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What Nature Gives... Nature Takes Away Richard Foster , June 3rd, 2019 08:30

The Membranes' latest, What Natures Gives… Nature Takes Away has everything from a 21st century take on the Beats to an alternative theme tune for Match of the Day, finds Richard Foster

Listening to The Membranes has always felt like sitting in a runaway JCB lumbering its way down a scree slope, watching references pass by in a dizzy blur. And What Nature Gives...Nature Takes Away is a Membranes LP in the grand tradition, chronicling ruminations about rooks, starlings, death, classical myth, Victorian gothic, prog, flowers, cunning women, Japanese monkeys, the North Sea, and West Lancashire. Sonically, the listener can actively map the band tramping the soggy Marches between prog, psych and punk. Maybe you can detect a brief nod to Joy Division too.

What Nature Gives… feels like an important milestone in their winding career. The individual Membranes – and bassist John Robb in particular, it seems – are turning into a twenty-first century take on the early-60s British Beat poets, like Spike Hawkins or John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins. Those slacker polymaths, soaking up arcana and then remoulding it to some quasi-cultish sociocultural cause. Though we can never accuse The Membranes of being slackers or cultists. Rather, like that original Beat, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, frontman Robb conjures up a set of revelatory, philosophical dreams that owe much to his relationship with the natural world and his immediate surroundings.

I can’t think of a more monstrously sprawling yet committed LP so actively concerned with this mental island and its foibles since Julian Cope’s masterpieces Peggy Suicide and Jehovakill. The soundbites from Chris Packham amongst others – heard on ‘Winter (The Beauty and Violence of Nature)’ – have the same sonic effect as Cope’s ‘Soldier Blue’ or ‘Western Front 1992 CE’. Utilising some clever soundbites from a number of powerful women throughout the record also reminds us of the latent power still possessed by sorceresses who are now circulating other orbits: Space Whisper, Ruth White, or Ithell Colquhoun all come to mind on tracks like ‘Demon Seed / Demon Flower’. Again, something that reminds the listener of Cope’s union-in-rock with the Goddess.

Unlike Cope’s opuses, however –and despite tripped-out tracks like ‘The Ghosts of Winter Stalk This Land’ – there is never a sense of druggy remove. We are simply thrown headfirst into Membranes Land, and have to sink or swim under the barrage of choirs, guitars, weird synth noises, samples and effects. Every track demands your commitment. So much so that trying to describe each cut would be an exhausting read. But we can lay down pointers. ‘A Murmuration of Starlings’ for example, merges Victorian gothic, psychedelia and reflections on augury; conjuring up waking dreams of MR James stories. And the subtle application of synthetic, Thighpaulsandra-like burbling and squeaks in the gloriously spaced-out ‘The Magical and Mysterious Properties of Flowers’ remind us that prog and punk were kissing cousins. You can hear echoes of classic British psych elsewhere, too, on ‘Mother Ocean Father Time’. We also get some great stripped down rock and roll to leaven things out, such as ‘Snow Monkey’ and ‘A Murder of Crows’; both classic sonic jalopies that that make more noise than a fleet of trucks.

Last track ‘Pandora’s Box’ is the ultimate bombast; a classic psychedelic fête champêtre of choirs, percussive thumps, and glorious guitar jangles. It’s a beautiful heavy pop song coming on like late period Move. Such is its giving power, the track really should be the theme tune for Match of the Day. After all, we need to turn those trainer head, short-back-and-sided, mancreamed lads onto a better, more giving take on masculinity, otherwise Albion’s a hopeless case. What a fabulously rich listen this record is.