Sheep on Drugs
Sheep on Drugs and Test Dept. both have recently released albums on Invisible Records, and are now together on tour. Beyond those commonalities, the two British industrial bands are strikingly different.
Test Dept. was a true pioneer of the sound collage, bang and clang school of early '80s industrial, along with fellow Brits Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. The band has remained true to its earlier use of metal-on-metal noise, but has updated its music with a judicious sprinkling of synthesizers, creating a distinctly techno sound. Sheep on Drugs, on the other hand, started out as a techno act in the early 1990s, then roughed up its sound to cross into the realm of industrial. And while a hallmark of Test Dept.'s career has been its overtly political themes and large-scale, conceptual performances, Sheep on Drugs is primarily concerned with sex, escapism and carnivalesque stage-show madness.
In the end, though, it's the supremacy of the beat that justifies examining these two groups together. The Sheep on Drugs encountered on Double Trouble is a schizophrenic one, as the album actually comprises two previously released British EPs, Suck and Strapped for Cash. The former makes up the first half of Double Trouble, and it's a bit of a disappointment. Despite solid disco and jungle beats well into the 150-to-170 beats per minute range, the chirping, clean synths and droll, New Wave-style vocals of tunes like "Come Fly With Me" and "Coma" leave you feeling barely nudged, when you expect to be floored by SOD's much-heralded techno punch. A burbling dub remix of the second tune and a harder-driven disco version of the first do little to up the ante; if you've only read about the band's "groundbreaking techno-rock sound" before hearing this, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Thankfully, the second half of the album flexes the SOD muscle of previous years. "X-Lover" sounds like what might happen if early '80s New Wave pioneers Soft Cell and Human League time-traveled into the '90s, picked up some modern techno gear, got really depressed, and jammed. That's meant as a compliment. "Night Fever" is also promising, as racing horns and propulsive guitars unite over a careening dub/jungle workout for a sound reminiscent of 13 Above the Night-era Thrill Kill Kult.
It's only on the way-too-short (3:51) gem "Here to Stay," however, that we get a taste of SOD at its best. The song starts out with the fattest, most sinister low-end synth line on the disc, wickedly broken apart by a huge, noisy thrash-guitar sample. Screams, sirens and a shouted-not-sung, house-style vocal season the tasty stew.
Test Dept., in years past, has done everything from mixing together an orchestra, industrial percussion and Margaret Thatcher speeches (Pax Britannica) to collaborating and touring with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir to support a 1984 British miners' strike (Shoulder to Shoulder). The band discovers techno on its new offering, but with a percussion twist. The one recurring element in the album's 14 songs is the use of clanging, smashing, found-object percussion, ranging from trash cans to guardrails to fingers drumming on a table, sampled and sequenced in the service of a powerful, trancelike beat.
Beyond that, Totality is an always-moving, constantly changing landscape of sound with choice vocal samples interspersed throughout to subtly put the agenda across--this recording is nowhere near as politically didactic as many of the group's previous efforts.
There are plenty of other changes here. The slow, ethereal ambiance of "Once the Red Dust Passes (Pts. 1 and 2)" and the beginning of "Zazen," both of which feature ex-Daisy Chainsaw Katie Jane Garside on wispy, dreamlike vocals, come off as a more organic Future Sound of London. "Chillo (Sunrise)" features an almost hip-hop beat coupled with otherworldly synth riffing that's pure Skinny Puppy. And in "Genius," we're treated to a delayed, upbeat jazzy trumpet and digital piano over a metal bashing beat.
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Test Dept.'s harnessing of industrial objects reaches its peak on three successive, almost-all-percussion techno tunes ranging in style from trance to jungle: "The Point," "Gamma Ray" and "Rolihlahla (Stirring Up Trouble)." The synth backbeat is there to anchor it all, but it's the street-level rawness of beaten metal and wood objects that makes these tracks--and Test Dept.--something special, original and worth getting excited about.
What's more exciting is that Test Dept. hasn't toured the States in a decade, and the group is bringing its collection of drums and metal objects (not to mention its 16mm film loops and assorted surprise props) to Phoenix on Monday. Add to that the ever-volatile performance of Sheep on Drugs--lead singer Duncan never stops engaging the audience, whether he's projecting pornographic slides onto his bare chest or glaring at you with eerie, ultraviolet contact lenses through an executioner's mask--and you have all the makings of an evening of gleeful mayhem.
Test Dept., and Sheep on Drugs are scheduled to perform on Monday, October 28, at the Mason Jar, with Not Breathing. Showtime is 9 p.m.