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The God Machine's Scenes From The Second Storey Revisited 25 Years On
Ned Raggett , February 26th, 2018 07:45

The God Machine were a total anomaly, says our man in San Francisco, Ned Raggett, both entirely of their time while simultaneously being out there on their own

If you believed recent comments by Bono - I recommend not doing this - you would think that ''rock & roll'' is meant to be the province of angry and intense young men. While incorrect, it's a reminder that there's a continuing perception that what's needed is for said groups of a.a.i.y.m. to be able to say what needs to be said, man, speaking the truths nobody will hear. In a time when you have groups like that over here in America ganging up on people online and in real life, getting people killed and so forth, forgive me if I feel the putative automatic romance of this idea is dead and probably shouldn't've lived in the first place.

Exceptions that test the rule exist, happily, and I hope always will - where the anger and intensity is either aimed at punching up rather than flailing out or towards a kind of cathartic release that resonates rather than obliterates. These qualities drive my feelings about an album that almost nobody here in America knew about at the time or knows about now. It has been effectively erased from history outside of whatever quiet obsessives are out there like myself. An irony complicates the situation - the band itself was American but had no cachet or connection here when they made their full-length debut, having relocated to the UK some years prior. But when after a string of singles and EPs The God Machine released Scenes From The Second Storey 25 years ago, I was knocked flat. Part of me still lives with the afterechoes ringing in my head (and I don't mean my tinnitus).

Though neither angry nor fiercely intense, I was a young man, 22 at the time, and nostalgia drives my feelings as much as anything else about the trio of Robin Proper-Sheppard on vocals and guitar, Jimmy Fernandez on bass and Ron Austin on drums. Like so much of the time that I played and played and played into the ground, in that first flush of a year when I was out of college but then immediately plunged into grad school, playing records at a new (for me) college radio station and writing formal reviews for the first time anywhere thanks to the campus newspaper, I ended up knowing the album almost too well and then found myself setting it aside for years and years. Yet when I do break it out every so often, I'm not so much taken back to the time and place as I am to somewhere else abstract, strange, and beautiful. It makes sense - this was a product of a band on a mission, a phrase you often hear about in lots of PR regarding new bands. It's truly notable when a band succeeds at such an idea.

So what were the God Machine, a quarter century on? One thing that admittedly attracted me to them is how they didn't fit anywhere, seemingly. Arguably they were a (relocated) San Diego band, and I was just ninety miles away from there at the time, the city experiencing a sudden turn in the spotlight as ‘the next Seattle' as bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Trumans Water and many more besides gained much well deserved attention. (Let me add I have nothing to say about Stone Temple Pilots.) There was also the minor fact I'd spent much of my younger life growing up in the San Diego area and I was happy to see some shine on a scene I'd honestly not realized was bubbling up so energetically during my years away. But then again, The God Machine weren't there at all, they'd been over in London for years.

That's how I first heard about them myself - not that I was there but starting in 1991 I saw them pop up on a regular basis in issues of Melody Maker, as they began formally releasing work and getting signed to Fiction Records soon afterwards. A Cure association, indirectly? Well, reason enough for me to pay even more attention, and I learned about how they'd come from SD, ended up in the UK due to an offered break by an acquaintance that had completely fallen through, how they'd busked, squatted, toiled away, and by virtue of making the best of their situation and continuing to work on making it better they'd gotten to where they had and were aiming at as much more as they could. Proper-Sheppard in particular gave off the air of, if not wild-eyed fanaticism, then someone who'd found a calling, unapologetically quoting his own lyrics in response to questions about seriousness, continually making a case.

But it was 1992 and thereabouts, and I had no way to hear anything yet. The import stores near me weren't carrying the singles, and I was admittedly pretty busy most of that year anyway switching from one life to the next. I did make it to the UK for my first ever visit there that summer and scarfed up a LOT of CDs - still have a fair number - but God Machine singles weren't easy to find or just simply not standing out for me yet. The press descriptions remained intriguing, the live reviews especially so - I vaguely remember one where they opened for Love Of Life-era Swans, winning deep praise alongside the headliners as well as being described as an excellent fit for them, and I filed that away as another good sign. Early 1993 and the 'Home' single was released and the praise really kicked into overdrive and I was starting to get a little antsy - and then one day at the college newspaper, there the album was in a promo mailout, much to my surprise and delight. That Fiction/Polydor connection of long standing had turned out to have a real side benefit.

