Graded on a Curve:
The Membranes,
Dark Matter/Dark Energy

The Membranes are back. Breaking a silence that dates back to 1993’s brilliant Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, the abrasive pioneering post-punk outfit—their angular songs have lots of jagged edges for you to cut yourself on—has just released a new LP. Like the band’s earlier work, 2015’s Dark Matter/Dark Energy is dissonant and angry.

How angry? Well, on what amounts to a concept album, they’re railing against nothing less than the entire Universe. Talk about going after big game. Personally, I’m happy to find myself in the company of people who find the Universe as inexcusably repellent as I do. As vocalist John Robb says so well on the Captain Beefhearteque “21st Century Man,” “I feel everything/And it disgusts me!” In short, Dark Matter/Dark Energy is less vinyl than vitriol, and to quote the Rolling Stones, I like it.

Founded in Blackpool England in 1977, the band’s only original member is Robb, who in addition to singing plays bass, strings, and keyboards. Its other members include Nick Brown (guitars, pianos, Hammond, brass), Peter Byrchmore (guitars, strings, keyboards, elbow), and Rob Haynes (drums, metal percussion). The Membranes have an amazing ability to leap from genre to genre—some industrial here, some Fall-like crank rock there, and some fantastic percussion-heavy funk (see “Space Junk”) over there. Why, they’ve even included a song—“5776 Breathing Song”—that uncomfortably reminds me of The Alan Parsons Project. (Hey, nobody’s perfect.) And in keeping with their concept, one track features a scientist explaining the secrets of the universe (see “The Multiverse Suite”).

From the opening (and ominous) guitars of “The Universe Explodes Into a Billion Photons of White Light,” you know you’re listening to something special. Especially when the heavy chanting moan takes over, like a Gregorian chant from some distant galaxy. The percussion is smashing, the chanting grows louder, and the guitars continue to provide a prodigious din, until you’re beaten and bloody and totally unprepared for the spacey and bass-heavy “Do the Supernova,” an irresistibly catchy tune on which the guitar plays percussive flurries of notes while Robb sings “Go cat go!” before breaking into the chorus, “Do the Supernova.” Robb practically whispers the verses, then sounds maniacal on the choruses, and this one is destined to be a hit on Mars, I guarantee it.

“21st Century Man” is so much angry caterwaul, from Robb’s opening gibberish to the spastic funk that makes it so great. Robb sounds deranged, enraged, and ready to go off, and I love the simple piano lines that interject themselves into what I think is the best song of 2015. “Money Is Dust” is quieter, a long and funky dance tune on which Robb’s vocals are front and center. A quiet and reverb-laden guitar, some muted but excellent clockwork drumming, the occasional keyboard—all provide the perfect backdrop for Robb’s entreaties to “Dance to the static of the radio.” And on it goes, long after Robb has finally fallen silent, the sound of an eternal groove from some far-off white dwarf.

“The Multiverse Suite,” with its lecture backed by eerie sound effects and percussion, is followed by the great “Space Junk,” which could have just as well have been entitled “Space Funk.” It features a black hole of a bass, an abrasive guitar riff, and some cool percussion, over which Robb comments on what we’ve got floating around us way up there: “What was once the future/Is now high-tech trash.” “Do you want to take a ride/Across the empty sky?” he asks before some weird space squiggles come in, followed by a short guitar solo and a keyboard solo that has The Fall written all over it. Also the best song of 2015!

“Dark Matter” opens with a strange mélange of space noises, and slowly comes into focus, thanks to piano and drums. Very atmospheric this one, and a million miles away (not so far in space terms, really) from “21st Century Man” and “Space Junk.” It has a vague Krautrock vibe to it, especially when the distorted guitar and distant voices enter and proceed to take you on a journey to the center of the nearest black hole. As the song proceeds the pace slowly picks up, and if this isn’t on your LSD mix tape yet, it soon will be as it comes to an end in a series of mini-crashes.

