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Monday, 8 October 2012

¡Forward, Russia! - Demos (2005)

¡Forward, Russia! are a band that underachieved. Their first album Give Me a Wall was very good: innovative guitar playing, ear-splitting vocals, and bizarre drum patterns and timings combined to create some astounding pieces of genre-straddling music. They were a little heavy on the gimmick-front during their early days: they boasted more punctuation than your average band; they drew on Soviet iconography and Slavonic typography; all of their song titles had numbers instead of names; and their songs seemed to be disparate ideas stuck together without regard for flow or traditional notions of song structure. Beyond the bravado and the gimmickry was an incredibly talented group of musicians.

By the time they released their second album Life Processes, ¡Forward, Russia! had matured as musicians: they had dropped the numerical fetishism; their songs were more fluid whilst still retaining the innovative streak that had made Give Me a Wall so exciting; and they wrote some excellent, albeit incredibly underrated songs. In the months following the release of Life Processes it was as if ¡Forward, Russia! had lost something – perhaps they had peaked artistically, or maybe they simply grew bored of the schedule of touring and promoting an album – but in 2008 they decided to go on a hiatus, and have remained on it since. I saw them play at Leeds Met in March 2007, and can recall the guitarist complaining that he was bored of performing the old songs. They were a band on the verge of becoming something quite special, and I believe that their two studio albums only scratched the surface of their potential.

The first time I saw ¡Forward, Russia! was in a small venue at Leeds University called Mine in January 2006. I had been dragged along by a friend of mine who wanted to check them out. I have very few memories of the show: I remember thinking that most of the audience were bell-ends with stupid haircuts and vacuum-packed jeans and that I saw Steve Lamacq at the end of the show and berated him with a heckle that was about a decade out-of-date (“Richie Manic is dead - get over it!”) – I was a drunken dickhead.

I’m not sure whether I bought the album at the gig, or whether it was given away for free, but I came home from the show with a CD containing twelve demos of songs ‘One’ to ‘Twelve’ (they were in numerical order). Many of the songs featured on Give Me a Wall in a rerecorded form. These recordings are raw demos that capture ¡Forward, Russia! during their early days.

The first track on the CD ‘One’ is a shambolic post-punk offering in a 5/4 timing meaning that it can’t help but sound off-beat and jerky. As the song opens, drummer Katie Nicholls counts in the band with a screamed “1 2 3 4 5”. The barking of numbers is a motif that characterised much of ¡Forward, Russia!‘s early work. I had a theory that the musicians weren’t quite good enough to play in those awkward time signatures without assistance – I was right: a friend of mine once talked to the band about this in the Angel Inn in Leeds (yes, even rock stars drink in Sam Smith’s pubs) and they confirmed my suspicions (although they may have just been humouring him). The fact that they dropped the number-barking gimmick on Life Processes is testament to how much the band matured as musicians. The lyrics to ‘One’ are bizarre and are yelped almost indecipherably (“Everyone’s a cost cutter on Vagina Row” apparently). ‘Two’ verges on the terrain of Deerhoof weirdness. The melodic guitar work in this song is raw and clumsy, and the vocals are punctuated by small pockets of delay to create an echoic exclamation point at the end of each line. Through all the bum notes and missed beats, this is still an incredible piece of music that builds to a massive crescendo of Mogwai-esque noise. ‘Three’ smacks you immediately with its sheer urgency: meandering bass and spiky guitars float over thumping drums as the vocals are screamed and spat. The song’s chorus is incredible, but is quickly chopped away by a strange off-beat interlude until returning to the chorus during the outro. This song is why I fell in love with ¡Forward, Russia! – it takes you by surprise and through its faults, tries to do something different with traditional rock music structures that have remained unquestioned and obvious since before even Robert Johnson decided to go have a little chat with Satan. ‘Four’ might be one of my favourite tracks on this compilation, and I’m still a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t rerecorded for Give Me a Wall. It opens with a catchy, rattly bass-riff and funky drum pattern that seems to lean slightly towards Goo-era Sonic Youth. As the song progresses we are treated to all manner of strange yelpings by vocalist Tom Woodhead: lines about electric cars, carnal hides and even a bit of pat-a-cake. ‘Five’ is a little more disjointed: the song’s verse is melodic and soothing, but this is shattered by a convulsive, off-key guitar interlude and pained vocal cries. ‘Six’ bursts in with Big Black levels of distortion as Woodhead shouts “everybody's fine at the top of the world”. The barking numbers return, but this time they count up to seven! I could have put a segway here, but I didn’t. ‘Seven’, the lowest numbered song to feature on Give Me a Wall (tracks ‘Seven’, 'Nine', 'Eleven' and ‘Twelve’ are all featured on the album), is another jerky and quirky track that transforms into pure melodic brilliance. There’s an appeal to ”Bring that Jolly Roger on home” as the drums pound with almost military precision. This song is truly excellent: the chorus is massive, the structure is intriguing and the melodic bass-playing is quite stunning. Of course, the version on Give Me a Wall is much crisper with better production and a broader dynamic range. ‘Eight’ is probably the straightest rock song in the collection, but is also one of the weakest. ‘Nine’ is another excellent track. Again, one can’t help but compare it to the superior version on Give Me a Wall, but it still showcases the band as brilliant song-writers: great vocals, huge choruses and killer guitar hooks make this one of the best tracks that ¡Forward, Russia! produced. ‘Ten’ suffers from the same issues as ‘Eight’ in that it doesn’t manage to capture the magic of tracks like ‘Four’, ‘Seven’ and ‘Nine’. ‘Eleven’ is powerful and energetic with a deep grungy intro and a frenetic verse that verges on the chaotic, building into a huge synth-laden noise. This is a song built around a series of crescendos in which it gets torn down and built back up to the full-blown sonic assault you’d only usually find at the end of a My Bloody Valentine set. ‘Twelve’ might be the poppiest track on the collection, with its catchy guitar hooks and hand-claps during the chorus.

This is a great collection of rare gems by ¡Forward, Russia! that I feel privileged to own. This CD is definitely a keeper.

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Garry M. said...

superb article. iForward, Russia! were genius, its a shame that they gave it all up. I know a few of them went on to do other bands.

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