Once In A Lifetime: On Land And In The Sea By Cardiacs Revisited

Nick Reed looks back a quarter of a century to one of the shining pinnacles in the back catalogue of Cardiacs

Here’s something I’ve always appreciated about Cardiacs – they are as advertised. If you read about them you will encounter a number of sweeping and clichéd generalisations. "You either love them or you hate them"; well, their fans tend to think of them as the greatest band that ever existed, while their detractors have been known to pelt them with objects on stage. Like ’em or not, they provoke a strong reaction out of just about everybody. "They sound like [three of your favourite bands] thrown into a blender". In this case, we’ll say…Van der Graaf Generator, Frank Zappa, and Devo. Oh, but they really do – they’ve got the catchiness (and stiffness) of Devo down pat, with the over-the-top theatrics of VdGG and the reckless time-shifting of Zappa to boot. Despite bandleader Tim Smith’s insistence that it’s only pop, there really isn’t a genre to describe their music (another cliché: "they are a genre onto themselves"). What do we call them? Pronk? Zolo? Another made up word? "There’s enough ideas in one song to fill an entire album." Maybe that’s overshooting it, but what do we make of something like ‘Tarred And Feathered’ or ‘Duck And Roger The Horse’, these sub-four minute tunes which play like a Discman gone haywire? "The best-kept secret in music" – okay, this one isn’t true anymore. Several Cardiacs videos have a number of views that are into the six-figures, perhaps thanks to a legion of devoted fans who feel the need to tell everyone about them. "Check ’em out – they’re like Oingo Boingo, Genesis, and XTC… on acid!" Perhaps your first reaction would be, "you’re overselling them". But should such a band exist, would they not sound something like this?

Alas, things never quite came easy for them. Their first CD, A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window, didn’t come until 1988 – the band had been around for nearly a decade by that point. They’d released cassettes on their own, which were often marred by terrible sound quality – their first, The Obvious Identity, was simply dubbed onto as many spare tapes as they could scrounge up. The one cassette album that eventually did get a re-release (1984’s The Seaside) wound up missing several tracks as the original recordings were too far damaged. Keep in mind, this was in an era when art-rock bands were still getting record deals left and right. Perhaps Cardiacs flew their freak flag a little too high. Certainly Devo’s image was equally unsettling in their early days, but at least their songs tended to be catchy and easy to digest. For the Residents, the surrealness was their calling card – they were just actively weird and that’s why you liked them.

The difference is that those bands always felt like art projects; maybe Cardiacs were too, but you were never sure just how in on the joke they were, or even who the joke was on. They clearly didn’t mind being laughed at; their stage act and music videos often resembled something that laid between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and The Three Stooges, and they spoke like philosophy majors that accidentally enrolled themselves in clown college. Their lyrics were cryptic and surreal, seemingly made up entirely of run-on sentences and non-sequiturs. They often made up elaborate backstories; most of the time they were clearly false, but surely they couldn’t always be so full of shit, could they? This resulted in their one brief moment of infamy, as the Sunday Sport latched on to a story that the married couple of Tim and Sarah Smith were actually brother and sister. Clearly false, but some did believe it – as anyone who comes into contact with Cardiacs knows, this is the sort of group you have to give a wide latitude to.

This, combined with the moderate success A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window, (and its riff-heavy single ‘Is This the Life?’, perhaps the most straightforward song the band ever did) allowed them to build up a bit of steam. On Land And In The Sea came only one year later, to mixed reviews. Well, everything they ever put out did. They were not exactly an easy band to drop among unsuspecting music journalists – AllMusic slapped it with 2 stars and referred to the album as a "whirligig of shattered atonal pop". You have to wonder if Zappa’s records wouldn’t have suffered the same fate had he not established himself in a time where artists were expected to be adventurous.

Still, AllMusic wasn’t exactly wrong. To a reviewer trying to knock out an impression of four or five albums a day, Cardiacs must be positively irritating. Their music is like a jagged rollercoaster; undeniably thrilling, but if this isn’t your thing, you’ll find yourself begging for some straighter track. Cardiacs are a band liable to change key, tempo, meter, time signature, even the entire genre at a moment’s notice; at first listen, opening tracks ‘Two Bites of Cherry’ and ‘Baby Heart Dirt’ seem to have entirely too many sections, cramming way too many notes into their three-and-a-half minute runtimes; other prog bands might take the entire side of an LP to get this many melodic ideas across. At the very least, you have to wonder what the sheet music would look like. Which is to say nothing of ‘Duck And Roger The Horse’; to continue the metaphor, this is where the rollercoaster gets so fast and turns so sharply that you may find yourself getting thrown off entirely (hitting the stop button and dashing off a quickly written, vaguely negative review).

Nowadays, Cardiacs tend to attract a different type of audience; if the idea of a pop-length song that feels like three separate epics dashed together and ran through at breakneck speed appeals to you, then Cardiacs may actually be your favourite band already. Part of the appeal of prog rock is the sheer talent on display; you could practice every day for the next ten years and not be able to play as well as Keith Emerson did in his day. Make no mistake – Cardiacs are indeed a talented band, and they are because they really, really have to be. Because there’s another dimension to it – Tim Smith writes the kind of music that practically no one else can. It’s equal parts Zappa, Gentle Giant, Magma, and the theme that blares out of the ice cream truck. Music this catchy shouldn’t get to be so complex; music this complex is almost never so catchy. The way they can take a busy melody, stretch it over a different meter, play it backwards, and then rotate it around all in the space of a few bars is unparalleled; okay, Zappa’s bands could do this kind of thing too, but Cardiacs make it sound like that’s just how the song goes.

