Dumb – ‘Thirsty’/Dub Sex – ‘Swerve’: Round 33 – Rob’s choice

Mark Hoyle and Cathy Brooks came out of Hulme, one of Manchester’s most blighted and slighted quarters, and channeled that parish’s cold concrete and desolate fire into not one but two great bands. Despite having the better part of a decade between them, both Dub Sex and Dumb were somehow not of their time and both were destined to disappear between the cracks, seeping back into the overflow.

At the centre of both undertakings was Mark Hoyle’s voice. Physically Hoyle, skinny and wire-spectacled, was every inch the disgruntled librarian, but when he opened his mouth he produced a sound like two drunks beating each other to death in a sewer. A glorious Mancunian roar from vocal chords which begged to be preserved and exhibited for future generations, even as they seemed to be tearing themselves to shreds with their every blasted syllable. If you think the voice cannot be a terrifying instrument of industrial post punk noise, hear Hoyle and think again. He was, whenever he opened his trap, magnificent.

That Dub Sex made such compelling music is all the more remarkable since Hoyle’s voice carries the weight of melody, bearing it with Titanic strength. ‘Swerve’ is pretty much perfect in my view. Three minutes of jagged, eviscerating force. ‘Waiting Room’ without the decorative tune. To my ears it compares favourably with Fugazi’s debut, a record which preceded it my just a few weeks. Why it wasn’t seized upon with the same voracity baffles me.

Dub Sex recorded EPs and singles and compiled these into a blistering but disjointed album, ‘Splintered Faith’, and then disappeared. Five years later, 1994, when Dumb’s debut single ‘Always Liverpool’ emerged as if from nowhere I couldn’t have been more excited. On ‘Thirsty’, the first of Dumb’s two albums, Hoyle’s voice and Brooks’ pounding bass guitar once again simultaneously lashed across and pinned down a raging noise, this time channeling in more melody, letting the sun shine in just a little. There are raging pop songs on ‘Thirsty’, alongside bludgeoning mosh-pit killers, alongside savant ballads, as incongruous as they are touching. It’s one of my favourite albums. I would take it to my desert island ahead of ‘Surfer Rosa’, ‘Nevermind’, ‘Candy Apple Grey’ or ‘Bug’.

But it sank without trace. I can’t even find an image of the cover art online to add to this piece. A few years later, now with two drummers, a more obtuse but only marginally less stunning second album, ‘King Tubby Meets Max Wall Uptown’, appeared, and that was the last of Dumb. I wish they’d gone on forever. I wish they were playing packed reunion shows, Hoyle’s voice holding up improbably through the years of gargling broken glass. I wish their music, so simple and irresistible, was played at weddings and school discos. Instead they are forever dumb.

Nick listened: It’s quite some time since we met for this session, so memory of Dumb and Dub Sex is fading. I do remember thinking that I understood what Rob meant when he compared Swerve to Waiting Room by Fugazi, but I think his “decorative tune” aside sums up pretty succinctly why Fugazi went on to sell a couple of million records around the world, and why you can’t even find Dub Sex’s record covers online. Plenty of music engages in the push-me-pull-you dynamics of attraction vs repulsion, where the abrasive and the pretty (or the funky) rub up against each other, from Public Enemy to My Bloody Valentine and far beyond. With Dub Sex / Dumb, there was plenty of the abrasive, but not quite enough of the pretty, whether that was hooks, melodies, texture, or something else. What they did was compelling enough, and I can see why Rob feels so strongly about it, but it was pretty unrelentingly grinding and dark.

Graham listened: Though I don’t recall ever hearing anything by Dumb, I’m sure I once read an article which praised their work. Having had a listen now, I can see why. Stark throughout but when the melodies/vocals are allowed through the darkness, they were stunningly engaging. Just came across as brutally, beautiful.

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Bloc Party – Silent Alarm: Round 33, Nick’s choice

Bloc Party are an odd one; this, their debut album, was a brilliant electric shock to me at the time, but subsequent records have really sullied the memory. Looking back from seven years on, Silent Alarm now feels flawed; over-stuffed, over-long, a victim of its own self-importance, as manifested in Kele Okereke’s lyrics, which somehow became even more pompous and ridiculous on the band’s second record, A Weekend in the City. (Their website at the time described them not as a band, but as an “autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day.” Of course.)

Saying that, despite the fact that it’s about three songs too long and ludicrously self-serious in tone, Silent Alarm also thrilling; as well as the obvious postpunk and mid 00s indie signposts, there’s a big bite of Airbag by Radiohead running through Bloc Party’s sonic aesthetic of cacophonous, tumbling drums, tactile basslines and lightning guitars, pushing them further into genuine modernism than many of their unashamedly retro peers. So Russell Lissack’s guitars swerve from the spiky signature of post punk to a keenly emotional, effects-laden futurism, while Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong together make a furiously propulsive and hysterical rhythm section which prevents Silent Alarm from ever seeming anything less than utterly contemporary.

The problem is that it’s very easy to take Bloc Party as all aesthetic, all bluster, and little heart. Blue Light, This Modern Love, and So Here We Are offer tantalising glimpses of genuine emotion (still driven by too-fast rhythms which prevent that emotion ever seeming mawkish), but the likes of Price of Gas, Plans, and She’s Hearing Voices, whilst exciting to me seven years ago, now seem gauche and clumsy. Such is the folly of youth, I suppose.

Rob listened: It was good to hear ‘Silent Alarm’ again, although telling I suppose that I haven’t gone back to it since its release. This slight return reminded me why. I recognise Nick’s description, and there are moments when Bloc Party seem about to perform a magical musical alchemy, taking the approach of spiky post punk and forcing it through modern sounds into a new, twisted shapes. Guitars careen and the voice swerves but, ultimately, the breakthrough is not achieved. Like the listener, you sense that Bloc Party could sense what they were close to creating, but they just couldn’t reach it.

Nonetheless, ‘Silent Alarm’ couldn’t have been a better opener for what turned out to be an evening of Post Punk Through The Ages.

Graham listened: This was the first time I have ever given Bloc Party any considered listening. My traditional response has been to turn them off/over whenever they appeared on radio/tv. Just never really understood the mix of sounds/rhythms, with the end result it all sounded too awkward to bother with. For the first time I have now moved on in my appreciation of them. Listening properly without too much distraction finally lowered my defences to the point that I could begin to understand they were trying something quite clever.  By no means converted, but will aim to give them a fairer listen in future.