Harvest 1978 / Esoteric 2021
Final adventure of a team who refused to get categorized and bid farewell on a serious note.
Its title a warning of sorts, “Drastic Plastic” was the last album by this quartet – and it was planned as such. Bill Nelson felt he couldn’t carry on creating what he wished within the collective’s confines, yet advancing his refined vision meant destroying the ensemble’s identity, and their leader didn’t want an end so sad. That’s why he paid his dues and signed off on the group’s five-record streak with an offering which signaled the change but, progressing into the future, appeared to be a logical development of their previous works – except it lacked, for the most part, the usual underlying smile and melodicism.
There was a significant shift, as synthesizers began to dominate the band’s sound, marking the foursome’s move towards new wave, only it wasn’t as radical as the platter’s title might suggest, even though the bouncy Balearic directness of “Electrical Language” that pulls the album into focus doesn’t fail to surprise a fan on the arrangement and lyrical levels alike, the song’s four lines repeating over Nelson’s taut twang and the twirl of Andy Clark’s scintillating ivories. Yet if riffs arrive at in the piece’s end, they remain at the fore, joined by a portentous piano to propel the apocalyptic prospect of “New Precision” where a six-string tempest is stricken with effervescent effects before the more and more belligerent drama gets resolved in “New Mysteries” where honeyed harmonies and hard beat bring an appealingly nuanced squeal to the crossfire of guitar and keyboards.
But then there’s the alluring utopia of “Surreal Estate” – whose mix of baroque and Caribbean jive feels quite unique – rubbing shoulders with the quasi-garagey frenzy of “Love In Flames” to blend in with contemporary punks and rock ‘n’ roll away, right into the boogie of “Panic In The World” that lands on bluegrass licks. However, the rockabilly-based “Dangerous Stranger” seems to continue what “Forbidden Lovers” started on the group’s previous LP, while the presumed balladry behind “Superenigmatix” is turned into a series of roughly hewn, half-roared phrases which, with the transparent “Inside outside” refrain, could be a successor to “5:15” – yet it contrasts the ethereal instrumental “Visions Of Endless Hopes” here. Afterwards, another spiky burst in “Possession” would come across as needless extra, had this cut not been spiced up with self-effacing sarcasm, and the earlier hidden sonics uncovered by Stephen W. Tayler’s stereo remix placed on the second disc of Esoteric reissue.
A serenade is there anyway, the finale of “Islands Of The Dead” shrouding the record’s gloomy vision in a sunset aura, the entire music programme’s sweetest aural experience, but this expanded edition also boasts an LP-worth of bonuses. The CDs have a smattering of singles, including non-album numbers, the sparkling potential hit “Japan” and didactic reciting of “Futurist Manifesto” among those, alongside “Blue As A Jewel” with its Spanish-cum-Gallic aroma. Still, the rarities are interesting as well: whereas “Autosexual” fits into the arena-teasing rave niche and the never-released take on “The Saxophonist” oozes an exquisite intimacy in the wordless space, the four tracks planned for an EP and left on the shelf bristle with unfulfilled promise, the solemn, folk-informed “Lovers Are Mortal” and the tense “Speed Of The Wind” arguably the best romantic songs the ensemble produced, despite the latter lapsing into ska, and “Quest Of Harvest For The Stars” the triumphant march for the victors.
Because that’s who they were: the winners of a highly distinctive art run.