Here's the funny thing about Scenes From The Second Storey and the God Machine, really - you can tell exactly where it comes from when you listen to it. It's an absolute product of its time and place. To frame it more - the one comparison I'd already seen more than once was Jane's Addiction, specifically the ghost-of-Zeppelin epic pound and blast side of that band, and in the wake of their (first) breakup in 1991, people were looking for their next fix wherever possible. And yes, there was something in that, Proper-Sheppard's voice wasn't a screech but it was often strained in the higher register, not to mention often swathed in more echo than most. From the start, with the slow build then rapid acceleration of 'Dream Machine', one could draw a link.

I'd mentioned the Swans live date, I could see something of that era of the group too, that similar ‘go big, go huge, enthrall and compel' feeling, simultaneously strangely mystic and absolutely direct. They were on The Cure's label, they weren't The Cure, but some songs like 'It's All Over' and the opening of 'The Blind Man' had the kind of moody crawl that wasn't too far removed aesthetically from Robert Smith and company. Not to mention other acts tagged with that ever amorphous term ‘goth' - on that front, The God Machine owned it. On the 'Home' single, not only did the title track feature a sample from the recordings of the Voix de Bulgares, famously brought to initial attention in Western Europe and beyond by 4AD, but they covered Bauhaus's 'Double Dare' - via a BBC live session they'd done, a presumably intentional nod to the fact that Bauhaus's own released take of the song was from a similar session of their own - and Echo And The Bunnymen's 'All My Colours.'

I really need to emphasise something in light of those song choices - they couldn't be more Southern Californian for a certain generation if they tried. Of course the band were where they were from and sounded like they did. 80s alternative culture, however defined and interpreted and codified over in this neck of the woods, claimed nearly all these other bands I mentioned, especially if you wore black. Bauhaus, Echo, The Cure, total legends in the actual goth subculture here. Jane's Addiction? SoCal goth obsessives themselves made good. 4AD? Good heavens, where to start (besides This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins, of course). As for Swans, by the time the Gira/Jarboe partnership had gotten into full swing shortly beforehand, little wonder they fit in with all this as well. In later years I dug up the 1985 demo recording of Society Line, the band they'd all been in back in San Diego, and I could sense the black-dyed and post-punk roots even more clearly.

It's one thing to be a potpourri of these and other approaches - bands do that all the time, early singles and debut albums trying to be all sorts of things at once, not quite finding themselves yet maybe outside of a song or two. But I mentioned 1985 for a reason: they'd not actually come out of nowhere, and by the time of 1993, all that they'd been through had turned into a perfect kind of bloodymindedness. You can sense all that in Scenes From The Second Storey, that The God Machine weren't tyros or trying to fit in with whatever was popular - if they had, they would have wanted to sound a lot more Pearl Jam (and they didn't sound like Pearl Jam or anything else from that other corner of the US's western coast, at all). While the album was engineered by experienced studio hand Kenny Jones, the trio produced it themselves. It wasn't just a debut album but a full CD's worth of music, a double album debut if it had been released in the vinyl-is-king days.

And above all, as a throughline through everything, intensity. A slippery word, of course, and this is an album that revels in its quiet and focused moments as much as the precise but never maniacal or mechanistic arrangements of explosive feedback and stomp. Fernandez's bass at many points is what feels like the prime instrument even if it's the calmest - the way it anchors the quietly tense start of 'Out,' for instance. Without the backstory of the band adding a certain pre-sold element to my own experience with the album, I might sense or describe that intensity differently, but I think I'd still feel it - Scenes is an album-as-statement, something that lays down markers every step of the way: here it is, accept it, sorry if you don't like it. It's exhausting but I'd argue it's meant to be exhausting in a thrilling sense, it's meant to leave you wrung dry.

