Graded on a Curve: Imperial Wax,
Gastwerk Saboteurs

Fans of the Fall, rejoice! No (alas!) Mark E. Smith has not risen from the grave, although if anyone could do it, the loud-mouthed Mancunian could. But get this–the members of the final and longest lasting iteration of the Fall–having inexplicably declined to sacrifice themselves on Smith’s funeral pyre–have formed a band instead!

They’re Imperial Wax (swiped the name of the first Fall LP they worked on, Imperial Wax Solvent, they did) and their debut LP from Saustex Records, Gastwerk Saboteurs, is great, remarkably assured, hard-driving stuff. (And just to get the business out of the way from the start, the LP comes complete with a download card that includes the whole megillah–along with three tracks not on the LP!)

The good news? Imperial Wax is in no way, shape or form a Fall tribute band. Sure, I hear occasional echoes of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band on Gastwerk Saboteurs, but Imperial Wax shows no inclination to reproduce the Fall formula.

Hell, I’m not sure they could have if they’d tried. Mark E. Smith was every bit as irreplaceable as, say, the late great Ronnie Van Zant, and far more iconoclastic; even I could write a lame facsimile of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, but a Fall song? And as for finding somebody who approached “singing” the way Smith did, well, forget about it.

No, Imperial War–they’re Keiron Melling on drums, Dave Spurr on bass, Pete Greenway on guitar, and newcomer Sam Curran on lead vocals and second guitar–have a sound that’s all their own, and have managed to put out a defiantly strong debut LP that includes a couple of songs–both the hard-driving “No Man’s Land” and the equally aggressive “The Art of Projection” come to mind–that in a just world would go to the Top of the Pops.

Smith was both a genius and a despot, and he very uncharitably left the impression that the other members of the Fall were disposable chattel. “If it’s me and your grandma on bongos, it’s the Fall” he famously said, and to an extent he had a point.

But a glance at the credits on your average Fall album tells a different story. Over the course of the 11 years they played with Smith, Greenway, Spurr, and Melling weren’t just there to mindlessly execute Smith’s ideas. They lent a hand in the composition of many if not most of the Fall’s songs, and in so doing played an integral role in shaping Smith’s final visions.

And what they learned during the process–and gained by playing as a unit for over a decade–is on full display on Gastwerk Saboteurs. Imperial Wax bring the same brute force and pummeling power they brought to the Fall to bear on a set of songs that are (for the most part) less angular and peculiar, and more conventional in structure, than your typical Fall Toon. They’ve upped the tempos and punk rock quotient some too.

You can still hear the Fall in the clamorous “Rammi Taxi Illuminati,” on which Melling goes at the drums like a Trogg while the guitars slash away and Curran goes full-tilt punk rock on vocals. And the spastic and devastating ending (what’s making that “biggest rubber band in the universe” noise? I suspect it’s Curran on stylophone) is as monstrous as anything Smith came up with in his later years.

“Rammi Taxi Illuminati” is fucking brilliant, and that goes double for follow-up “No Man’s Land,” on which Curran, who ordinarily sounds nothing like Smith, eerily channels the spirit of Mark E. for 5-plus minutes. Sounds like the Clash on steroids, this one, and I’ll stand it up against any new song I’ve heard this year. ”Plant the Seed,” meanwhile, evokes the Fall at their distaff psychobilly maddest–Melling goes full gallop on drums while Greenway ups the reverb and Curran sings nonsense syllables, and it’s the nonsense that invokes the lingering shade of Mark E. the most.

“Barely Getting By” also shows traces of the Fall, albeit to a lesser extent; it’s there in what Smith called the “three R’s”–repetition, repetition, repetition, what with the listener getting repeatedly bludgeoned over the head by the same titanic guitar riff while Curran bellows “I’m just barely getting by” over and over again as the musical chaos threatens to engulf him. It’s heady stuff.

“Saying Nothing” is your standard post-punk by numbers fare and (aside from its heavy on the racket close) not really much to write home about; “The Art of Projection,” a dense and noisy but relatively straight ahead punk number that’ll knock you right out of your chair, is a different story altogether.

The moody and mid-tempo “Turncoat” is very, very heavy in the great Fall tradition, and sets Curran’s very up-front vocals against an edgy (and reverb-heavy) guitar riff. Meanwhile, closer “Night of the Meek” is a monster of a funk/dub instrumental, with a bottom as deep as the Marianas Tench and lots of slashing guitar.

I was excited to discover this baby, but to be honest my hopes weren’t that high; like a lot of people I suppose I bought into Smith’s “I’m the whole act” shtick. But on Gastwerk Saboteurs Imperial Wax demonstrate both formidable chops and strong songwriting skills, and by so doing emerge triumphantly from the shadow of Mark E. as a rock’n’roll band to be reckoned with on their own terms.

Imperial Wax is far, far more than just a bright and shining new act in the fabulous and never-ending story of the Fall. They’re for everybody, and that includes even your grandma on bongos.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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  • David Ames

    should have been an EP

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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