Pere Ubu

Carnival Of Souls

Very few bands display such dedication to constant self-reinvention as Pere Ubu, whose highly methodological madness always seeks new ways of evolving their sound, whilst paradoxically keeping their DNA essentially unchanged. Perhaps only The Fall (who John Peel once famously described as "always different, always the same") can be said to have walked such a similarly fine line over such a lengthy career arc.

Ubu began performing live soundtracks to classic black-and-white cult films starting in 2002 with Jack Arnold’s 1953 science-fiction epic It Came From Outer Space and moving on two years later to Roger Corman’s X: The Man With The X-ray Eyes. Given David Thomas’s often stated acknowledgement of the influence of Ghoulardi (the anarchic fictional persona of Ernie Anderson, presenter of late night B movies and father of the film maker PT Anderson) in imparting a sense of ‘otherness’ to Cleveland bands of the 70s, such films could hardly have found a more apt band to underscore them. Indeed, Pere Ubu’s inherent sense of inner darkness and use of widely ranging electronic textures–including the classic sci-fi instrument the theremin–made them the perfect B movie house band. The soundtracks were performed with such attention to detail and with such respect for the films in question that they were always hugely successful.

As an Ubu fan, however, as much as I enjoyed them, I always wanted to hear the band play more than the spaces in the film allowed for–as great as their soundtracks were, I wanted to hear songs. Happily, with the release of the new album, the dichotomy has been solved. The live score for the film Carnival Of Souls was first performed at the London East End Film Festival in 2013, and ideas taken from the soundtrack were further developed and mutated whilst the band were on tour. The album takes the more electronic direction of 2013’s Lady From Shanghai further still, towards what Thomas describes as a mixture of Suicide and Kraftwerk, and accentuates the prominence of newcomer Darryl Boon’s clarinet in the mix. The result is a beautifully eerie song cycle whose pulsing analogue heart is even darker than the penumbral territories the band usually inhabit.

In many ways, Herk Harvey’s 1962 low-budget shocker Carnival Of Souls is the perfect Pere Ubu source material – a spectral road trip undertaken by an outsider into an increasingly alienating landscape. The other element in the album’s stated intent, the "fixing of prog rock" is not immediately apparent, although the 1971 Van der Graaf Generator album Pawn Hearts (which Thomas claims as an inspiration prior to beginning the recording process) is certainly one of the darkest and most tortured sounding examples to be found in the genre, equal parts punk and krautrock in spirit and an avowed favourite of both John Lydon and Julian Cope. Opener ‘Golden Surf II’ – easily the most direct and rocking track on the album – is something of a red herring in terms of the songs that follow. It’s as though the band are saying ‘see how well we can still do this’, before heading off on another tack entirely. ‘Drag The River’ contrasts doom-laden bass and booming drums with clarinet and theremin, the woodwind instrument rising crystal clear above the otherwise murky atmosphere. It’s a startling combination, a simultaneous evocation of ancient and modern that is used to great effect throughout the album. ‘Visions Of The Moon’ shimmers and twinkles like starlight over a steady heartbeat pulse before dissolving into chaotically oscillating swathes of electronic sound. ‘Dr Faustus’ is one of the most far-out tracks on the album, a spooky spoken word piece which finds Thomas screaming ‘I am damned’ in a way that surely echoes Peter Hammill’s ‘I know I’m not a hero […] I hope that I’m not damned’ from ‘Man-Erg’ on Pawn Hearts.

By the time we get to ‘Bus Station’, ‘Road To Utah’ and ‘Carnival,’ the band are really hitting  their stride. Propulsive, dark and hypnotic, its easy to see these tracks being inspired by the road scenes from the movie, as is aptly demonstrated by the video to ‘Road To Utah.’ Taken together, these three songs are for me, the highlight of the album and as compellingly powerful as anything Ubu have ever done. Following on from the intense climax of ‘Carnival,’ which showcases the band at their most driving and machinelike, ‘Irene’ changes direction once again with a lovely, serenely atmospheric melody. Given all that has gone before, the effect is like coming out of a dark tunnel into a spacious, calm night with a clear open sky.

‘Brother Ray,’ the final track, available only on the CD version, is a 12-minute long improvised piece that Thomas describes as a prelude to Nathanael West’s ‘Day Of The Locust.’ An epic exercise in delayed climax, it really hits home when the payoff finally arrives. The vinyl version omits the final track, instead opting for a series of minute-long ‘strychnine interludes’ made up of stretched out guitar notes, shortwave interference, Thomas reading from ‘Last Of The Mohicans’ and Morse code spelling out ‘Merdre Merdre’, thereby referencing both the infamous first word of the Alfred Jarry play from which the band took their name, ‘Ubu Roi’, and their song ‘The Modern Dance’.

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