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Severed Heads, "Clean"

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cover imageI have been a Severed Heads fan for more than twenty years now, yet I somehow never got around to investigating this early album until it was reissued earlier this year.  I would like to blame poor distribution, as this album has essentially only been self-released up until now, but I definitely snapped up several other rare albums when Tom Ellard started reissuing them as self-released CD-Rs in the early 2000s.  I suspect I was just insufficiently skeptical of the widespread belief that Ellard's golden age began with 1983's Since the Accident.  I should have known better, as Clean was the last album to involve founding member Richard Fielding at all (Fielding later went on to found the similarly wonderful The Loop Orchestra).  For the most part, however, Clean was almost entirely Ellard's show and it illustrates that he was already in his prime as a gleefully mischievous and eccentric loop-mangler as far back as 1980 or 1981.  Admittedly, Ellard did not start indulging his poppier instincts in earnest for a few more years, but Clean is playful, fun, and idiosyncratic enough to hold up just fine without them.

Dark Entries

I suppose just about any long-running project goes through a series of distinct eras as the artist (or artists) evolve, learn new skills, and assimilate new influences, yet Severed Heads has always felt like a uniquely bizarre entity due to the vast gulf separating the two sides of Tom Ellard's artistry.  The skewed synthpop of Ellard’s late '80s Nettwerk albums came as quite a surprise to me after my early exposure to Since The Accident and City Slab Horror, as it sounded like the work of a completely different band (which is especially amusing given that Fielding had already declared the band "too rock 'n roll" in the era documented here).  While I am fitfully quite fond of both poles of the Sevs' aesthetic (1991's Cuisine remains an eternal favorite), it is Ellard's more primitive and experimental early work that has always been closest to my heart.  The difference between a polished pop single like 1985's "Petrol" and an album like Clean is mostly one of balance though: there are certainly some hooks and melodic synth motifs strewn throughout this album, but the weirder, artier aspects tend to be front and center.  On later albums, those hooks merely became the focus while the noisier, more eccentric touches were relegated to the periphery.  Obviously, Ellard has hit that precarious balance better on some albums than others, but the misses simply tend to be more uniformly fascinating on Severed Heads' more rough and eclectic early work.  As far as more catchy fare is concerned, Clean’s only real stabs at "pop" are: 1.) the opening "Food City," which combines a bouncy Kraftwerk-esque groove with buried tape loops, gnarled guitar squall, and a very low-in-the-mix vocal melody, and 2.) the insistently burbling "Charivari."

My favorite moments on Clean, however, tend to be the ones where Ellard takes a strong melodic or rhythmic theme and gleefully deconstructs, destroys, or mutates it into something surreal, broken, and unfamiliar.  The closing "Violins and Moonlight" is probably the strongest example of this, as it opens with an obsessively looping vocal snippet, densely sputtering synth bass, and a delicate minor key arpeggio, then coalesces into a pulsing, skeletal, and mumbled approximation of hypnagogic pop that moves relentlessly forward through a cacophony of disjointed movie and TV dialogue samples.  Elsewhere, "Nightsong" strips away everything except for a stomping beat, then ravages it with a dissonant repeating guitar figure and a flanging, heaving mass of churning sludge.  "Tiny Fingers" twists the formula yet again, resembling two completely different pieces awkwardly mashed together.  It is a tactic that should not work, but the second half turns a looping radio snippet and some gurgling, distorted vocals into something weirdly hypnotic and haunting.   If I had to guess, I would say the radio snippet is from a jingle for an electronics store and that is a perfect illustration of why I am so drawn to Ellard's early work: he had a real genius for recontextualizing seemingly random snatches of cultural detritus into poignant or subversive art.  Obviously, there is an element of mischief and willful absurdity to the eclectic selection of samples that find their way into his work, but it would be a reductive mistake to view his aesthetic as "taking the piss" or even "transforming trash into treasure."  Instead, it would be more apt to say that Ellard simply found soul and beauty in unlikely places and did his best to bring out those traits (while also amusing himself in the process, of course). 

While I am understandably still annoyed with myself for sleeping on this album for so long, there is nevertheless a silver lining to waiting until now to finally hear it: a strong case can be made that this latest reissue is the definitive version.  As with all Severed Heads albums from the '80s, Clean has seen several different incarnations over the years and a bunch of them omitted "Food City."  Happily, that perplexing wrong has now been righted.  Of course, the presence or absence of that particular piece is not exactly a deal-breaker on its own (though it is a good song), yet this latest version has also been remastered and expanded to include thirteen additional rare and unreleased songs.  Some were culled from the Side Three cassette (previously included on the Adenoids compilation), but the rest are demo and live recordings that have thus far remained unheard.  Historically, I have not been an enthusiastic advocate of diluting already solid and complete albums with vault scrapings. Clean, however, is a notable exception to that viewpoint, as a number of the new songs are remarkably fine tape loop collages ("You Will," "Floopness," "Somehow Pain," and the lengthy "Clean Loops" are all standouts).  In fact, I prefer several of them to the songs that made it onto the original album.  Granted, all of best loop-based pieces lack Ellard's vocal or synth contributions, so I suppose they represent an earlier vision of the project (and a very non-rock ‘n roll one at that), but there are also some less abstract "songs" included in the extra material and I like them too.  It is crazy that it took forty years for all that material to finally surface.  Naturally, my initial thought was that Ellard was responsible for some of the most warped, adventurous, and original electronic music on earth in the early '80s and that humanity should have paid far more attention to him.  However, the bigger surprise is probably how well much of this material still holds up in 2020 though: Clean might not be well-produced, sophisticated, or pretty by current standards, but it remains an endearingly rough-edged, playful, and satisfying outlier: the ensuring four decades have done nothing to diminish its charm and character.  While Ellard himself eventually moved on to catchier territory, no one else has yet emerged who could better early Severed Heads at their own game and it is likely that no one ever will.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 July 2020 09:10  


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