Danny Riley on Grumbling Fur's Furfour
, September 29th, 2016 09:43
Grumbling Fur’s new album finds them setting new precedents for both the pop world and the underground while refusing to conform to either of those ghettos. Danny Riley explores its weird overcurrents and winning pop tones.
Grumbling Fur have proposed a radical, optimistic new strategy for the underground. Their excellent new album Furfour is, first and foremost, a step forward for an exciting band still exploring the idiosyncrasies of their own sound. But it’s also a bold challenge that musicians working in so-called ‘alternative’ currents must heed closely. Furfour is the most accomplished instalment in Daniel O’Sullivan and Alexander Tucker’s Weird Pop project, and one that points to a new way of doing things in alternative music.
In the 1980s groups like Scritti Pollitti emerged from the grimy crucible of Marxist post-punk to embody New Pop, a brazen and persuasive perversion of ‘teen’ music that critiqued the very structures it worked within – the sugared pill, as Simon Reynolds called it. Grumbling Fur’s metamorphosis from krautrock-influenced folk-droners (on 2011’s Furrier) to bona fide pop merchants is analogous to this shift: they have emerged from the contemporary weirdo underground to embody their own brand of Weird or Occult Pop, a title made all the more superfluous by the fact they they are arguably its sole current proponents. Theirs is not a sugared pill, but a strange, inviting pill that you can’t help but take – a rare thing in the world of pop music.
Indeed, there is very little obvious precedent for this music. Though there’s a strong link with electro pop in Grumbling Fur’s sound, they’re altogether more interested in mining popular music’s roots and occulture; creating genetic mutations in pop’s hidden history. Granted, there are some traceable undercurrents in the sound of Furfour – Boards of Canada’s psychedelic pastoralism, Coil’s obsessive processing of minute sonic details, Erasure’s full-hearted synth pop – but aside from that, the confident Grumbling Fur of Furfour are pretty much out on their own.
That’s all well and good, you might say, but what about the sounds themselves? Well, firstly, it should be noted that Grumbling Fur are improving their songcraft by cosmic leaps. Opener ‘Strange The Friends’ puts everything out there with an almost aggressively naïve synth melody, aiming straight for the solar plexus with a hook that is, like all the best pop hooks, both joyous and deeply plangent. Chest-beating banger ‘Acid Ali Khan’ keeps up the pace with a chorus that is permeated with a vague but powerful sense of cosmic poptimism, making for something heartfelt and sincere yet devoid of cliché – a combination that’s woefully lacking in modern chart music and hipster electronica alike. ‘Heavy Days,’ likewise, is almost unremittingly positive yet still manages to sidestep mere hackneyed sugar coating, its central image of the sun which ‘shines through on the heavy days’ placing both darkness and light in equal perspective.
Grumbling Fur’s increasing mastery of the studio is also a joy to listen to on Furfour. On early effort Glynnaestra there was a sense of endlessly creative minds rubbing up against their own technical limitations, with manually-triggered drum beats giving the album’s rhythms a somewhat awkward feel. Furfour, however, sees Tucker and O’Sullivan fully internalising their pop and hip hop influences, manifesting in a sound palette of headspinning sampladelia complemented by a beefy low-end. This new mastery arguably reaches its apex in ‘Milky Light’’s bizarre mix of ghettotech drum machines and New-Age-y soft synths, buoyed along inexorably by an earworm vocal melody.
Instrumental ‘Pyewacket’s Palace’ is a gloriously incongruous piece of ambient bluster worthy of Vangelis (the duo are, after all, self-confessed ‘children of the Blade’). ‘Molten Familiar,’ meanwhile, showcases Grumbling Fur’s love of Madlib, although this is admittedly one of the album’s weaker moments, coming off like a kind of gnostic DJ Shadow (if I was being unkind). Throughout the album, however, Grumbling Fur’s characteristic mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds still manifests in startling ways: the vast billows of flute on ‘Golden Simon,’ the frisky tabla that bubbles under the surface of ‘Heavy Days,’ and Tucker’s trademark e-bowed guitar and swooping cello which hover throughout the album. Elsewhere, the busy hand-drums of closer ‘Suneaters’ bring to mind Terrence McKenna’s machine elves holding some kind of tribal hoe down.
With that reference in mind, it’s worth mentioning that Grumbling Fur’s obsession with liminal spaces and spiritual esoterica is arguably one of their most beguiling features. Moreover, on Furfour, they indulge this orientation to unprecedented levels. The album is laced with cut-up snippets from crackpot spiritualist YouTube videos, edge-of-hearing amorphous tones and deformed vocal syllables. But unlike the sometimes frustrating obscurantism of Grumbling Fur’s esoteric forebears (Coil, Current 93 et al.), their cosmic dabbling feels invitingly playful at its worst and genuinely compelling at its best.
Take the aforementioned ‘Acid Ali Khan,’ for example. Its banging pop refrain obsesses over the ‘dark matter of life,’ pointing to the potential of courses ‘unintended, undiscovered’ in a way that seems to express the allure of the hidden. Later, Tucker and O’Sullivan sound like they’re pushing us towards something both obscure and exciting with the cryptic lines: ‘Overhead our lines are heading out / to greet the new dark as our fingers lock.’ Though it’s difficult to say what they’re actually going on about, it sure as hell sounds inviting, and the near-maddening catchiness of the melodies helps this allure no end. ‘Strange The Friends,’ meanwhile, though still couched in the album’s metaphysical setting, feels somewhat closer to home, with talk of ‘familiar forms recurring’ and ‘golden embraces’ suggesting an altogether homelier kind of mysticism.
Most important, however, is the fact that Furfour finds Grumbling Fur in a liminal space that they’ve created all on their own. Neither pandering to chart pop’s cheap thrills or to the sometimes insular world of the experimental milieu from which they emerged, it distils both mainstream and underground concerns without existing in either of those worlds. Daniel O’Sullivan has always thought big, from his forays with Sunn O))) and Ulver to his more recent work as one half of Laniakea, but it’s also nice to see how the latent Weird Pop sensibilities of Alexander Tucker’s outsider folk output has been allowed to take centre stage. With Furfour the duo has altogether eschewed contemporary psychedelia’s hackneyed reliance on drones and heaviosity, and in doing so have made a powerful case for catchy tunes as a vehicle for mind-expanding music. All the more potent for its weirdness, Grumbling Fur’s idiosyncratic take on pop proposes a new way of doing things, one that many of today’s so-called ‘alternative’ and ‘underground’ musicians can surely learn from.