Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Amebix: No Sanctuary
Title: No Sanctuary-The Spiderleg Recordings
Format: LP & 7"
Label: Alternative Tentacles
Amebix is, arguably, the first crust punk band. They blended metal and punk, sang in growly voices, lived in squats, and used dark and at times downright horrifying imagery in both their lyrics and album art in order point out the flaws in the modern political, economic, and social systems. They, alongside their contemporaries Antisect, borrowed the ethic and aesthetic developed by Crass and the first wave of British anarcho-punk bands and it took it a darker place. Thus, crust punk was born.
Musically though, there's a lot more going on here than just a fusion of punk and metal. What makes Amebix unique among crust bands, and in my view, better than Antisect, was their willingness and ability to experiment with sounds that fell outside of punk or metal. In my opinion, this is nowhere more evident than on their first EPs, No Sanctuary and Who's the Enemy, which have been combined by Alternative Tentacles as a single release. While the influences of punk rock and metal bands like Motorhead and Black Sabbath are evident here, this record is equally influenced by post-punk and early goth. Take away the growly-vocals, and a song like "Belief" could almost be a Gang of Four song, while "No Gods No Masters" could almost be a lost Killing Joke track as is. The first half of "Sunshine Ward" sounds more like Joy Division than a metal band, while the second half delves again into Killing Joke's sonic territory. The subtle and judicious use of keyboards and Gregorian chant-like backing vocals add a spooky, gothic quality to a couple of the tracks as well. Every song on this record is unrelentingly dark, but unlike a lot of the bands they inspired, the songs on this record definitely don't all sound the same.
Lyrically, a common theme on this album is each individuals complicity in their own repression, and ultimately in the damage to the world being wreaked by wars, industry, and unfair economic arrangements. As is often the case with Amebix records, the hyperbole can get a little silly at times, but at other times, the lyrics here are genuinely disturbing and thought-provoking. In terms of both sound and lyrics, if I had to sum this record up in one word, that word would be "bleak."
No Sanctuary is not the best recognized of Amebix releases. This is in part because the rights for all the material they recorded in the early days, for fellow anarcho-punks Flux of Pink Indians' Spiderleg Records, were tied up for quite a while. As a result, these songs were mostly out of print and hard to find for many years. Re-issued a couple of years ago on Alternative Tentacles, there are a few surprises here for people who might have previously only been acquainted with the later works of Amebix. Because the thin and trebly guitar sound of Crass and other bands that recorded on their label was so popular in the anarcho punk scene at the time, the recording engineers at Spiderleg gave the Amebix guitar sound a similar treatment. This is a far cry from the thick, heavy guitars that appear on the follow-up album, Arise! and the rest of the band's work. As a fan of the crunchier sound on their later albums, this was initially a bit off-putting to me (as it was to the band themselves when they first heard the recordings).
As I grew to know this album better, however, I've come to appreciate the production. It allows the post-punk influence to come through in a way that's easier to decipher than on later releases. Innovative basslines, disonant guitar work, and more inventive drumming that would feel more at home on a Joy Division record than a Motorhead record are all more evident here than on later releases. I'm not sure, but I think this may not be because they weren't doing these things later, it's just that they got swallowed up by the devastating wall of guitar distortion that appears on a lot of the songs on the likes of Arise! and Monolith. If I had produced Amebix, I probably would have pushed for a guitar sound that falls somewhere between what we get here and what they gave us on the later material.
In a nutshell, this record is crucial to the evolution of crust as a musical genre, but transcends what most of the bands in that genre have achieved sonically. If you are a fan of punk, post-punk, or metal, this is a record that should be in your collection. And, as a bonus, it comes with 7" copy of the first Amebix single, "Winter/Beginning of the End."
Intrigued? Check out "Sunshine Ward."
Total songs listened: 114