Hence why they never fit the idea of neo-prog; outside of perhaps Gentle Giant at their most manic, there is not really a precedent for this kind of music. But even Gentle Giant couldn’t match the sort of balls-out intensity that Cardiacs could sum up on a whim; not only did they often play faster, but in Tim Smith they had a singer to match. Certainly the man could hold a tune, but you never quite know where he’s going, often singing like he’s doing nursery rhymes that interject screaming at random intervals. Balancing it out is his sister wife Sarah Smith, who has a voice that’s equally gorgeous and unsettling; like Kate Bush her pitch feels almost unnaturally high and childish. And why not? This is music that needs to take on all sorts of textures; they were a six-piece lineup at this point and they’ll be damned if they don’t all make their presence known. There’s a damn solid rock band at the core of all this, but Cardiacs are the type to plaster squealing saxes, ringing keyboards, clanging percussion, and sound effects over everything.

And so, what of On Land And In The Sea? Well, it’s a step forward from A Little Man in a sense; the compositions have more moving pieces and shifting tempos (and not just within the same section, either – songs like ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ or ‘Fast Robert’d always seem to be moving in some direction). They toy around with all sorts of structures here, with several songs not even making the two-minute mark, while a couple others have extended runtimes. Of course, extended is a relative term – ‘Buds and Spawn’ still feels brisk at seven minutes, and the closing ‘Everso Closely Guarded Line’ needs eight and a half to fully show off its massive sense of sweep (and believe me, it is massive – the swelling organ that comes in around 2:35 is as pure a shot of unfettered beauty as you’ll find in this catalogue). The shorter tunes are fascinating in their own right – ‘I Hold My Love In My Arms’ is a would-be gorgeous anthem that almost comically turns up the bombast, while ‘Horsehead’ shambles about with a melody that sounds like it could be something beautiful if it were played backwards.

On Land And In The Sea turns 25 this month, which is a little hard to believe; it doesn’t feel dated at all. Then again, how could it? Tim Smith is such a once-in-a-lifetime talent that nobody has exactly been able to advance this sound. Looking back, it’s still as insane and awesome as I remember it – most albums tend to lose a bit of lustre after you play them for months and months on end, but if anything, On Landd feels like it’s even more than what I remembered. There are all sorts of musical bits that I didn’t catch the first three dozen times around, though perhaps they’re things I wouldn’t have picked up on all those years ago. But that’s their whole appeal – the music is more complex than most of what came out of big-deal prog groups like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way on the surface. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tales From Topographic Oceans and Selling England By The Pound as much as anyone, but you’ve got to psyche yourself up a bit to listen to those albums – On Land And In The Sea is as effortlessly enjoyable as say, Devo’s Freedom Of Choice.

For Cardiacs, it was the end of an era. The classic six-piece lineup that appears on the cover with their sinister-looking grins (actually one of their nicer band photos, come to think of it) dissipated soon – Tim, Jim, and drummer Dominic Luckman remained, but the unique stylings of William Drake, Tim Quy, and Sarah Smith (who would at least guest on future albums) were no more. Jon Poole joined up and they became a four-piece, and looking at the surprisingly-normal cover photo for 1991’s Heaven Born And Ever Bright, you may get the impression that Cardiacs finally reigned themselves in a bit. There were certainly less textures, but the music within is just as manic and freaky as ever. As it turns out, the 90s was when Tim Smith’s songwriting muse really took off, resulting in the double album Sing To God, which remains my favourite album ever.

In 1999, the band released Guns, which is actually the most recent Cardiacs album. They’ve done some stuff since, notably the double live set Garage Concerts, which revamps nearly all their material prior to A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window. But new material was sparse – their Greatest Hits package included the excellent ‘Faster Than Snakes With A Ball And Chain’, and in 2007 a 3-song EP called Ditzy Scene appeared, teasing an upcoming double album that was to be called LSD. Unfortunately, we know what happened next – Tim was felled by a series of strokes which put the band indefinitely on hold.

It’s always a tragedy when a genius like Tim goes down, but there was something doubly frustrating about this. Cardiacs had always been "the best band you’ve never heard of", but through the magic of YouTube and the increasing presence of their fanatics on message boards, it appeared as though more people were discovering them every day. Certainly the unavailability of their music had been a big stumbling block (until recently, the actual CDs were nearly impossible to procure unless you were willing to spend upwards of $100 on eBay), but it did feel like the band was becoming something more than just a "secret handshake". Ironically, with Tim ill and all band activities on hold, the band’s profile seems to be bigger than ever. They may not be a band that you could just hoist on the public, but people who have an affinity for this type of music identify themselves pretty quickly online.

As of now, there’s no timetable for a possible return of Cardiacs, something the fans have made peace with – even if nothing new ever surfaces, Tim’s catalog to this point (including the Sea Nymphs, Spratley’s Japs, and a wonderful solo album) speaks for itself, and if there’s any justice, people will still be regularly playing this stuff in another 25 years. If you’re a fan, the good news is that a lot of the people that have worked with Tim are still making fine music – William D. Drake’s solo albums are lovely, while Kavus Torabi’s excellent band Knifeworld really does capture a piece of the Cardiacs spirit. But nobody else can write music quite like this, making albums like this seem all the more unique, given that we’ve had 25 years to catch up to it. Get well soon, Tim.

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