The Lead Review: Mike Diver On Teeth Of The Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula

Mike Diver explores the lingering effect of Teeth Of The Sea's fourth full length album, released on Rocket Recordings today

Fierce. That was the first word that came to mind on hearing London foursome Teeth Of The Sea’s third album Master. Fierce, swiftly followed by more impressions, demolition-derbying into each other inside my buffeted brain: brutal, raging, devouring, relentless. Master immediately made its mark on me as a work of consumption, destruction. It was flashbang-bright, senses-blinding sonic warfare to be played out on the mid-size stages of Britain’s touring circuit, an instant favourite of the year so far as these ravaged ears were concerned.

Highly Deadly Black Tarantula is something else entirely. Where Master stomped and bruised, this is more cerebral, more sinister than its makers’ previous collection, or indeed anything they’ve committed to public-facing physical or digital mediums since forming in 2006. Multiple listens on from my introduction to these six diverse tracks, arrangements which just about hold together as a single body of work but could easily be mistaken for material by wholly different groups if rearranged and aired without any explanation, I’m still unsure of where Highly Deadly sits with me, physically. I like it, clearly – my play count backs that up. But with each cycle my cloudy thoughts become no clearer as to what Teeth Of The Sea are saying with this fourth LP, what it’s conceptual core is and how they perceive their audience feeling once its climactic computer-y white noise has subsided.

How do I feel? Haunted, mostly. Master was all bulk and weight, fists and teeth and fractures, whereas this creeps from shadows, slips from place to plane, existing for the most part as the soundtrack to everything you never quite see, the blurry shapes that glitch into your peripheral vision when the lights are low. Of course there’s nothing there. Obviously. But what if? Highly Deadly is the music that rises steadily around the reveal of the what if, of the spectres and spooks of imagination, intangible but so very capable of causing distress, or worse.    

The album title surreptitiously implies levity, despite its threatening language, the four words that comprise it a mishearing of Harry Belafonte’s ‘Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)’ of 1956, a song best known to modern audiences as featuring in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuicethe scene where they’re all dancing around the dinner table before the prawn entrées become monstrous claws. Belafonte’s warning of something dangerous lurking behind a sweet treat – "A beautiful bunch o’ ripe banana… Hide the deadly, black tarantula" – makes sense as a banner for what Teeth Of The Sea have crafted here, a record that seems slight in comparison to what came before it, easier going and with a lighter touch; and yet it perhaps lingers longer, its eeriness as affecting as Master‘s sizzle was skin blistering.

‘All My Venom’ opens with metallic cries over a stinging buzz, setting the stage for something of almighty force to come crashing into the mix. Yet what follows is more measured, methodical: trumpet sounds a warbling, wandering serenade to what TOTS were, and when the guitars come they’re not bone crushing of purpose. This isn’t reinvention exactly, but it’s certainly a new modus operandi. Aggression is stripped back, thick atmosphere taking its place, unsettling, unnerving. On my second listen I noted: "mariachi ghost story". Several later and I’ll stick by that description for this album’s curtain-raising cut, which could so easily dance atop the titles of a zombie-infested Deadwood spin-off (someone, somewhere, has considered it, you damn well know it).

Yet what follows is not at all in the same tone. ‘Animal Manservant’ throbs and pulses like a cyberpunk boner, a bionic appendage of a track that only wants to penetrate your systems, steadily thrusting its host into sweaty submission. There’s a human voice here, too, but what it’s saying, what it’s screaming, is anyone’s guess. It’s texture, not detail, unlike the band’s signature trumpet, a presence always allowed breathing space amid the dense electronic distortions, room to stress its importance within the double-helix of this outfit’s design. It’s not the USP, exactly, but it’s fair to say that assessed compartmentally, Teeth Of The Sea draw easy parallels here with Suicide, HEALTH and many more acts of manhandled instrumentation both digital and likely to leave you with a splinter.

‘Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey’ is a wrong move, though, dropping the John Carpenter-via-Hot Chip (or vice versa?) ‘Field Punishment’ into a near-silent void for over four minutes. I don’t know what led the band to conclude that, sure, placing a break like this in the middle of the LP was a good thing – something to do with the vinyl format, perhaps, as if it’s anything thematic then its purpose is wholly unexplained – but few listeners are likely to sit through it more than once, especially when the track eventually develops teeth like steel nails. That said, it doesn’t particularly go anywhere, looping with menace but no purpose, taunting without taking action, and the following ‘Photogene’ is an interlude minute-and-some of disjointed crackles, human of origin but consumed by static, indecipherable voices carried on radio waves from another world.

All of which leaves the blindsidingly beautiful ‘Love Theme For 1984’ to close the set, a heady brew of psychedelic guitars and more of that magnificently morose trumpet – it’s the flipside to ‘All My Venom’, the end-credits accompaniment, mesmerising and meditative. Everything that comes between start and finish makes some semblance of sense when encountered as programmed, but Highly Deadly Black Tarantula has a strange unease to it, an air of what’s almost unfinished-ness. Which is not to say that it doesn’t function, successfully, as a complete whole; but much like movies made with incredibly strong first and final reels, it rather loses its direction around the midway point, necessitating commitment on the part of the listener to see the experience through.

Disquieting. That might be the last word to offer on Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. The mood that manifests here is certainly compelling, but there’s a modicum of gaps in the matrix that require audience participation to fill in. Which, perhaps, is the point. When ‘Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey’ is offering little distraction, the band saying nothing, all the listener is left with is their thoughts, their silence, their immediate surroundings in this low light, this wintry grey. A mind left to its own devices can quickly begin to play tricks on its owner, the imagination an unruly companion if allowed time for indulgence. So who but you, reader, listener, can truly declare what horrors these sounds might stir in the mind’s eye? That’s the only place they exist, of course. Of course.

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