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Pop Group - Citizen Zombie

  by Adrian Janes

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

Pop Group - Citizen Zombie
Label: Freaks R Us
Format: CD


Ambitious and brilliantly complex first album in thirty-five years from seminal pop rock outfit, the Pop Group

Distorted and squalling guitars announce the first new Pop Group album in 35 years, joined by drums and stentorian vocals steeped in echo: they wised up to the power of dub long ago. However where their early experiments could synthesise incredible sounds (but sometimes almost intolerable ones), the title track of ‘Citizen Zombie’ at once reveals a band still adventurous, still open, but whose experience can now better realise their ambition. The song moves easily between a thrilling power and piano-backed reflection. Lyrically it’s a descendant of the condemnation of consumerism in ‘We Are All Prostitutes’, the populace portrayed as even more stupefied by possessions, or the desire for them, than three decades ago. This zombiefication of society has been a cultural theme since at least George Romero’s films of the 1970s, so it’s not exactly an original insight. What saves the track (and indeed the whole album) is that the Pop Group’s importance is not in offering a political programme - they don’t - but as agitators. Their passion, focused in Mark Stewart’s extraordinary, scrambled vocals but fuelling all the players, stirs the mind and body but makes no attempt to lead. From a pulsing synth intro, ’Mad Truth’ is a wildly funky call to arms which, if it musically harks back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, does so with the full-blooded conviction needed to carry this off (Dan Catsis’ bass being especially propulsive). But much more than a Daft Punk or Mark Ronson retro-trip, there’s a sense of a longer history behind it all: “Those who went before us/The few remember their names/They will never be forgotten/Their struggle was not in vain.” Stewart’s wailing vocals are supported here, as on several other tracks, by spirited backing singers - one of the significant changes from the band’s sound in their first incarnation. ‘Nowhere Girl’ is another example of their cut-up technique of musical styles, Gareth Sager delivering a heavy rock guitar line before the track mutates into slow dub and then a staggering chorus where Stewart gravely intones the title alongside angelic hosts of singers. Having started the song by declaiming “We are legion”, by its end this seems less of a slogan than a rumination on love and loneliness. If the themes of the first three tracks seem relatively clear, from ‘Shadow Child’ onwards things get seriously enigmatic. Despite its stops and starts, the interplay of Bruce Smith’s dynamic drums with Catsis and Sager keeps up the rhythmic energy. But the lyrics seem little more than a bunch of unrelated phrases: “elegantly wasted”, “tragically hip” and most bizarrely, “The mystery of the crystal skulls”, before Stewart urges “Get in the car!/Just get in the car!” Aided by near-subliminal samples, it still succeeds in producing an atmosphere of paranoid (or is it?) disturbance. The punning title of ‘The Immaculate Deception’ suggests some sort of criticism of religion, but not much is clear apart from that, although the grinding guitar and pounding percussion have a crude power. Yet ’S.O.P.H.I.A.’, as exuberantly bright and funky as ‘Mad Truth’ - the Pop Group as Chic - centres on a chant of “Assume nothing/Deny everything” which could as well be advice to an aspirant mystic (Sophia is the goddess of wisdom in strands of Jewish and Christian mythology) as an aspirant revolutionary. Then again, why is the title an acronym worthy of a CIA front organisation? The next two tracks are a real dip in the album’s general level. On ‘Box 9’, Stewart’s vocals have some painfully flat moments as he demands “Will someone tell me/What’s in Box 9?’ over cacophonous horns and some Contortions-style slide guitar. The whole thing comes over as the nightmare progeny of James Chance and Noel ‘Deal Or No Deal’ Edmonds. It’s followed by ‘Nations’, the drum machine and organ evoking early Suicide while Stewart delivers a rant (the chief target passive consumers again) but in such a scattershot way that what point there is gets drowned in bile - Gil Scott-Heron it isn’t. “St Outrageous’ is something of a return to form, with blasts from Sager’s guitar and Smith’s titanic drums, Stewart’s voice veering from a wail to an ambiguous croon of “I want to give you something/To remember me by.” Yet there’s still something unsatisfactory about it - it feels like the basis of a good song, but not something fully-realised. This is thrown into starker relief by the following track, the magnificent ‘Age Of Miracles’. Underscored by a beautiful piano motif, it’s a dub-suffused colossus. It’s the highest expression of how the band aren’t afraid of emotional as well as musical complexity, at one moment vulnerable (“Are we the fallen gods?”), the next celebratory, proclaiming the said age. Stewart’s echoed, anguished voice sounds tragically immense, as if the cry of the original thief of fire: “Can they not see the signs?/Can they not hear my call?” Over plaintive flute tones and keyboards, the elegiac ‘Echelon’ begins with Stewart reciting the “Those who went before us” lines of 'The Mad Truth', the previously fervent delivery exchanged here for sober resolve. In fact, the struggle in which hope seems to triumph in other songs now appears to overwhelm him as he hears “A broken-down melody/The saddest music in the world”, which is picked up by dissonant saxes and portentous drums in a Bowie-esque coda. Even after many listens this review still feels provisional, as new details continue to emerge. What criticisms there may be stem from comparison with the album’s many high points - the Pop Group themselves set a standard by which to judge them, so beyond comparison are they with the vast majority of bands. Produced by long-term fan Paul Epworth (already highly-rated after his work with Adele and U2), it’s perhaps his influence that has made for an important role for backing singers and synths in the overall sound. Not that this has made the Pop Group any more or less ‘commercial’ than previously; instead, there’s still a strong sense of the post-punk band, but who now incorporate all they’ve learned down the years as musicians and using the studio itself as an instrument. ‘Citizen Zombie’ comes from a band that have not succumbed. Brilliant and contradictory, laced with religious language and passion but affirming no creed, it’s alive.

Track Listing:-
1 Citizen Zombie
2 Mad Truth
3 Nowhere Girl
4 Shadow Child
5 The Immaculate Deception
6 S.O.P.H.I.A.
7 Box 9
8 Nations
9 St. Outrageous
10 Age of Miracles
11 Echelon

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