Wire and Gang of Four along with PiL, The Fall, Joy Division and handful of other bands basically wrote the book on post-punk. Although both sprung from art-school backgrounds London’s Wire were wry and intellectual, while Leed’s Gang of Four visceral and confronting. Both bands experimented with minimalism — drums reduced to their basics, no lead guitar breaks, rhythm guitar pushed to the fore — but Wire combined art-rock with obtuse lyrics and experimentation whereas Gang of Four focused on a type of white funk, using the bass as the lead instrument coupled with anti-consumerist themes and sarcastic takes on relationships, sex and love. In a remarkable coincidence both acts are back with new albums within a month of each other so the question we must ask is whether these two seminal acts are still innovators or merely curators?
Wire’s Red Barked Tree, is a vast improvement on their last studio outing, 2008’s monochromatic Object 47. Perhaps to second guess critics bassist and primary lyricist Graham Lewis intones “Please, take your knife, out of my, back” on the opener over the top of reverbed minor chords to great effect. He also takes lead on the bass heavy delight “Bad Worn Thing” with a barrage of his trademark surreal non sequiturs such as “Jam sandwich filled with Uzied (Oozed?) peelers/Frisking pimps and dawn car dealers” before segueing into a less abstract chorus.
Although Lewis is Wire’s unsung creative linchpin it is Colin Newman’s voice and guitar, both electric and acoustic, which dominates proceedings. He uses his saccharine vocal tone in “Adapt”, “Clay” and “Smash” which are in the style of “Outdoor Miner” or “15” through a shoegaze filter. Countering this middle aged mellowness are “Two Minutes”, “Moreover” and “A Flat Tent”, Pink Flag style bursts of punk energy which see the simple two chord guitar riffs turned up to eleven and Newman adopting shouted vocals. They surge with a vibrancy bands half their age struggle to compete with and together with the more languid tracks create an album that could sit comfortably next to their original late ’70s triptych (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154). Wire may be thirty-four years into their career but they’re still ahead of both their peers and acolytes.
Gang of Four are less successful in maintaining relevancy with Content, possibly due to this being their first studio album in sixteen years. The first four songs are about as inviting as a migraine, relegating the bass to a more traditional rhythmic role that along with metallic guitars, trebly production and empty sloganeering smacks of Jon King and Andy Gill trying to prove that while they’re no longer young men, they’re still great men, but without the tunes to back it up. “You’ll Never Pay for the Farm” and “I Party All the Time” are an improvement with Gill’s scabrous riffs mirrored by the bass and King singing more memorable choruses. Their grim take on capitalism “A Fruitfly in a Beehive” sees the pace slowed and all instruments given equal space to breathe. Little surprise then that it’s Content’s first standout track. .
Another sees Gill telling a story of a Manchester worker facing unemployment in “It’s Never Going to Turn Out Okay”, although Gill using a vocoder for his one lead vocal is a questionable tact, his regular speak-snarl would be more welcome. “Do As I Say” is the last of a good run and ranks up with “Natural’s Not In It” and “Damaged Goods” with both singer and guitarist trading vocals, in addition to a fabulous scratchy guitar line and fist in the air style chorus. The last pair of songs sit somewhere in the middle of headache inducing and classic Gang of Four and despite couplets such as “I’m in the boozer we’re all drinking fast/Girls with photocopies of their ass” (“Second Life”), are largely forgettable. If “Beehive”’s line “When the true believers die/More and more get born again” is a nod for their next generation of fans, Gang of Four need to up their game considerably or be relegated to a nostalgia act. Content is meant to be pronounced and interpreted as the noun but on balance of the songs here would be better suited to the adjective.