You need to hand it to The Membranes, a band that has been making difficult, awkward, occasionally bewildering music since at least 1981.
Band mainstay John Robb now has several added strings to his bow than just that of the bassist in a chaotic noise trio, and regularly turns up in documentaries about other bands, edits Louder Than War magazine and also formed the more identifiably glam rock sounding Gold Blade, whom I got to see at Tut’s in about 2004. His combination of reputation and longevity is what has kept The Membranes on or near track, and ‘What Nature Gives…’ is their ninth full length album and the third since the band reformed in 2009.
Needless to say my music player has properly jumbled the album tracks away from their correct running order, not that this matters a lot as this 16-track opus is enough of a collage of instruments and words to not require much in the way of a formalised structure. The actual sound of the Membranes is what’s important here, powerhouse shambolic rock trio augmented with strings and choir along with Robb’s rasping vocals and expressionistic lyrics. The overall effect is something like Syd Barrett fronting Hawkwind, an idea that’s bolstered by the squiggly electronics and echoey guitar parts. Or maybe it’s something like The Fall with, well, John Robb on vocals. Whatever the comparison, ‘What Nature Gives…’ is a bit of a tour de force from a band whose reputation is an unquestionably deserved one.
My info was that the album title was in fact ‘A Murmuration Of Starlings On Blackpool Pier’ and if you haven’t heard anything by The Membranes it’s a useful introduction, with its (probably sampled) string intro, dustbin percussion and the vivid imagery of Robb’s words. The nature theme carries throughout album, notably on the doomrock of ‘The City Is An Animal (Nature Is Its Slave)’ while ‘A Murder Of Crows’ takes us back to the stumbling rhythms of mid-’80s Membranes and channels Beefheart and Tom Waits simultaneously. ‘The Ghosts Of Winter’ shuffles along like vintage PIL in one of their more experimental phases, and album closer ‘Pandora’s Box’ is sheer virulence, between its thrashing guitars and baffling time signatures.
It would have been quite acceptable for John Robb to make an acoustic album or just publish a book of poems, but The Membranes of 2019 are as spectacularly unpredictable and actually deranged as any of their previous incarnations, and beneath the seeming chaos is a fervent discipline that makes every bass and guitar note, hoarsely delivered word and jingling rattle on a cowbell count. Actual artistry and a refusal to compromise doesn’t always succeed, but no-one ever told John Robb that or, if they did, he obviously wasn’t listening.