Part of this is down to the sequencing, something I didn't fully appreciate until time and later experience with other just-as-long but lesser albums put it into context. CDs were increasingly being maxed out to the full by any number of acts, and it would be easy to call Scenes an example of CD bloat if it had been handled badly. But the sense of steady progression, an actual journey - something very prog, and I could easily make the case for this being a better prog-metal album than a lot of really wanky stuff that wears that tag openly - begins with 'Dream Machine''s scene setter and doesn't let up. The first few tracks after that are, if not poppy per se, fairly focused but able to show a good range, from 'She Said''s rapid-fire rampage suddenly turned into a slow, epic swing to 'The Desert Song''s crypto-Orientalist sonics, something suggestive of Biblical wastelands and murky traumas, accentuated by lyric-free vocals by then-Stereolab member Katharine Gifford. But after 'Home,' with the calmer waters of 'It's All Over,' things stretch out even more, from instrumental collages to the tense wind-up and supernova of 'Out' until the album reaches 'Seven'. This is the longest track on the album by far at nearly seventeen minutes, it's just like the rest of Scenes - it practically dares you to accept it - but it compels from its start. Austin's drumming is soft but with a steady presence, the overall flow of the arrangement rising and coiling up, bigger and bigger until at nine minutes in it cuts back to the rhythm section to take the lead in an extended coda, Rosa Mota’s Ian Bishop playing a distant clarinet part to provide an unexpected extra elegance.

The anchor for all the intensity, unsurprisingly, stands with Proper-Sheppard. As a guitarist he fills out massive spaces while content to leave others open for his bandmates to take the lead, eschewing technical flash in a Guitar Player sense for layers, mood, walls of feedback. But as a singer and lyricist, he manages a near-unique trick. Just about all the other bands I mentioned as influences and connections had humour as a key element, an escape valve if you like - think of Perry Farrell portraying himself as grinning lord of misrule, The Cure's skew-whiff sensibilities in both songs and videos, Ian McCulloch singing about cucumbers. Arguably The God Machine had this side too - other covers released around that time were a softly swinging version of Peggy Lee's 'Fever' and an absolutely bonkers (and flat-out amazing) cover of the KLF's 'What Time Is Love.' But when it came to nearly all their originals, and certainly throughout Scenes, any smiles or points of stepping away from the finely honed drama are essentially nonexistent or deeply hidden.

The toughest job for any performer is not to break character - or maybe more accurately, to make a serious performance rise beyond any nods or winks that people might want to search for. Lyrically, the subject matter of Scenes throughout is one of angst, anguish, a raging against a likely nonexistent deity or a condemnation of those who claim to speak of such a being, of fraught scenes from romances or friendships that might have already collapsed or are on the verge of teetering. Proper-Sheppard does step out of his own head, certainly - 'Ego,' which had appeared as a single before the album, revolves around the phrase ''Ego is beast and ego is evil,'' a warning and self-condemnation not all that far removed from something Maynard James Keenan might have done around the same time given Tool's own debut album that year, Undertow. (The aesthetic connection to Tool in general isn't that far removed in general, given similar goth obsessions, but again, Keenan's sense of humour is quite finely honed and was always clearly present.)

By the time of Scenes' conclusion, with the string quartet introduction of 'Purity,' a seemingly florid indulgence on first blush that absolutely works with the atmospheric mood, leading to a final cathartic blast, a solar heat you can almost feel, of white light unceasing, Proper-Sheppard has quite simply earned the right to be taken at face value, as has the band as a whole. The lyrics 'If I show you the scars, will you show me yours?' are the type of thing that just has to work in the moment or it falls apart, melodramatic certainly, but meant to suggest a real moment of emotional nakedness, part dare, part confession. It works, wonderfully, and as the song fades out, there's just enough time to catch a breath before a concluding instrumental, 'The Piano Song' - unsurprisingly focused around just that - sees out Scenes, sounds of footsteps and doors and more suggesting the subtle production touches of Martin Hannett on Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, yet suiting and fully working with the arrangement, Fernandez's bass a lovely, serene anchor.

