process cinching up an effectively unimpeachable three album run. For adventurous ears this is simply mandatory listening.

This Heat:
A+

“Health and Efficiency”:
A

Deceit:
A

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