The first of an occasional series that has nothing to do with screenwriting whatsoever. As I might’ve mentioned before, I might infrequently go off on a tangent and indulge in my tastes for noisy, obscure music that no-one else has ever heard of. To prove this, go to my ‘Profile’ page and click on the word ‘Slab!’ under music (second line). Go on, do it now, you know you want to.
Bloggers with favourite music that includes Slab! – No Profiles Found
No other person in the entire blogging universe lists this band.
I don’t think you can get more obscure than that.
Try plugging Slab! into Google and see what you come up with. Apart from a Brummie metal band who have nicked the name, not a lot.
In some respects, these facts make me feel incredibly smug, inasmuch as I know about this band and the rest of the world doesn’t. However, for the most part, I feel massively aggrieved that such a brilliant and essential record has passed people by without anyone noticing.
The following review is a sort of adaptation of the one on Amazon (I wrote that one too).
SLAB! – DESCENSION – Ink Records, 1987 (re-issue - Release Records)
Re-issued from a long deleted vinyl release, this is still one of the few records that I would unhesitatingly define as 'essential', purely because there's nothing out there either before or since that quite sounds like this.
Forget the scary looking band photo, all silly hats and mullets. This was originally released in 1987, so perhaps they can be forgiven.
Imagine Michael Gira from Swans waking up one morning with a nagging pop tune in his head, but only being able to play it with the volume turned up as loud as it will go. Or the scuzzed up, stroppy older brother of Material's Memory Serves. Or Trent Reznor slumming it without a major record deal, forced to record in the shittiest south London studios that his meagre dole money could afford. If any band melded together such a disparate range of musical styles, emerging at the other end with something that still sounds entirely modern, progressive and above all unique, then I wanna hear it.
Before this record, Slab had released three 12" singles, noted for their dedication to a particular type of Clintonesque groove, albeit somewhat scuzzy – slick, geometric basslines with bursts of jazzy horns all married to a droll vocal delivery. All very listenable, but very late eighties: a little contrived maybe – studied, over-polished perhaps. Slab! was a band with a plethora of members, so maybe a degree of democratic watering down was to be expected.
Nothing this band did before quite prepares you for the assault of Descension.
'Slab' just about sums up this record. Tunnel of Love, the opener, hits the ground screaming with a burst of white noise guitar sampled to sound like no other guitar you've ever heard in your life. If this is a statement of intent, it works. From this point on, there is no let up.
This is like the soundtrack to the scariest movie you've never seen. Undriven Snow melds a discordant two note guitar riff with a surprisingly melodic vocal, the bass bucking and warping, threatening to take the whole song down some dark alley and give it a damn good kicking.
Think of Descension as an industrial jazz record with all the stops pulled out.
This is dark stuff – drone laden, dubby, loud as hell, the classic definition of lo-fi. Put this band in a 48 track digital studio and they wouldn't make any sense. Slab! need that dirty, scuzzed out sound, that rough around the edges feel that you can only apparently find in cheap, decrepit south London studios.
Slab! rip into every song as if their recording time is on a meter. Everything sounds urgent, impassioned. Dolores is a huge stand out track, at once both paranoid and immense, the hushed verse giving way to monstrous beats, hesitant horns punctuating a fierce bass line.
Improvisation is high on the agenda on tracks such as Dr Bombay and Moosleand, where Slab slip effortlessly slip into a relaxed, scuzzy loungecore, improvising effortlessly around skittery piano notes and erratic beats – the sound of a band confident enough to know that they can get away with this and still make it compelling. Even the way in which the tracks have been recorded suggest an urgency. There is a real desperation to get this stuff down onto tape before the moment is lost – ticks and buzzes, feedback, strange industrial clankings, buzzy amps – all have their place here. Even the primitive samples are ragged, punched in when required, speed of the essence.
And all this is before you enter the paranoid, cinematic world that Paul Jarvis’ lyrics conjure up. The album’s openers – Tunnel of Love and Undriven Snow - read like narratives from serene but ultimately disturbing short films. Dolores is an unsettling dream of environmental collapse – “On the banks of a river, in a sweltering town, She can sense there’s great sickness in the water supply.” Vigilante justice groups roam the streets in Gutter Busting, kicking down doors and dealing drugs with impunity. If this sounds exhausting, it is, but this is exhilarating stuff. Music played by a band straining at the end of its tether, music teetering on the edge of collapse.
Two bonus tracks are included from the People Pie 12", but they already show a band retreating, as if the excesses of Descension were merely a freak aberration. As good as the reworked People Pie is, it can't disguise a move into a more commercial sound – backing singers, a guitar solo, a lot less of the ‘knackered studio aesthetic’ that their previous sound was rooted in – details that Descension does not concern itself with at all.
And why should it? Twenty years on, this sounds as good now as it did then.
In short, if you want to know where Trent Reznor gets the majority of his ideas from, check out this album.
Slab! released a further album entitled Sanity Allergy a year later, also on Ink Records. To date, this has not been released on CD – my vinyl copy is still playable, but only just.
Just for fun, look what happened to their bass player, Bill Davies.
On a screenwriting related note, the first script I ever wrote was called Descension. I sent it to Planet 24, who asked me, "Is Descension actually a word?" Well, no – technically it isn’t, but it’s a damn great record. It’s a crying shame nobody’s even heard of it.
Later in the week I'll be discussing the difference between a bitch slap (as administered by Gordy Hoffman in the previous post) and a pimp slap (as administered by a well known UK script editor), so stay tuned!