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Rattling the Zeitgeist Rafters – “Honeymoon On Mars” from The Pop Group

The Pop Group
Honeymoon On Mars
Freaks R Us

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Isn’t it funny how The Pop Group have never been more relevant, no album of theirs more timely? To some extent, of course, this is just down to grim luck. They couldn’t have known – not exactly anyway – while ecstatically locked inside a studio bunker with their dream team pair of producers Dennis Bovell and Hank Shocklee, that new album Honeymoon On Mars, dropped Oct.28th on Freaks R Us, would be appearing on the calendar on the brink of an All Hallows’ Eve that no matter how frightening would be followed in a skipping heartbeat by a U.S. election whose dalliance with mortal planet-wide peril has the rest of the world – or anyway those with a whit of sense – rather shuddering with apprehension. There could not be a more fiendishly appropriate circumstance, and one can’t help but suspect to a point of almost total certainty that the band themselves are, in fact, giddy with the coincidental – nay, fated – irony of it all. It truly is as if they, and, as chance would have it, this album, were born for this moment.

Not that it’s prescience, exactly, as any and all of the themes being so artfully hammered at here have been the grist and grub of The Pop Group since inception. Still, when a lyric like “sado-modernism, none so cruel / the new normal, is divide and rule” shows up in the first minute of the first track “Instant Halo” – amid, it should be noted, some clean excoriating chafes of isolated, Hendrixian extracts, heavy prowling fuzz bass, and a melody-tracing synth the soothe of which disorients – it can seem as if Stewart and Co are declaiming from the dark nethers just behind the nightly news’s lurid green screen. Again, it’s not as if this hasn’t been this group’s gift to us whenever they’ve chosen to be active (and oh my are they active right now), it’s just that the gist, the meat of these particular noise bulletins wrapped in their (never more) acerbic funk, are at least as saturated in desperate relevance today as the original communiques back in the Reagan-Thatchered mindfuck chaos of The Pop Group’s incendiary first run. Crucially, though, while we’re loitering for a moment in the bask of that gloriously fractured yesteryear, it must be said with some emphasis that there’s no nostalgia here as the the band simply have no time nor space for that. Throw the phrase ‘halcyon days’ at them and more likely as not they’ll simply rip it into multiple pieces then reassemble it to fit their current liking. Embrace it they would not.

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[photo credit: Chiara Meatelli]

Run past that opening salvo, where Bovell’s talent for the pregnant dub-stop melds via a confrontational symbiosis with Shocklee’s knack for the sudden snap-to of up-in-your-grill sonic mayhem – that recipe will last and pay its handsome dividends throughout Honeymoon On Mars – you come to such squalls as the thumpingly seductive “City of Eyes” (more machine gun psych guitar from Gareth Sager, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Dan Catsis just about breaking the floor), the R’n’B-flecked cannonade of “War Inc.” that indeed throws shards of Edwin Starr, some slinky soul, and a prime (and very sampleable) hip-hop vibe into a spacey-heavy dub bucket then stirs it up with some turbo-charged chopper blades, coming away with a feral unbeatable slice of politi-funk madness. You come to first single “Zipperface,” twitching with a delectably nervous paranoia, its surging tremulous power notable enough to merit a second editorial boost from these pages as it might well best encompass the booming triple-threat exuberance that couldn’t not have occurred when these two mad scientist producers met uptown and head-on with this resurrected quartet of boisterous noise terrorists, the track’s unnerving immensity of propulsion, wry but no-punch-pulled narrative commentary, and precisely scattershot effects rattling the zeitgeist rafters with an unrestrained glee. As well we should probably talk about the raw subductive funkitude of “Pure Ones” that could function as a soundtrack to that fraught-with-unease nightmare you find yourself lost in on (ever-increasing) occasion but curiously don’t want to leave. Or, speaking of soundtracks, we should also talk about personal favorite – for now; expect change – “Little Town” with its undone London-based Morricone edge had the Italian maestro scored a wayward Biblical epic with Parliament in mind, rife with a stretched-thin tension always threatening to break.

Though age-wise well beyond the flaring, firecracker-breathing vitriolic antics of their youth, when The Pop Group with a righteous petulance took no prisoners and gave no quarter and did so with a sometimes reckless urgency¬†that led, as it will when the fired-up young are handed – or rather commandeer – a platform and a microphone, to not entirely undeserved charges of hectoring (utter political frustration, brought on not least by the black-hearted Iron Lady dismantling or trampling every social contract she could get her tiny hands on, could easily, in all fairness, have that effect on any of us), this re-emergent version of the group over the past few years rivals if not eclipses its younger Bristolian self, a fact attributable to their none-less daring audio profile – its sense of only just barely being harnessed still frantically in play – and bullhorn-ready fervency of purpose now enhanced by the mere application of maturity. Not ‘mitigated,’ not ‘mediated’ – either would suggest a not perceptible softening of contours and in truth their audacity could still not be sheerer; check the distorted PiL-isms of “Days Like These” or “Heaven?”‘s Beefheartian avant-strut, Stewart even copping the good Captain’s “ashtray heart” – but made fuller and even more vertiginous by the deep benefits of accumulated experience. By virtue of time alone, as well of course their inherent, even cussed, grittiness, the band’s density has acquired a greater clarity, their push toward the brutal truths displaying a more adept, and therefore more powerful, purpose. Legacies may get sullied elsewhere by others, but The Pop Group’s remains almost inconceivably intact.

If to some extent this band’s present-day impact shows diminishment it cannot be ascribed to lack of will and certainly not, as hopefully made clear herein, to even the slightest slip in quality of product. Instead, The Pop Group’s greatest challenge lies in the simple fact of how dramatically the stage and especially the audience has changed, the masses as they gather today obsessively distracted by a sea of devices, a world of faces lit up with the dull shine of modernity’s empty promise. That said, it’s hard to think of a ‘rock’ record this year that has a better chance of breaking through the lulled complacency of our hyper-connected age (the pull toward the dancefloor can’t hurt, surely). Beyond the way this record, and the partnership that came together to make it, subtly but assuredly underlines the double-meaning of the word ‘reactivity,’ one returns again to the eerily perfect timing of Honeymoon On Mars‘s release date and we here at SEM recommend you consider listening to this album before you go out to vote (and hell, even while you’re voting, headphones on while you draw the curtain behind you). This election – any election – heed the call and vote with your Pop Group groove on. Like the band themselves, it’s never been more urgent.

[just posted to YouTube Oct. 21st, here’s the video to go with first single “Zipperface”]: