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The Membranes
Dark Matter/Dark Energy Julian Marszalek , June 8th, 2015 09:24

Despite its awful and constantly taunting inevitability, nothing can prepare you for the death of a parent. This is a unique form of bereavement; unlike the passing of people you've chosen to invest your emotions and time with, this is one of the people responsible for bringing you into the world, and the fact that you're tied by blood makes it all the more terrible. You're inexorably linked together and, for most people, bound by an unconditional love that's been in place since before you were even born. To see that source of love, support and nourishment that helped you make it through life vanish before your very eyes is an experience so profound that few others will even dare to match it.

What to make of it? There's certainly no rulebook or how-to guide on the rights and wrongs of grief. This isn't an experience that can be legislated for, and how those that are left behind deal with the aftermath differs from one individual to another. What probably is held in common is the level of questioning that follows the death of a parent: did you disappoint your parents? Should you have done things differently? Were they proud? Were you deserving of that pride?

A lifetime is, in the greater scheme things, just a drop in the ocean, an iron filing lying on a factory floor. It's probably this that does your head in the most – how an event such as this, so significant in your life, is so cosmically meaningless when compared to the size of the universe and the length of time that it's been around. Especially when the death of a parent makes you more aware of your own mortality than any other death that you'll encounter. This is the moment you realise and appreciate the cruelty of the universe – the limited time span that we have here and does it actually amount to anything? And this is what The Membranes deal with on Dark Matter/Dark Energy, their first album in 25 years: with the passing of frontman John Robb's father during the recording of the album, mortality in the face of the universe - itself something that will eventually come to an end – is what informs this concept album.

25 years sounds like a long time doesn't it? A lifetime, even. Or not in some cases; just look at James Dean or Sid Vicious or any of the other cultural figureheads hoisted by their own petards. Yet 1990 could be yesterday: for this writer it means moving to London; that first doomed love affair: Italia 1990; the inaugural disco biscuit; the demise of Margaret Thatcher and the release of Nelson Mandela; that wide-eyed sense of wonder without realising how precious time really is. Yet 25 years hence seems like an eternity. What to do with this time in any meaningful way? And how does it all stack up against the cold vastness of a universe? These are the big questions that The Membranes are asking. In fairness, they don't have the answers – who does? – but the fact that they're asking theses questions is enough.

If the concept behind Dark Matter/Dark Energy is striking enough then so too is the music. Anyone expecting a mere retread of The Membranes' 80s glory days is in for one hell of a surprise, for what we have here is a band whose rear view mirror was thrown out into the traffic several miles ago. There's no looking back and in its place is a sense of musical exploration and wonder that will satisfy long time observers and novices alike. And why not? The older you get the wider the ears become as they soak up new sounds, sonic experiences and influences that either consciously or unconsciously filter through to the music. That said, there's a sense of comfort to be had to hear the album opening with the sound of slashing and dissonant chords that give way to a crunching bass guitar and beautifully recorded drums. It's apposite, too, that a double album meditating on the universe and life and death should go back to the beginning and so it is that 'The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light' is the banner under which this big bang is called.

But if you're forming the opinion that this is an album of super-heavy meditation and dark soul of the night introspection, then get ready to think again. This is a record packed with humour as much as it is seriousness. Only The Membranes could turn a stellar explosion into a dance move and so it is that 'Do The Supernova' does just that. Over his crunching and fuzzy bass that's still in thrall to Jean-Jacques Burnel and guitars that pluck, careen and crash, Robb yells, "It's one for the money!/Two for the show!/Three to get ready!/Go, cat, go!/DO THE SUPERNOVA!" before the whole thing explodes into a slam dancing orgy. Elsewhere, The Membranes offer such pearls of wisdom as, "The legacy of the space race is a universe filled with junk" on 'Space Junk' and its impossible not to emit a guffaw whilst simultaneously nod your head sagely as you take it all in. And you've got to admire Robb's honesty when he belches out, "I'm an unapologetic fucked up 21st century man!" on, umm… '21st Century Man'.

But this is more than just the John Robb Show; Dark Matter/Dark Energy is very much an ensemble piece. Peter Byrchmore and Nick Brown don't so much play their guitars as abuse them mercilessly. 'If You Enter The Arena Then Be Prepared To Deal With The Lions' is a sonic riot that descends into a sprawling squall while Rob Haynes' percussion – an unholy mix of drums, sheet metal and reverse drones – underpins the madness surrounding it. Elsewhere, on 'In The Graveyard' The Membranes appropriate the dynamics of reggae in much the same way Bauhaus did to speak in a new vernacular.

With the album opening with life, its closure with death is fitting. 'The Hum Of The Universe' finds Robb intoning, "Ashes to ashes/dust to dust/All God's flesh turns to rust" as The Membranes conjure up the images of cosmic collapse.

Dark Matter/Dark Energy is the sound of a band that's acutely self-aware of its own legacy and where it fits in on the cultural landscape. Crucially, it doesn't attempt to be something that it's not and the honesty contained within is one of the album's greatest strengths. That The Membranes do so creating a fabulously infernal racket is life-affirming stuff. But is 25 years between albums too long? On the strength of Dark Matter/Dark Energy then the answer is no because the results have been worth the wait. By the same token, though, you wouldn't recommend The Membranes waiting until 2040 to deliver their next album. But for the here and now, this is (big) bang on.