Graded on a Curve:
This Heat,
Made Available, Repeat / Metal, Live 80 – 81

Although sometimes fairly tagged as post-punk, the best way to describe UK groundbreakers This Heat is as experimental rock at its apex of quality. Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams and drum anchor Charles Hayward, they cut two albums and an EP across a six-year existence from 1976-’82, all of them masterful, and in early 2016, all reissued on wax by Modern Classic Recordings. But of course, there was more, and the same label’s fresh releases of Made Available, Repeat / Metal, and Live 80 – 81 complete a welcome return to vinyl for the 2006 6CD retrospective boxset Out of Cold Storage. This second installment is out now with distribution by Light in the Attic.

This Heat didn’t get a record out until 1979 (through the Piano label of Flying Lizard David Cunningham), but even decades hence, that self-titled debut continues to formulate visions in my mind’s eye of dropped jaws and of listeners at the time of its release (the few that bought it, anyway) asking themselves from whence this sound came. Naturally, This Heat didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Instead, the LP’s sound was developed in a dormant London factory building utilized as a practice space and studio (and dubbed Cold Storage by the band).

Folks who tuned in regularly to John Peel’s show in 1977 might’ve gotten a taste of what was in store, as This Heat recorded two sessions for the Brit DJ at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in March and October of that year, with the respective initial broadcasts in April and November. Those eight selections are the contents of Made Available, and if the early versions of well-known tracks are not as massively killing as what hit in ’79, they don’t miss by much, and the collection still shapes-up as quite a doozy.

That’s in part because half of the slate is unique to Made Available. Additionally, the whole articulates the group’s art-prog-kraut foundation a little more clearly, as the playing of clarinet in “Sitting” further underlines a fleeting affinity for/ similarity to free improv, and the chamber-collage abstraction of “Slither” highlights why they were included on the now legendary Nurse with Wound list.

Don’t get the notion that the early versions are embryonic. To the contrary, “Horizontal Hold” is essentially fully formed, if not as aggressive rhythmically and with the keyboards and electronics somewhat foregrounded; the reality is that the gripping opening section of the song as heard on the LP is nearer to its bootlegged demo version (and in fact might be the same recording), which predates (and reportedly helped secure) the sessions for Peel. Anybody who loves the LP version of the song will cherish the distinct attributes of the take on Made Available.

Along with “Not Waving” and “The Fall of Saigon,” “Horizontal Hold” is one of three Peel tracks, all cut during the March session, that helped to shape the brilliance of that first LP, while “Makeshift Swahili” from the October date eventually made it onto Deceit, their second full-length, which was issued by Rough Trade in 1982.

Their first recorded pass at “Makeshift Swahili” isn’t quite as out-there as the one that came later, though its longer duration is striking, as is the aura of menace that enlighteningly registers as mildly reminiscent of (if not deliberately descended from) prime early King Crimson. And if it seems a tad unusual that a song dating from 1977 didn’t hit wax until five years later, keep in mind that labels weren’t wearing out Cold Storage’s doorknocker (if such a device the building had) in hopes of releasing their stuff. This Heat were far from an ordinary union, obviously in sound, but also in operation.

That uniqueness was manifest in numerous if not myriad ways. For one example, few outfits with such a high ratio of instrumentals have used vocals so strikingly. The vintage and robustness of the material on Made Available also drive home that describing This Heat as post-punk is a matter of ease in categorization rather than astuteness in classification, an attribute they share with Pere Ubu.

However, maybe the largest part of This Heat’s individualism was simply connected to their mode of operation, specifically their diligence in studio craft in an era where finesse was often cast aside as synonymous with professionalism. There is nothing basic about them, but in contrast to a large portion of the prog scene, their thing wasn’t about elevated technique but meticulousness in construction.

This didn’t present a natural fit for gigging, but as Live 80 – 81 makes plain, hit stages they did, with the album’s contents compiled from European shows in Tilburg, Nijmegen, Århus, Apeldoorn, Vienna, and Rheims and constructed by Hayward and Bullen (Williams died of cancer in 2001) around the set list used for the tour; unsurprisingly, “Horizontal Hold” begins the record (it’s a perfect opener), and also expectedly, five of the eleven tracks are from Deceit, including “Makeshift Swahili.”

The adherence to the set list is important in elevating Live 80 – 81 as a document, since the audio quality, drawn from cassette recordings using a stereo microphone placed near the soundboard, is something less than sharp. Still, the sound is clearer than the handful of bootlegs that have floated around over decades, and if not as throttling as This Heat’s studio material (it’s definitely not the place for newbies to start), it’s a wholly necessary addition to their catalog.

This leaves us with the first of the posthumous releases, as Repeat / Metal appeared via These Records in 1993, while Made Available emerged three years later and Live 80 – 81 arrived in 2006 as part of the abovementioned box set and also separately. If the Peel sessions foreshadow the debut and the performance material is a hefty plunge into the latter portion of their lifespan, the two tracks shaping Repeat / Metal, each over 20 minutes long, are most closely related to 1980’s “Health and Efficiency” EP, even as it’s righty described as the group’s third proper album.

But this is all in terms of their own singular discography. “Repeat,” which is an extended reworking of “Health and Efficiency”’s A-side “24 Track Loop,” landed in ’93 as a splendid counterpart (a retort, perhaps) to the emergence of post-rock, that track and the gamelan-inspired Gareth Williams-spotlight “Metal” reinforcing This Heat as a prime influence on that evolution of genre.

Even as is does launch from the progressions of “Health and Efficiency,” the excursions of Repeat / Metal evince nary a trace of a band repeating themselves (or even struggling not to), instead registering as distinct from their prior releases, while also in no way connecting as a strained attempt at integration into a musical landscape that had (but only partially) caught up to them.

It’s the least galvanizing of This Heat’s records, but its depths are considerable, especially when absorbed chronologically. With this latest round of reissues, experiencing it is easier than ever for vinyl aficionados; those whose internal fire is stoked by the intersection of rock and experimentation need to hear it all.

Made Available
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Repeat / Metal
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Live 80 – 81
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