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Godflesh, "Streetcleaner"

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Frequently lauded as a high water mark for metal, industrial, and any form of abrasive music in general, Streetcleaner has been included in numerous "Top X of Y" lists since it was first released some 21 years ago.  Seeing as how the duo has agreed to perform a reunion show at this year's Hellfest in France this weekend, it is a convenient time for the label to reissue this disc, as well as for me to take a new, critical look at it.  Remastered with an entire second disc of alternate/demo/live/rehearsal tracks and overseen by Broadrick himself, it's obviously more of a labor of love than a quick cash grab, and the quality of it makes that apparent.



When first issued in 1989, Streetcleaner was definitely a different monster than other albums on the metal scene.  Having already created grindcore with Napalm Death and coming off a stint as Head of David's drummer, Justin Broadrick decided to resurrect his Fall of Because project, opting to play guitar rather than drums (letting a machine take that role), while G.C. Green stayed on bass, and with guitarist Paul Neville staying on for half of the album.  It was an album that crossed many "difficult" genres, something Godflesh had started with their first EP, the self-titled release from the previous year.  Using the cold precision of a drum machine paired with the barely under control guitar tone, Godflesh formed to push the meandering, sludgy Swans guitar sound with the rhythmic mechanization of contemporary industrial bands to create something that never really "fit" in any pigeon-hole, but somehow managed to appease everyone.

Even though the presentation of this album originally screamed "death metal", there were more than enough signs that it wasn't really an appropriate description, all the way down to the presentation.  As everyone knows, grindcore and death metal bands are always in a competition to create the most unreadable pen and ink logo for the band humanly possible, a trend that was still happening in 1989.  Rather than that, Godflesh always opted for the bold, Impact font typeface that was the polar opposite.   Secondly, though the cover art bears the same violent-blasphemy vibe of death metal, here it was actually a still from Altered States (definitely not a crude sketch of Satan eating Jesus while playing Connect 4 with naked women or whatever else was hot in death metal art then).  So it makes sense that, though there are definite traces of those genres here, it is a beast all its own.

The introduction to Streetcleaner is one that stands with the best of any album:  the sparse, but menacing feedback that colors the opening before the riffs and drum machine erupt on "Like Rats" sets a tone of darkness that’s enshrouds the whole album.  From then, the album never relents; however, it never becomes stale or boring in its continuous bludgeoning.  As much as I love Swans, I always found it more of an endurance test to listen to the compiled Cop/Young God release in one sitting, but the oppressive blackness here maintains enough variation to never become "too much."  The sludge of "Like Rats" nicely feeds into the jagged, erratic rhythmic structure of “Christbait Rising,” which itself transitions into the dour, martial rhythms of “Pulp.”

The synthetic elements of the Godflesh sound aren't as overtly presented here, and even the drum machine runs programs a human drummer could play more often than not.  "Devastator/Mighty Trust Krusher" is one of these exceptions; the predominant part of the track is heaver rhythms and violent dialog and announcement samples akin to Cabaret Voltaire's earlier works.  The title track follows a similar pattern, opening with samples of a murderer discussing his crimes over a deep, menacing synth before launching full force into a dual guitar assault, with Broadrick and Neville tackling the high and low frequency spectrums while the machine fires away like the submachine gun the track is named after.

Unlike some other recent reissue campaigns, the four bonus tracks, also known as the Tiny Tears EP remain intact.  I could see the band making the argument that they aren't part of Streetcleaner, because they have a different sound and vibe, but thankfully they chose not to go that route.  These four songs are rather unlike anything the band did previously, or did ever again.  Four short blasts of muffled guitar/bass skree with a rhythm structure closer to punk rock than metal, with Broadrick's vocals buried in the murky mix create something unique, and to me always made a wonderful epilogue to the album.  The more uptempo (in purely relative terms) tunes here seemingly were forgotten afterward, with the exception of "Wound" that appeared in a rerecorded form as the other side of "Slateman," but are a pleasant little side note to history.

As for the remastering job, it's definitely louder, but not excessively so.  I checked this visually with editing software and found that there's no digital clipping, nor was there any overuse of compression.  Considering the source material though, the only true audio dynamic in place to begin with was "loud," so I didn't think that was going to be a problem.  A side by side comparison reveals that the new issue is slightly sharper, with a greater high end presence:  the snare drum hits sound more piercing and guitar feedback is more shrill.  Played loudly enough, it is a bit more of a painful listen, but I think that was always the point.  Since Broadrick himself was in charge of the audio clean-up, I figure it's going to be faithful to his original intent.

The bonus tracks on disc two are luckily ones that are more than of just historical interest.  The current trend of reissuing old albums with "demos" appended usually results in me saying to myself "oh, yeah, that's interesting how that song used to sound" and then never listening to it again.  It's not the case here:  the first five pieces on the bonus disc are the initial mixes of the first side of the album that the band decided to tweak later.  Broadrick comments in the liner notes that he can’t remember why the band decided to redo these tracks, and that shines through:  these could be the original album and no one would really complain.  There are differences, i.e., the sharper drum attack and less treated vocals on "Christbait Rising" and greater vocal effects on "Pulp," but the variations are rather subtle.   In general, these mixes are strong enough to stand on their own, even with the occasional source material issue:  being mastered from cassette, there’s a bit of tape hiss and the occasional drop-out, but nothing to get upset over.

The live takes of "Streetcleaner" and "Head Dirt," recorded during the band’s first major European tour in 1990 are both strong documents of the era, the former sounding even more unhinged and manic than the album take, including a drastically different sounding guitar part from Neville.  The jerky stop/start rhythms of "Head Dirt" don't sound as clean live, with significantly more feedback and noise from the guitars.

The rehearsal recordings are another matter, sounding as if they were recorded to a walkman sitting in the practice room with the band.  For that reason alone, the fidelity is less than appealing, but give additional insight into what the band sounded like in a live setting at this time.  The final two tracks are perhaps the most revealing:  two track guitar/machine demos of "Suction" and "Dead Head."  Stripped down, the underlying melody of these tracks can be heard far more than they could in the final release.  While not as compelling as the finished versions, they’re interesting on their own, with the former showing a bit of post-punk influence in the riffs, while the later comes across as a perverse take on surf rock.

Considering its faithful remastering and plethora of bonus material, this is a worthy reissuing.  While I'm sure there will be many who prefer the original recording of the album and decry the additional material as unnecessary, it rounds out the experience of the original album nicely.  A monumental album in the history of "heavy" music and, while it’s not as singular today as it was upon its original release, it has lost none of its strength or power in the past 21 years.



Last Updated on Sunday, 20 June 2010 22:09  


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