Revival Beach by The Burning Hell

Revival Beach is the latest album by Indie rock band The Burning Hell. Literate and inventive, nostalgic and great storytellers, the band have gone through a number of line ups and always have jaunty, provocative, unusual songs to sing. The current formation is the trio of Mathias Kom, founder member and the one constant in the group, Ariel Sharratt who has been a member for the last few albums and who, in addition to her musical and vocal talents, also makes some of the band’s videos. And the final member is Darren Browne, long time member and along with Kom and Sharratt these three have been touring as The Burning Hell for ages. These are joined by guest musicians on different tracks.

On a previous track, Kom sang ‘I guess I’m guilty of repetition / But I like themes and I like tradition’ and Revival Beach is chock full of many of the preoccupations, motifs, images and musical echoes that are such an integral part of their music-making. But, as with all of their albums, the sameness only serves to highlight the differences, the departures, the extensions. And one difference that leaps out before you’ve even opened the CD or started streaming, is the track listing and its relationship to the title of the album. Previously, albums have been named using a snippet of a lyric from one of the songs on the album (Tick Tock named after a lyric from ’99 hours’

, or Public Library named from ‘Give Up’) 

or else, the title unambiguously presented the record’s theme as with People. But the title of the album is not mentioned in the track listing.

Revival Beach, by contrast, has three tracks that share its name: track 2, ‘Race to Revival Beach’; track 6, ‘Arrival at Revival Beach’ and track 10, ‘Survival at Revival Beach’. Given Kom’s stated love of theme, it might be a reasonable assumption that these three songs will be the thematic glue, the thematic marrow to the whole album. But, this being The Burning Hell – of course not. They are all short instrumental pieces, almost not more than snippets. And in another noteworthy departure, these are the only tracks not credited solely to Kom as the writer. All the songs are described as arranged by The Burning Hell, but the writing of the songs themselves is usually Kom alone. Here ‘Race to Revival Beach’ is credited to Sharratt, ‘Arrival’ is Browne and Kom, and ‘Survival’ Browne alone.

If there is a theme, it is not to be found lyrically in those songs.

The opening track ‘Friend Army' was also the leadoff single. 

At first it seems to offer both a familiar set of Kom’s interests – birth, religion, rap, as well as minor themes like unicorns – and a kind of nonsense poem with key terms leading to associated secondary terms. The first term is friend (told to the narrator by a Buddhist who beat him – in a game, or physically, is unclear), while the last ‘army’ is the culmination of a warning he received in the dream where he was killed by a uniformed unicorn’s horn.

But the unicorn, it turns out is not a minor theme. Its previous appearances in, for example, ‘Let Things Slip Away’ signal God’s callousness at their murder at the extinction event of the flood; and rap-battling leads to the dark story of a starving narrator and his sentimental dog at the height of an apocalypse in ‘Amateur Rappers’. The oblique connections make sense of the nonsense poem, wherein we see progressions from friend to army and their eventual correlation in a fashion similar to the British Army’s adverts trading on camaraderie.

Musically, the track signals a new direction. Kom is playing all the guitar parts with Sharratt taking over drumming duties, with Browne on bass. Kom sings the verses alone, and Sharratt joins in for the chorus, with Browne offering a  disturbing backing ‘Ahh-ah’. After the second chorus the music breaks down. The guitars become distorted through feedback, the initial guitar riff re-remerges to be cut off as the song abruptly ends.

Whimsical, disturbing, thematically obscure but suggesting violence, catastrophe and extinction, the song is our introduction to an album that, while rarely dark exactly, is a worrying meditation on the possibility of / capacity for an apocalypse of some description.

This is followed by ‘Race for Revival Beach’. At 1 minute 28 seconds, it is a slither of a tune, a bass clarinet and closed string acoustic strum driven troubling piece with an almost mischievous bouzouki juxtaposed with scraped piano strings, snippets of piano and the ominous clarinet. It is a strangely discomfiting piece.