“If You Enter the Arena, Be Prepared to Deal with the Lions” is every bit as cool as its title; a scorcher, it opens with frenzied vocals by Robb and a jarring but exhilarating guitar riff before exploding into a stone righteous rocker with Robb repeating the title and the guitar playing one super-spastic solo that I can’t hear often enough. “Deal with the lions,” repeats Robb, until the song ends and we’re “In the Graveyard.” It’s one dark tune and crawls ominously along, Robb crying out like John Lydon at one point, and come to think of it this baby wouldn’t sound out of place on Public Ltd’s Metal Box. Robb is backed by a throbbing rhythm section and some very twitchy guitar as he sings, “Ashes to ashes/Dust to dust/In the graveyard,” then delivers another nerve-wracking scream. The song then picks up volume and drones on and on, an eternity six-feet deep, as the guitarist engages in some great distorted pyrotechnics and an organ follows it. I suspect you’ll want to leave this one off that LSD mix tape of yours, unless you’re looking to find yourself being led through the local cemetery by your dead grandmother. In short, it would be a bummer.

“Hail to the Lovers” is a short but fast blast that doesn’t really fit on the album. It’s all go, go, go, then segues into a maelstrom of guitars before abruptly running into a brick wall. I don’t know how to describe follow-up “Magic Eye (To See the Sky)” except that it features an exotic guitar riff that flows and flows, while Robb sings unintelligibly. There’s a noise like a giant fly, some percussion that is as exotic as the guitar, and all I can really say is that it’s catchy and beautiful, a hiatus from rage, maybe even the band’s idea of Heaven. As for “5776 (The Breathing Song)” it’s a panting paean to the seventies sound of the Alan Parsons Project, what with its robotic vocals and slow, droning keyboards. It doesn’t excite me much, but it is strangely captivating, and I don’t think I’ll skip over it when I listen to the LP again.

“Dark Energy” is a mid-tempo mélange of sounds and rhythms; it starts slowly, then breaks free of its bonds and picks up speed, the quintessential post-punk song. The guitar is great, and carries the song along before degenerating into full-bore distortion, at which point Robb wades into the noise to sing, “All I can see is a dark energy/All I can feel is a dark energy.” After which the song slows, the guitarist twitches out, and some exotic strings soar above it all, accompanied by what sounds like a mechanical bird. Then the band returns at Warp 10 (for all you Star Trek geeks), with the guitar building and building until the whole thing comes to a crashing halt.

LP closer “The Hum of the Universe” opens with Robb’s deceased father talking about the universe, then slowly takes shape around a throbbing bass. After that it goes freaky industrial on your ass, with some fantastic distorted guitar and drums that sound like they were played by the ghost of John Bonham. Robb makes it clear that death is the “hum of the universe,” a phrase he repeats over again, along with the portentous line, “Ashes to ashes/Dust to dust/All cause flesh turns to rust,” or something like that. At which point the band freaks out again. Finally a droning keyboard accompanies Robb as he repeats, “Hum of the universe,” until a squall of space noise takes the song out.

The Membranes’ return to making music should be a cause for celebration for anyone interested in catchy but challenging post-punk and industrial noise. I consider Dark Matter/Dark Energy one of the top four or five best LPs I’ve heard all year, and it’s a great gateway to their older material, which started with the wonderful 1982 single, “Muscles” and their 1983 debut LP, Crack House. I feel like I’ve stumbled into Fort Knox, and am surrounded by gold, and I can hardly wait to explore their entire body of work. They’ve covered a lot of stylistic territory over the course of their career, and here’s hoping that they’ll continue to push the boundaries of sound. They’ve gone to the ends of the Universe on Dark Matter/Dark Energy. As an amateur astrophysicist with some truly impressive Space Invaders scores and a frayed Shigeru Miyamoto t-shirt to prove it, it will be interesting to see if they can go further. I, for one, am betting they can.


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