Download (Black Planet)
~reviewed by Uncle Nemesis
(photo from the band's website)
It's impossible to speak of Spares without first mentioning Children On Stun. Now, I dare say there's a whole generation of nu-goths on the scene these days for whom Children On Stun is simply a strange and seldom-mentioned name from the past. Yet, in the 90s, the Stun really made an impact. They were a goth band which didn't care too much about being gothic - they were much more concerned with being *good*. Their songs were little explosions of quirky, pop-culture brilliance for which the expression 'insanely catchy' could have been specially minted. The band used the familiar goffband line-up of guitar, bass, vocals and drum machine, but deployed those ingredients with an instinctive flair that left all those Fields Of The Mission Of Mercy soundalike-bands which cluttered up the 90s scene floundering far, far behind. The announcement, in 1998, that Children On Stun were to split caused genuine anguish - not only because the passing of a great band was something to be mourned, but also because we'd all been hoping that the Stun would be the band to make that elusive crossover leap, and take the good goth music to the indie kidz. *Someone* had to show us the way out of the goth ghetto, and we reckoned that the Stun would be the ones to do it.
Well, the crossover never happened, although it wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the Stun. The music biz did actually show a bit of interest in the band once or twice, but none of this ever amounted to anything you could put on a contract. Eventually, frustrated with bumping up against the goth ceiling, Children On Stun headed for the exit. Rumours abounded about the various band members' new projects, but very little ever saw the light of day. Neil Ash, the Stun's vocalist, supposedly formed a new band called Stripper, although to date this has only amounted to a seldom-updated website. And Simon Manning, the Stun's guitarist, formed Spares, a band which also seemed to be falling into the abyss of 'not really doing anything' - until now. All of a sudden, Spares make an appearance at the Whitby Gothic Weekend, and here's an album of their music. It seems the ball is rolling again.
This is actually the second Spares album: the first, Tired And Bizarre, was a 'project' thing featuring an assortment of guest vocalists. Download, however, introduces us to Spares as a full band, with what I assume is a permanent line-up. The Stun's bassist, Kyle Whipp, is on board, there's Alex Ash on drums, and Alison Gann on vocals. And, in the small print on the inlay, there's a perhaps significant note: 'This album is dedicated to the alternative scene worldwide.' This clues us in to the direction Spares presumably see themselves taking. No more goth ghetto. They're headed for the alternative rock highway.
Well, if Spares really do envisage themselves as accelerating down the alternative rock highway, they're going to need some high-octane musical fuel in their tank. And do they have it? Er....sort of. 'Download' contains some punchy alternorock moments, and some excursions into cool dancey areas - but it also contains a lot of stuff that sounds worryingly like lo-fi demo material. The sound is, frankly, thin and polite, where it should be a muscular monster, shouldering its way out of the speakers. The drums tick-tock away in a 'just keeping the beat, mate' manner - in fact, if I hadn't seen a drummer credited on the sleeve, I would've assumed the band had exhumed an ancient drum machine. Too much of it is all tinny snare and chink-chink hi-hat, with the bass guitar bom-bom-bom-ing along a respectful three paces behind. Much of the guitar, oddly enough, comes on like the old-skool Mission/Cult sound filtered through whatever effects pedal Vendemmian used to use. The result is a real mid-90s goth guitar sound. Check out 'Splintered' and 'Hourglass' for evidence. I'm confused. I thought the general idea was to move on from this point? Even the latter-day Stun stuff didn't feature this kind of guitar. 'Disown' and 'Vanity Cracked' ramp things up a bit with heavy-heavy rock riffs, which is much more the kind of stuff I was expecting. But what's with all the old-style goth moves?
Where Spares unequivocally part company with their past is in the vocal department. Alison Gann does a low-down grungey croon, which works well when she's being sultry but shows a bit of strain when she attempts a big rock-diva holler. Her range isn't particularly great, as she demonstrates on one of the two old Stun songs which are included here: 'Mondo Bizarre' - better known in its Stun incarnation as 'Auntie Crystal's Theives'. Neil Ash, the Stun's vocalist, soared and gambolled his way through this song, taking great delight over everyover-enunciated syllable. Alison knocks it off as if she can't wait to see the back of it, almost speaking the line 'Rolling thunder, thick as thieves' without an ounce of the cartoon drama Neil brought to the original. Mind you, the way she pronounces 'Mondo bizzario' is quite amusing. At this moment, she sounds like Clare Grogan from Altered Images! But maybe it was a mistake to include reworked Stun material here: you can't improve on the definitive, and anyway - forgive me if I've said this before, but I thought the general idea was to move away from the old stuff...?
Later in the album, Spares try a few tangents, and explore such side-alleys as trancey dance-rock, as on 'Another Time Today', a relaxed groove enlivened by an assertive bassline, although the off-beat comes around with a grimly inevitable 'chock' on the snare drum. It has to be said that the drums don't exactly swing. They're simply used to insert punctuation points in the music. 'Intermemory' has more of a groove to it: the pace picks up, and it hums along in a Garbage-remix kind of way. 'Splintered' makes a reappearance as the '007 mix' - another excursion into Garbage-territory. That may be an easy comparison, but Alison Gann does seem to have a natural flair for a somewhat Shirley Manson-esque croon, and the band as a whole sound far more accomplished on the groovy stuff than they do when they try to rock out, or indeed when they try to goth out. Maybe this suggests the area in which Spares would do best. Forget the old-style goth sound. Forget the heavy rock. Just go for the slinky grooves. Shirley Manson, not Marilyn Manson. Get a drummer who can swing (or just get the drummer drunk enough to loosen up), get a producer who can lift things out of the bedroom. There's something here, but it needs to be drawn out. 'Download' isn't a bad calling card, but after the crazed greatness of the Stun, we were all expecting something that would knock our socks off. And my footwear, I have to say, remains firmly in place.
The website: http://www.spares.tk
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to