It is with almost relief, then, that the opening few moments of ‘Nurse and Patient’ offer us a very familiar bass line and drum leading into yet another curiosity: Kom singing words over a number of bars in an almost soul love song style. And love song it is, swerving slowly between soul song and pop song, the story of a nurse who treats the victim of a police shooting and falls in love with her is a brilliant example of how social commentary, political anger and established tropes can be used to provide powerful, moving and amusing commentary. As with many Burning Hell songs, there is no verse / chorus structure. At the bridge, Kom offers us some of his trademark rhyming alacrity and ends by showing how brutality breeds brutality with the nurse saying he might not treat the cop if he were to show up with a wound. After the bridge, there is a slowing of the tempo and the bass de-tunes, providing more discomfort, more minor unease. The story starts up again with the tale of the marriage of the nurse and patient who are crowned king and queen (reminding us of  ‘Municipal Monarchs (here suing by Jenny Omnichord)’) and we have the introduction of the renaissance as a theme, with lutes and tambourines playing the couple down the aisle. The final verse has the nurse and patient expressing increasingly strong anti-police visons, from Geoff Berner’s ‘Daloy Polizei’ to the acronymed All Cops Are Bastards, but ends with another trademark Kom moment of nostalgia as we have the repeated, ‘there was you and there was me’.

A song of police brutality and love, its effect on the general de-humanising nature of a culture that can then easily scapegoat its institutions, ‘nurse and patient’ is a remarkable number.

But the album is really just getting going. ‘Canadian Wine’ opens with a hurdy gurdy that launches into a sprightly, jaunty thoroughly delicious number that tells the story of guy crashing a wedding to drink the wine, only to find himself and everyone else crushed beneath the ceiling and walls as the world ends. The terrible end is arrived at via joyous shout-outs to the Macarena (‘it’s fantastic, the beat is so digital’) as well as pleasingly recursive reminders of previous sojurns by the band to the end of days (whether individual or global). As the wine takes effect the man remarks on the lovely night but also sees a bright white light. For these choruses Sharratt joins the vocals, and we are reminded of another bright light, hard as diamonds on the shared vocal ‘Holiday makers’ in which a couple face death with stoicism and song.

The vocal ends with a shimmering vibrating word and the song becomes a hurdy gurdy led dance jamboree, foreshadowing the album’s conclusion – a beautiful and catastrophic expression of hope in the face of utter destruction.

As wildly brilliant, joyful and uplifting as ‘Canadian Wine’ is, its following number is the opposite, musically at least. A stark, metallic soundscape is the backdrop to a devastating vocal by Sharratt who delivers the song with an almost spoken monotone as she recounts her position in the virtual world not, despite the song’s title, a troll but ‘a binary Luther / nailing theses to the comment threads…. Typing John 8:32’. 

It is terrifying, slow, stark yet even here the band does not allow morbidity to overshadow humanity, and the troll has a macabre last laugh with a final verse that builds to one of the best rhymes they have come up with (and they have come up with a lot):

It's too late for the haters to learn later is better than never 
So don't say, come doomsday, I didn't say it was so 
If you hear giggling mingling with the storms of the nuclear weather 
That's just the sound of me down in my bunker ROTFLMAO

With the troll laughing her ass off, the next song is another musical fragment heralding the Arrival at Survival Beach, with just a bouzouki, bass clarinet and guitar the piece simultaneously offers the lightness and vim of the strings and the sombre almost regal drone of the woodwind.

This is followed by the stand-out pop hit of the album ‘The River (Never freezes Anymore)’ where Kom tells tale of youthful forays skating on the frozen river, juvenile crushes and the impending ecological disaster with a lightness and catchiness that is tremendous. The video, directed by Sharratt, catches the movement between warmth, nostalgia (that great Burning Hell standard) and impending doom brilliantly. As a boy who was also inclined to pre-emptive nostalgia, I love the lines:

“I was like, I'm barely a teenager, I'm not supposed to believe in nostalgia 
But I remember predicting I'd feel it later, that night on the river when I held you”

Never shy of telling elaborate stories, often based on real events, ‘The Babysitter’ is akin to such songs as ‘Berlin Conference’ and ‘BrettonWoods’ by virtue of being set in the mid -20th century but provides us with a wonderful tale of a Scottish Nazi-impersonating and –killing spy  who ends up as a babysitter after a strange and unexplained encounter with Unity Mitford in a southern England secret convalescence / maternity cottage). The conceit of Mitford as Hitler’s lover and possible mother of an illegitimate child, and the concomitant questions for future atrocity is brilliantly played with in a song that fairly springs along with the rhythms and rhymes Kom somehow wrestles into elaborate joyful submission. Among many examples, my favourite has to be:

Her name is Unity Valkyrie, and her family name is Mitford, yes, the famous Mitford sisters, that aristocratic litter 
At the first opportunity, Unity left her home community and she foolishly flew to Germany and became best friends with Hitler 

The long line / short line mixture offers a clear ABCB scheme with the primary rhyme being ‘litter / Hitler’ pairing, but before we get there, Kom tongue twists his way through

At the first opport/
unity /
Unity /
left her home comm/
and she foolishly flew to Germany

It is audacious, ridiculous, and utterly brilliant. Differently than with The Troll, the song invokes horror, tragedy, destruction but (and without disrespecting or in any way undermining the real victims and horrors) refuses to give way to despair: language and dancing (the joys of rhythm) offer consolation, if not redemption.

