Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Lines - Flood Bank Album Review (2008)

A review for So glad I got this album to review. Following on from Memory Span, reviewed earlier this year for The Music Magazine, this continues my new obsession with The Lines - a band I had never heard of until this year. If anything this is better than Memory Span as it's more creative and the band's experience really shows in the songs.

The review:

In the summer of 2008, the world was reintroduced to The Lines. The band released Memory Span, a great collection of early singles and EPs including Cool Snap! and Nerve Pylon. Since the early 80s, The Lines have been something of a cult band with a small but loyal fan base. This may have much to do with the band's lack of commercial know-how. It was a different music industry back then and self-promotion was virtually non-existent; unless you got your faces on the cover of NME or managed to bag a Peel Session, you faded into obscurity. Following on from Memory Span, Flood Bank is the two albums Therapy and Ultramarine, from 1981 and 1982 respectively, building upon an early sound and an obsession with the ever changing music scene.

As front man Rico Conning tells us in the album sleeve notes, Flood Bank has been assembled not as two separate albums but as a 'Pulp Fiction' edit, the songs from each album interspersed while maintaining chronological order. It is a strange approach but does create a flow, even if the original material is two individual bodies of work. This is clear to see (and hear) as the listener progresses through the album. Ultramarine is home to some of the best songs in The Lines' catalogue, but also one of the worse, and Therapy is more inconsistent as the band play around with sounds rather than songs.

Flood Bank opens with the drum and bass driven Come Home and is a beguiling mix of distant vocals and animal noises. Stripe is the first really great song, a mix of early Cure and Level 42 slap bass. It is certainly music of it's time: gorgeously gothic and new wave. Conning's vocals are magnificent as he switches between croon and falsetto and the piano arrangement is a real highlight. The first signs of truly great song writing start to emerge, summing up the troubled times of a new Tory government, strikes, riots and unrest: "tonight down at the dockside; violence, screaming over low tide" and the prosaic yet menacing "I lay awake at night; I'm thinking...". Airlift tries the same tricks musically, with the ever-present bass, added melody but stuttering vocals. The added trombone creates a stark musical landscape of alienation and escapism. Blow A Kiss is a real surprise - the band keep it simple with an Elliott Smith style ballad. Conning excels again with "I sit beneath the trees; my arms around my knees...feeling envy - how they hurl those words around, then claim meaning at the lost and found". More prophetic, poignant song writing.

After such a great start, the following trio of Instincticide, Bucket Brigade (both from Therapy) and then Tunnel Party (the only failing on Ultramarine) are a sudden down-turn. This is the band experimenting with textures which results in an incoherent mess. The latter is an antidote to the New Romantic bands of the day but too obvious. Conversely Ursa Major and The Landing are both superb. The former has a Massive Attack intro with soft drums and delicate bass framing ghostly vocals and more brass. The latter is the centrepiece of Ultramarine and wonderful prog-rock storytelling into a soaring three minute semi-instrumental. The Gate brings back the pain of Therapy - soul purging with barking dogs and screams from the depths of hell, leading into the more frantic Have A Heart. Conning is annoyingly flat and laboured and the song would be great with a better vocal. Continuing the roller coaster, No Hiding is Conning at his best and the guitar work is sublime.

The final trio from Ultramarine is real signs of a band in serious progression. Everything The Lines made up to this point contributed enormously to the end of the album. Flood Bank is all eerie atmosphere and goth guitars. If there is a negative it is that the song is a minute too long and after some wordless vocals begins an unnecessary repeat. Fury has another great vocal melody and contrary to the title, it is focused and controlled. The title track of Ultramarine is both understated and epic - Joy Division with a twist of subtle bass and sharp piano. In place of a huge build up the song chooses to drift away reflectively. The end of Flood Bank is the only time the track ordering is in question. The final song of Therapy is the buzzing chaos of Disenchanted and as the closer for Flood Bank, it is a real downer and paradoxically not how the band should feel after such an uplifting cathartic experience.

On the title track of Flood Bank Conning sings "would you be so good to call the dogs away and I won't be any bother to you". Maybe this standoff attitude contributed to The Lines' lack of commercial success - just as the rabble rousing began, the band ran away from it. Nico Conning said in an NME interview that the band cannot sell themselves. He went on to say "We're shitty hustlers and anyway up until now we've never had any desire to do so", making it sound like it was all self-inflicted. But life was more complicated for The Lines, a band that were never part of the scene, disillusioned by the media and not fully aware of their own talents. As a compilation of two albums, Flood Bank is impressive - always engaging and interesting. If Therapy is the released tension and angst then Ultramarine is the gathering together of all that is left to form something truly great.

-- CS (for

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