The American release of Scenes did mean a tour, thankfully, the only one they ever did over here, opening for a great bunch of clattering noisemakers in their own right, NYC's Cop Shoot Cop. In retrospect, even though it would have meant a longer trip, I wish I had gone to the San Diego show - the only time the band performed in their hometown in their own right rather than as part of Society Line, I believe - just because I'm sure it would have seemed almost like a moment of vindication, maybe even a chance to include friends and family to show that their seemingly impossible dream had actually worked. But LA was closer so I went to that one, and I was quite enthralled, sensing how they could change the edges of their songs live - 'Seven' felt all the more wound up, almost ready to ride off the rails, 'Home' used the Voix de Bulgares sample more extensively but never simply relied on it - and how truly locked in with each other they were. No question about it, they weren't just some folks on stage together, they were indeed on that mission, and the club date they were playing worked well enough but I did want something bigger - and I knew, sonically, they could fill that space.

I had a chance to talk to them all afterward, doing an interview using someone else's tape - and, regrettably, never getting a copy of it. It's somewhere in the ether now, unless it was simply long ago taped over or trashed. I remember Fernandez and Austin being a little more relaxed, jokey for sure, private jokes perhaps but even so. Proper-Sheppard, though, relaxed he wasn't. He was as serious as all the interviews I'd read had suggested he was. I can see his intense stare in my mind's eye right now, a bright one, focused on me throughout. But here's the thing - never once did I sense that he was combative, or haughty, or snobbish, or stand-offish. Not once. I can't call his vibe friendly and smiling, no, but then again, he'd only just met me. Yet I think the thing I got from it was appreciation - by the time of the show I'd had the album for a few months and was able to ask what I hope were reasonably intelligent questions (for a still fairly goofy and often insular 22 year old, I'll rapidly add). The sense of appreciation was probably simply because I really had taken the album to heart, and wasn’t casual about it or them.

That doesn't make me special. Fans are fans, and I'm sure there were always plenty of others who responded similarly. In retrospect, though, there was one thing about the interview I wish I had done differently, besides actually getting a copy of the tape - I wish I had talked to Fernandez some more. Anyone who did follow the God Machine already at that point or has since discovered them knows why - as the band worked on their follow-up album to Scenes in 1994, Fernandez started complaining of terrible headaches. Within a matter of days, he'd been hospitalized, entered a coma and then, tragically, died, the cause of his passing due to a previously undetected brain tumor.

It honestly was little surprise than Proper-Sheppard and Austin chose to end the band after that - after quite literally almost a decade's worth of time and work and long-shot chances and a real sense of building up something out of nothing, suddenly a key partner in all that was gone, horribly. One Last Laugh In A Place of Dying... collected those second album sessions as a hail and farewell, Austin moved on from the music business, while Proper-Sheppard took stock and founded the wonderful Flower Shop Recordings label as well as a new band, Sophia, which he leads to the present day. Equally wonderful, Sophia never sought to recreate the God Machine's approach, taking a calmer path instead that has resulted in its own rich vein of work.

Anger, intensity, they have their place, they always will, when injustices exist and hypocrisies run rampant, and twenty-five years on those feelings and those moods and those songs on Scenes linger for good reason. They aren't entire worlds, and they are not raison d'etres either. A God Machine that didn't stay there but found its own particular course over time would have been a wonder to behold, though even better would have been a living Jimmy Fernandez, happy in his own right pursuing whatever he chose to do. I still think about him and them, and how his family and friends and former bandmates might feel as a terrible 25th anniversary approaches next year. Some moments are captured in amber, frozen, even as the life and feeling that powered those moments remain palpable. Some bands are simply the sum of their parts, the combination of their peers and inspirations. Some bands transcend and end up in a place where there was nobody quite like them around. You could see where The God Machine came from the whole time, but with Scenes From The Second Storey, they were out there in their own right, shining.