With cheese graters and pots among the percussion range on The Babysitter, the song also contributes the album’s musical experimentation, and this is at the fore with the next track, ‘Mr Sensible’ where tape delays, fizmo synthesisers and bagpipe chanters provide the setting for the album’s oddest number. With a stuttering, fragmented start that is reminiscent of some of the moments on Bowie’s Low the tune coalesces into a weird, perverse nursey rhyme, somewhere in the region of ‘Three Blind Mice’. Kom and Sharratt share a duet about ‘Pink ceramic cat lamps’ (a ceramic kitty litter that invokes the previous song) and a chap named Mr Sensible who seems to exist in an allergic, perpetual bureaucratic present. Mordant whimsy with a hint of Kafka, this is apocalypse as rescue from mundane futility.

And we then survive at Revival beach. The final musical number. Also with bouzouki, bass clarinet and guitar, with added cymbals, the song is a mournful little piece that nevertheless suggests an echo of hope as the cymbals shiver into conclusion and the track fades there is a sound, a continuation: attenuated, but there. ‘Minor Changes’ is a letter by an editor to a writer of post-apocalyptic teen fiction (it is a curiosity of the album that my longest standing friend is called Kevin, a very good friend of mine is an editor, a colleagues is a writer of teen fiction, another friend is a police officer, his wife and ardent Burning Hell fan is a lover of the Mitford sisters fiction: that said, I can’t ice skate, have no porcelain at all and have never been beaten by a Buddhist).

The penultimate song is ‘The Last Night’ a wonderful torch-song waltzy number detailing the last night on earth in an empty club with a dull piano player, with a tired bar tender sweeping up cigarette butts. Airy and looping, longing and wistful, Sharratt’s vocals are perfect. The regret-filled nature of the song and its nostalgic dance steps make it a companion piece to the majestic Mary Hopkins number, ‘Those were the days. Its cast of characters, including the unloved piano player can’t help but bring ‘Piano Man’ to mind too. It is a plangent and perfect expression of the album’s engagement with pre-emptive nostalgia, and the probable demise of us all.

But, even as we are led to the end with the last night on earth, we are promised a ’Supermoon’ in the final track. Littered with the cast of the album, the song expressly tells us ‘It’s all over, though it’s hard to believe it’. But not only will Kevin bring wine, and others a karaoke machine and a cocktail shaker, and they’ll all dance the cha-cha-cha and the boogaloo at (wait for it) Revival Beach. In addition the song will offer a call-and-response structure that will have Sharratt sing, variously, ‘yes, I know how you feel about torture’, ‘I’m gonna make like a drummer and beat it’ ,’down on Revival Beach’ and ‘no-one has to work any more’. The amusing, if odd, early phrases giving way to what is the ultimate silver-lining: the nurse and patient see the bright side because they don’t have to work any more; Sharratt’s line emphatically universalises this idea – death is coming, it is absolute. But ‘we’ll sing regardless’ / ‘pass the wine’ / and dance. We are asked if we remember the government and Kom asserts as he has done from 'Dance Dance Dance' to 'Dancer / Romancer', to 'My Name is Mathias', 'Wallflowers' and elsewhere that dance, movement, song, rhythm will see us through: they won’t save the world, but they make its passing bearable.

The song ends with ‘Darren playing a little song on the lute’ and the invocation of some sort of re-birth as we are told ‘let’s start again and put on your birthday suit’. Naked and new-born is the possible hope (although the album Baby makes it –as ever – a fractured, half hope).

When, in an earlier song, Kom had sung ‘When the world ends, will the DJs all play disco? When the world ends, will we dance the apoc – calypso?’ This brilliant pun (musically supported by cowbells so that we are taken to Canadian Wine again) has been answered after a fashion, eight years later: Yes, joyfully, drunkenly, uproariously, on Revival Beach.


Popular posts from this blog

Celebrity Culture, Brand Whedon and the post-Romantic fallacy

Buffy Draft: End Of Days 7.21

Draft scripts for 'Buffy' #1 First Date