By Andrew Burton
“I’ve never felt better in my life,” Mark E. Smith sneers on The Classical, the opening track on The Fall’s seminal 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour. This line couldn’t have been further from the truth. By 1982, internal fighting and problems with their label Rough Trade Records were tearing the group apart. After just four LPs (five if you include Slates), Hex was supposed to be their last. But, in what was soon to become typical Fall fashion, the band miraculously persevered; Smith fired a few members (guitarist Marc Riley was dismissed on his wedding day), ditched Rough Trade for Beggar’s Banquet, quickly found new members and carried on. This cycle of hiring-and-firing would soon become the norm over the band’s 35 years, 66 members and 29 albums. But if the band had imploded after Hex, they would have been hard-pressed to write a finer farewell.
The first side of the album is virtually flawless. The aforementioned The Classical is one of the finest opening tracks ever recorded. The dual drumming of Karl Burns and Paul Hanley is most effective on this song. Their forceful tom rolls interlock to give the song a simultaneous tribal and driving feel. Even with two drummers, the spotlight is never stolen from front man Mark E. Smith. He eschews traditional rock singing for ranting in his distinct semi-tone vocal range and thick accent. His lyrics are notoriously cryptic and here is no different. In essence, the song is a visceral attack on British culture and Smith doesn’t shy from restraining his thoughts (choice lyrics: “You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new profile razor unit/Made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail”).
The rest of the album holds its own against this unshakable start. Hip Priest is an ominous waltz that alternates between quiet and loud sections, making it one of the band’s creepiest songs. Its slow tempo is a nice change from the uptempo rockabilly of the proceeding track Jawbone and the Air-Rifle. Fortress/Deer Park is the closest the band gets to a traditional punk song on the album with its loud and simple guitars and driving rhythm section. However, the song’s extended length, distorted organ jabs and Smith’s nonsensical lyrics stray this song into unordinary territory (a well-visited area for The Fall). The end result is fantastic.
I’m not sure if this is due to poor mixing and lack of money to pay for expensive recording sessions, but Steve Hanley’s bass is what leads most of these tracks. Instead of having the guitars play riffs while the bass adds depth by playing the chord roots, Hanley’s bass lines are prominent and creative. Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley’s guitars are pushed into the background and provide texture to the songs rather than distinctive patterns. In the wonderful and frightening world of the Fall, texture is simply noise, creating a perfect backdrop for Smith’s nihilistic rants.
Although not as strong as the first, side two is great too. Winter, the last track on side one is continued, albeit as a more instrumental version. Iceland shows a more experimental and softer side, and provides a change in pace in the same manner Hip Priest previously did. The band finally allows the listener to catch their breath before the album’s final and most chaotic track And This Day. This is The Fall at their snottiest and most unruly. Smith has often spoken about the influence of Krautrock bands on the group’s sound, and this track embodies those influences. The drummers’ beat doesn’t vary for the entire ten minutes while Smith’s vocals mingle with the noisy organ and guitar lines, creating a sound along the lines of a death march. It’s impossible to determine who has the lead, but who cares?
It’s a daunting, yet rewarding task to navigate your way through The Fall’s enormous discography of pop albums (the Brix era), dance albums (Levitate), and downright awful albums (Are You Are Missing Winner). Hex Enduction Hour is a fantastic starting point. While most punk and bands put out few records, The Fall are still releasing quality albums to this day due to their leader Mark E. Smith’s talent and relentlessness. Still, Hex is undoubtedly the band’s finest work and the best representation of their daring post-punk sound.