Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26: The Swell Maps, "A Trip To Marineville"

Artist: The Swell Maps
Album: A Trip To Marineville
Year: 1979
Label: Rough Trade


Countless times throughout music history, the bands that served as the pivotal players for the birth of a new style of music are forgotten and overshadowed by the bands that made the sound famous. In many ways, the timeless Bob Marley lyric, "If you know your history, then you will know where you're coming from" rings perfectly true. Taking these two thoughts into account, there are few bands that so completely represent these ideas as one finds with early British "art rock" pioneers, The Swell Maps. Playing a massively wide range of musical styles, the group can be seen as largely responsible for a large part of the post-punk sound, as well as one of the most indispensable forces behind the formation of the "new wave" genre. Though the band only released a pair of full length albums, they were together for nearly a decade, and after splitting up, many of the band members' later projects were just as influential. Playing everything from straightforward, simple, punk rock to some of the most intriguing, original "art rock," The Swell Maps proved to be a group that knew no musical boundaries, and the wide range of influences that one can hear in their music is nearly as impressive as the music itself. Though the band had existed in some form or another since the early 1970's, they did not release a full length record until the final year of the decade. This album, The Swell Maps' 1979 debut, A Trip To Marineville, is without question one of the most uniquely fantastic and massively influential albums ever recorded.

One can make very little argument that the sound of The Swell Maps is unlike that of anything else that was recorded previously. Pulling influence from groups like The Rolling Stones and T. Rex as much as they do from the likes of Can or The Damned, The Swell Maps present one of the most truly unique musical sounds that the world has ever heard. The fact that the group is able to not only incorporate such varied influences into their music, but that they actually play within the confines of multiple genres, is just part of what makes them so unique. While many bands attempt to perform different styles of music, there are very few that have done so with as much technical success and sonic brilliance as one finds throughout A Trip To Marineville. The amount of impact that their sound had can be heard in so many later bands, with one of the clearest examples being the dark, eerie sound of "Gunboats" that is unquestionably one of the earliest examples of what would become the "post punk" sound. This pounding, menacing sound was clearly a massive influence on an entire generation of musicians, and one can clearly hear remnants of it within the music of bands like The Birthday Party, Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, and even Pavement. This massive amount if influence across the musical spectrum, as well as the latitude of bands from which they draw they style is a direct effect of the unparalleled level of musicianship within the six members that made up the band.

When they need to be loud and outrageous, The Swell Maps bring a fury that would have made The Sex Pistols take note, yet when they need to be melodic and more restrained, the group is equally as impressive. Leading this sonic charge are bothers Epic Soundtracks (real name: Kevin Paul Godfrey) and Nikki Sudden (real name: Adrian Nicholas Godfrey). It is the vision of these two musicians that serves as the bands' primary direction, and the brothers were clearly a pair that listened to quite a bit of music in their early years. Though the brothers worked with a number of different groupings over the years, they did not find the "right" fit until they began working with bassist Jowe Head (real name: Stephen Bird) and guitarist Richard Earl. Head's wild, powerful basslines proved to be the key change in the bands' sound, as it is his playing that gives the songs on A Trip To Marineville their looming, sinister tone. The guitar work of Earl is also wonderfully unique, as he uses the album to experiment with what different types of sound he can get out of his guitar. Alongside these two musicians and the brothers Godfrey are fellow musical visionaries Phones Sportsman (real name: David Barrington) and John Cockrill. The combination of all six of these musicians working around one another creates one of the most imposing and magnificent walls out sound that has ever been recorded, and it is truly a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

There is little question that the combination of these six musicians is unlike that of any other band in history, yet it is the talents of Nikki Sudden that rise above the others and prove to be the most vital to the bands' sound. Serving as the primary vocalist for The Swell Maps, as well as writing a majority of the songs found on A Trip To Marineville, his vocal style was clearly equally as influential as the music over which he sings. Vocalists from Lux Interior to Jeffrey Lee Pierce clearly take some of their vocal approach from Sudden's style, yet one can hear traces of everyone from Lou Reed to David Bowie within the voice of Sudden. Much like the music over which he sings, Sudden's voice sounds as perfect in the slower, more melancholy songs as it does on the more fast paced, punk songs, and this proves to be an absolutely invaluable element within the bands sound. Though the more "traditional" sounding sounds found on A Trip To Marineville are truly superb, it is often the more avant, more "artsy" songs that makes the band such legends. Presenting a true "noise experiment," the song "Don't Throw Ashtrays At Me!" is as "outside the box" a song as one can get; and while it may seem like nothing more than random musicality under random speech, there is unquestionably a structure to the song, and this proves to be the true genius behind The Swell Maps. It is the juxtaposition between songs like these and the more straightforward punk songs like "H.S. Art" that makes A Trip To Marineville such a stunning experience.

While many make the case that by the time 1979 rolled around, "true punk" was dead, the truth of the matter is, it was not; it had simply returned to its birthplace in the smaller, less commercially exposed bands of the world. This statement is rarely more true then one finds in the extremely unique and often indescribable music of The Swell Maps. Taking the "punk" ethos to the extreme, the group even went so far as to release their debut single (with their final lineup) on their own record label, Rather Records. This single led to a more formal distribution deal with Rough Trade Records, and also led to their recording of their first full length album, the massively influential, A Trip To Marineville. It is on this record that one can hear a wide range of influences at play, as The Swell Maps created music like no other band in history. Mixing together everything from the hardest of punk to the most "out there" of experimental music, The Swell Maps unknowingly laid down the groundwork for a number of smaller genres that would follow over the next two decades. Combining the brilliant talents of six musicians, the soundscapes that the group create run the gamut from more "formal" rock numbers to punk classics to true experiments of sound. It is due to the magnificent way in which the group carries out each of these varied styles that The Swell Maps stand today as absolutely music legends, and their 1979 debut, A Trip To Marineville remains a similarly indispensable and musically stunning record.



Standout tracks: "H.S. Art," "Midget Submarines," and "Gunboats."

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