Graded on a Curve:
A Certain Ratio,
ACR Loco

Starting in October of 2018 and then continuing last year, the Mancunian outfit A Certain Ratio received some well-deserved retrospective action via Mute Records, first the 2LP/ CD acr:set and then the 7LP/ 4CD ACR:BOX; now here’s ACR Loco, their first LP of new material since 2008, and it finds them in energetic and inspired form. It’s out September 25 on CD, cassette, and vinyl in a variety of colors: white, blue, red, or turquoise. The same day, the band and Mute are celebrating the release with the An Evening With ACR online event, which includes a live show from last year, a Q&A, the new album played live, and a DJ set from ACR Soundsystem. Tickets are available here.

When it comes to the combination of post-punk heft and funky dance-appropriate fervor, A Certain Ratio’s importance is commensurate with others of the same period who were dedicated to a comparable objective (e.g., ESG, Pigbag, Liquid Liquid, Konk, Pop Group, Delta 5, Gang of Four), and it should definitely be stressed that in the storied history of Factory Records, A Certain Ratio had established themselves as a highly rhythmic force prior to the recording of New Order’s first album.

However, for some, ACR’s lasting significance has been overly synopsized into the namechecking of “Shack Up,” their 1980 cover of a two-part funky-disco nugget from Banbarra, their sole single released in ’75 on the United Artists label. While “Shack Up” is indeed a whopper of a record (the original, ACR’s cover, and in some of its myriad interpolations via dance music/ DJ/ hip-hop culture since), A Certain Ratio’s career achievement has been substantially greater, as the size of ACR:BOX (comprised of singles, B-sides, rarities, unreleased material, and demos) helps to clarify.

ACR Loco is also their tenth full-length (excluding comps), though it is only the second album of new material they’ve released the 21st century. It’s suggested by bassist Jez Kerr that the boxset’s assemblage directly impacted the recording of this fresh offering, a sensible conclusion as ACR Loco incorporates sounds and styles from throughout their existence. Furthermore, the wide-ranging whole is heightened by cohesiveness and spirited execution that can be linked to the stated success of ACR’s recent tour.

“Friends Around Us” opens the record with a tense, fairly gradual pace that gets filled out with cyclical rhythms, jazzy horn textures and vocals tinged with echo, only to kick into full punk-funk gear a little over halfway through, this surge in tempo handled with the requisite precision and edge. There are also layers of electronics and flourishes of analog synth as the cut nears its finale.

The sheer potency of Kerr and drummer Donald Johnson’s attack extends into “Bouncy Bouncy,” as Denise Johnson’s vocals, an unmitigated plus across the album, help to instill a Funkadelic-like atmosphere. To elaborate, it’s a bit like Clinton’s crew circa the mid-’70s hitting the studio with mid-’80s Adrian Sherwood and then tossing in a go-go beat for good measure.

“Bouncy Bouncy” is the first in a three-song sequence that nicely articulates ACR’s approach to funkiness. “Yo Yo Gi” has a tangible if not overstated futuristic edge. Overall, it’s a solid reminder of the band’s influence upon !!! and early ’00s dance-punk in general. From there, “Supafreak” swings back toward a Sherwood-ish state of affairs, but is more purely an expression of industrial funk, complete with vocoder action (heard more than once across ACR Loco) and touches of R&B (I thought of both Rick James, obviously, but also Consolidated).

ACR Loco’s first major stylistic shift comes with the decidedly poppy “Always in Love,” though there is still enough rhythmic heft to maintain unity with the more driving cuts that surround it. The disc’s other poppish selection, “Berlin,” heard later in the sequence, is even livelier, though it’s also the nearest the record gets to synth-pop; Johnson’s singing at the end again spotlights the R&B angle.

But after time spent, the album’s strongest reassertion of A Certain Ratio’s debt to African-American musical achievement is the deep groover “Family,” which blends elements of disco, as Johnson’s vocal brings Sister Sledge to mind, with a substantial thrust of post-punk vigor, hitting the ear like an early ’80s late-No Wave affair with guest bass by Mike Watt.

There’s also no shortage of funk in “Get a Grip,” a Maria Uzor showcase but with guitarist Martin Moscrop also getting the chance to shine courtesy of some Blaxploitation-style riffing, a maneuver that deftly avoids faltering into the hackneyed. And then, in an even riskier move, the same tactic is heard in the vaguely aviation-themed, trumpet-spiked “What’s Wrong,” though as the set’s penultimate track, the disc easily survives this vague sense of repetitiveness (as opposed to repetition, which is in rampant evidence).

Pleasingly, closer “Taxi Guy” is one of ACR Loco’s most eclectic treats, blending global street-band grooves (of a sort) with emphatic drumming (and whistles!) and horns. When everything drops out except the bass, it’s clear what’s coming. But then it arrives with urgency and a touch of the unpredictable, and that’s a fine capper to a sharp record from these worthy post-punk originators.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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