Monday, 13 October 2008

Album Review: 'The Holy Bible'

Last week, I posted my introduction to this new album review section. I waxed lyrical (a rather neat choice of cliche there, as you'll soon see) about how, for me, great music is more than just nice words and pretty tunes. It's atmospherics and intricacies, the ultimate dedication to all-consuming mood. I'm now going to be rather irritating, and plunge straight into a review of an album that is truly great, for precisely none of those reasons.

Hey, wait. Come back. Let me explain. Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible is my favourite album. It's been my favourite album pretty much since I first discovered it, three or four years ago, and immersed myself in its lyric booklet. Here was the spirit of Ginsberg, Camus and Plath, distilled into a near perfect hour-long outpouring of intelligent, literate rage. It's the voice of my hero, Richey Edwards.

Richey couldn't play his guitar. He didn't sing. He was an alcoholic, self-harming anorexic. But there was a fiery, poetic intelligence that burned within him, and lyrically, there is no other rockstar that even comes close to the attention to detail, the wealth of information in his songs. Nowhere was that talent so totally addressed as this, his legacy, his statement of intent. It's almost ludicrous, the quality and consistency of the words that make up this dark, intense beast. Songs about the extremes of human existence, about anorexia, prostitution, genocide, delivered with such a perverse, searing beauty that it's impossible to tear yourself away.

Take the couplet from 'Yes' that I quoted back in my very first entry on this blog, a paean to the prostitution of the self in one's art; "In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything/for $200, anyone can conceive a god on video". Or the devastating introspection audible on the autographical 'Faster'; "I am idiot drug hive/The virgin tattered and the torn/Life is for the cold made warm and they are just lizards/Self disgust is self obsession honey and I do as I please/A morality obedient only to the cleansed repented". These aren't just words to mouth along to, they're complete works of art.

I'm not being completely facetious here, building up some manifesto one week only to tear it down the next. I do reserve the right to contradict myself (as Nicky Wire once said of his occasionally hypocritical TV interview rants), but there is musical genius at work here, too. At every turn, the ugly beauty of Edwards' vision is mirrored by some terrific (in both senses of the word) production. Take the doom-laden bass that crawls under your skin at the start of 'Archives of Pain', for instance, brooding and growling, gradually joined by keening feedback, before unwrapping itself into a scratched, battered and bruised guitar riff. You wouldn't think it possible for a guitar to sound like revenge, bloodlust and capital punishment, but somehow the way it writhes, contorts, it captures the fury of those lyrics.

Samples are scattered throughout these thirteen tracks, disembodied, disenfranchised voices, pulled from myriad sources, yet somehow bound to each other. A salespitching pimp. The anguished mother of a murder victim. A weary, ageing actor. At the midpoint, a snippet of taped interview with the author J.G. Ballard surfaces through the claustrophobic din, Richey's mantra. "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror." Ballard was talking about his novel, Crash, but he cuts to the core of what The Holy Bible is about.

The monolithic, six-minute penultimate song 'The Intense Humming of Evil', hyperbolic though it may sound, condenses all of these elements in a burst of controlled post-punk atmosphere that really does justify that title. Opening with a bed of industrial white noise, the sounds of a death-machinery, it builds unbearable suspense with a minute-long sample of a reporter at the Nuremberg trials; "From the ditch at Kerch, the dead will rise, bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe. And the children, they too will come, stern and merciless. The butchers had no pity on them." Just as the crescendo becomes almost unbearable, it is interrupted by the snap and echo of reverberating snare, the beat itself becoming malevolent and machine-like. The guitars somehow manage the trick of seeming to constantly ascend, up and up, cranking the pressure further and further as Richey's words document with dignified respect the horror of the holocaust; "In block 5 we worship malaria/Lagerstrasse, poplar trees/Beauty lost, dignity gone/Rascher surveys us butcher bacteria". And the dread bass returns once more, still climbing further and further up, slowing and slowing, until finally it echoes quiet and all that remains is the shrill howl of the wind through Birkenau, where the birds no longer sing.

The Holy Bible proved to be Richey's epitaph. Just a few months after its release he vanished, never to be seen again. It is not known whether he is alive or dead, if he committed suicide or went into hiding, but this record remains, a document of his brilliance. It's an unflinching, confrontational, disturbing experience, and it's everything that great art should be. No compromises.

Next week, I'm going to the opposite end of the spectrum, to an album that delivers just as much intensity, almost without the use of any words at all. It's going to be the epitome of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. See you there.

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