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Album Of The Week

Brace Yourself: Gum Takes Tooth Assume The Recovery Position
Bernie Brooks , April 27th, 2023 07:23

Latest album Recovery Position sees the Oslo-Brighton duo reborn, sounding like a whole new band, finds Bernie Brooks

Gum Takes Tooth. Photo by Eric Oliveira

What’s the sound of disappointment? Of things having gone south? Could be it’s the noxious, queasy rhythmic onslaught of Gum Takes Tooth’s latest full-length, Recovery Position.

We’ll get into the album, of course, but first imagine deep bass battering your dashboard and cracked windshield as you drive into centre of Detroit from the northeast, westbound on I-94, caustic synth noise ringing in your ears. Eventually, the freeway ascends, cruising over the old Poletown East neighborhood. Looking to the left from this elevated viewpoint, you'll see – at least for the time being – a sea of trash lorded over by a massive, many-storeys-high, roughly cubic structure. This is one of the largest garbage incinerators in the States. It is, essentially, in the middle of the city, more or less adjacent to Midtown. If this seems less than ideal, trust when I say it was.

In the works since the mid-1970s, Detroit’s solid waste incinerator was finally fired up in 1989. The city was at a low point. An early victim of de-industrialisation, it had been bleeding manufacturing jobs since the 1950s, culminating, symbolically, in the closure of the Ford Highland Park Plant in 1974. Depending on the lens you view it through, the incinerator was either a deeply cynical or naïve move. A city used up by industrialised capitalism would now convert the leavings of endless consumption into both energy and cash. What could go wrong? A lot, it turns out. Built at a cost of $438 million dollars, it was a environmental and health disaster from the get-go, belching asthma into the air along with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, mercury, and cadmium. Bleeding money after only two years of operation, in 1991 the cash-strapped city sold the incinerator to private interests who would operate it for the next three decades. The bond debt from its construction would not change hands, however, and eventually cost the citizens of Detroit $1.2 billion dollars.

If early Detroit techno captured the sound of automation on the assembly line, Gum Takes Tooth have turned their ears toward the de-assembly line, where empty promises are torched into steam and poison. Beyond currently being on one of the many courses set by The Belleville Three some forty-odd years ago, the component parts of Gum Takes Tooth – Tom Fug and Jussi Brightmore - have approximately nothing to do with Metro Detroit. (Fug hails from Oslo, Brightmore from Brighton, and the pair spent ages in London.) Even so, if there’s one thing the Motor City has in common with the UK, it’s de-industrialisation, and, for better or worse, I have approximately everything to do with Metro Detroit, so I’ve gotta say: it’s been ages since I’ve heard a record that better captures the “What’s left?” feeling that lurks in the back of my mind as I go about my Rust Belt day-to-day. Really, it’s uncanny.

Recovery Position is the duo’s fourth LP, arriving some four years after the widely acclaimed Arrow, but it doesn’t really feel like a follow-up. The band as presented here feels new. Arrow felt like the culmination of the “old” Gum Takes Tooth. Comparatively spare and often indebted to psych rock, their sound was clearly rooted in the interplay between the two musicians performing, with Fug’s very live-sounding drumming often taking centre stage. Gnarled riffage spewed from Brightmore’s synths during prolonged jams. Long, open, atmospheric passages both built tension and gave the listener room to breathe, to recover. Which, somewhat ironically, is something Recovery Position never does.

Instead, Recovery Position goes hard as hell straight out of the gate and never lets up, building an intensity that compounds from track to track. Those familiar with Arrow will immediately notice that its spareness is gone, replaced with a certain fullness, a resonant heaviness that hangs in between every beat and note and utterance. It persists even when the album is at its most minimal, such as on the opener, ‘Armistice’, an absolute bass bomb that’ll 100% shred any preconceived notions you might have about what Gum Takes Tooth are meant to be. You can almost picture Fug and Brightmore walking into the studio with, say, a stack of early Andy Stott releases, some tough-ass BANK NYC 12-inches, and whole rack of Clipse vinyl. Which isn't to say Recovery Position is a derivative thing. The club is clearly a consideration, but it’s equally clear that Gum Takes Tooth only allow for inspiration, not imitation.

Still, gone are any recognisably live drums, or any sense that this thing was recorded live in a room. Gone is that jammed-out, psych-indebted, exploratory looseness. (Again, we’re speaking comparatively.) Who knows if these things were present and accounted for during the album’s gestation, but the end result could have been programmed and produced entirely in a DAW for all I know. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. At all. Recovery Position is Gum Takes Tooth’s best record by a mile.

A lean and mean LP, the six tracks on Recovery Position are taut but, clocking in at between five and eight minutes each, long enough to fully explore their respective ideas without overstaying their welcome. Nothing here feels half-baked or undercooked. Fug and Brightmore waste no time in establishing a destabilising atmosphere of unease that teeters on the edge of oppressive but never quite topples into the abyss. It’s never (entirely) un-fun. This is no self-flagellatory exercise. At points, it’s closer to a party at the crumbling Packard Plant. For real, closer ‘Octavia Eclipse’ rolls up like the underground rave scene in The Matrix: Reloaded – just with better jams.

Similarly, for all its relentlessness and gloom, there’s something surprisingly galvanising about Recovery Position. In this music there is the sense that, even though they’ve been coming out on top for ages, the pigs can’t win forever. That perhaps their time is limited, that things are coming to a head. How long do the few get to hold onto everything? After all, Brightmore’s half-audible, whispered admonishments aren’t directed at the folks on the street. Why would they be? Gum Takes Tooth are swinging up. Though sunlight never breaks through Recovery Position’s coarse, yellow-brown cloud cover, by the end of it, you start to feel like it might. Hold up, is this secretly emancipatory music?

Over Easter weekend, my partner and I were driving east on I-94 towards my parents’ house. As we drove away from downtown, we saw the incinerator, sides ripped open, guts splayed out, in mid-demolition. It’s a life-affirming evisceration. After years of organising and protest, the place was finally shut down a couple years back, and in a surprising turn of events for Detroit, the building isn’t being left to rot. It’s coming down. Thinking back to this scene viewed at 68 MPH, it occurs to me that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Gum Takes Tooth aren't capturing the sound of disappointment or the feeling of “What's left?” Could be they’re turning their ears toward the de-assembly of the de-assembly line, to what happens after things have gone south. Maybe the feeling is “What’s next?”