Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Therapy? - A Rough Guide

If you didn't go through your teenage years in the early-to-mid 1990s you probably don't know who Therapy? are, and that's a real shame. Let's just take a moment to reflect on how remiss you have been getting through life so far without them.

Here's a belt. Feel free to flagellate yourself thoroughly.

All done? Lovely. Now while you're mopping the blood off the walls, have a listen to the following tunes.

Therapy? started as a threepiece in Belfast at the sodden arse-end of the 1980s, fuelled by industrial punk nightmares and feverish European electronic sensibilities. Their first two mini-albums, 1991's "Babyteeth" and 1992's "Pleasure Death" are obviously influenced by the likes of Big Black and The Jesus Lizard - but they manage to be somehow denser and more claustrophobic, melodic punk whistled through a serial killer's broken front teeth. Andy Cairns' vocals are a death threat overheard on a busy street, while Michael McKeegan's pulsating bass underpins everything else like a twisted disco beat.

Therapy? - 'Innocent X' - 1991 - from "Babyteeth"

Their first full album followed soon after, and loosens up the metronome drum patterns ever so slightly, letting the songs breathe out in the open. Raw buzzsaw guitars and distant wailing vocals are still the formula, but the end result is ever so slightly more friendly. But the unhinged dementia is still waiting in the wings, a squealing mental breakdown all the more terrifying for being hidden in the open.

Therapy? - 'Teethgrinder' - 1992 - from "Nurse"

And then everything changed. A series of EPs and singles were followed in 1994 by "Troublegum", which might just be the greatest pop-punk record ever recorded. Packed to the gills with melody, soaring choruses and infectious riffs, all of the torment and nihilism here were embedded firmly in the lyrics rather than edging their way clear into torturous music. At its heart, it isn't any lighter an LP than Therapy?'s early work. It's just better at covering the scars with brightly coloured balloons and manic smiles. Modest chart success followed for the likes of 'Screamager', 'Nowhere' and 'Die Laughing', and some high profile festival slots and tours put the word around that the band were maybe going to make it bigger than one could have expected from an oddball industro-punk squall from Northern Ireland.

Therapy? - 'Screamager' - 1994 - from "Troublegum"

So they changed everything, pretty much. Why not? Stagnation is a killer. The very next year "Infernal Love" hit the shelves, and while many of their newly acquired fanbase were put off by a record that slotted in an uncomfortable art-rock wet dream for every summer-bright pop tune, it is a record that stands firmly as their second best work. With the benefit of hindsight from the salty shores of 2014, it's a classic. But back then, the fickle UK music press and even more fickle alternative rock fans met it with a lukewarm response at best. But it's the sound of a band maturing and undergoing massive nihilistic trauma at the same time, and who doesn't want that in their life?

Therapy? - 'A Moment Of Clarity' - 1995 - from "Infernal Love"

Changes followed, as they often do in the midst of turbulence. Founding drummer Fyfe Ewing departed the band, taking his staccato rhythms with him. As well as replacing him with Graham Hopkins, they also incorporated Martin McCarrick on cello and guitar. A fourpiece for the first time, this more traditional rock band lineup resulted in a more traditional punk rock sound. 1998's "Semi-Detached" was to lay down a blueprint for the many variations in their sound that have followed since, as a raw garage vibe was laid across most of the tracks. Less pop, more punk.

Therapy? - 'Church Of Noise' - 1998 - from "Semi-Detached"

This raw punk aesthetic was pumped up even further for 1999's "Suicide Pact - You First", which was a fuzzy battleground of growling cynicism sprinkled with the occasional melancholy escape hatch - such as the superb 'Six Mile Water', which is solid proof that they should write an alt. country record at some point. The LP also seemed to mark a turning point in Therapy?'s career, which shifted inexorably towards a lack of interest from the press and survival primarily through a ferociously loyal (though smaller) fanbase. That's the story for the UK, in any case. I suspect they still make new sales in Europe, where folk seem less concerned about what haircut a lead singer has.

Therapy? - 'Six Mile Water' - 1999 - from "Suicide Pact - You First"

2001 saw Therapy? record what I consider to be their only stinker of an album to date, the ironically titled "Shameless". All the deities created by mankind love you if you can hack it, but a couple of singles aside I find it thoroughly underwhelming. So moving swiftly on. 2003's "High Anxiety" was a return to form of sorts. Not a groundbreaking work by any means, but definitely carrying on the legacy established by "Semi-Detached" in its packaging of punk rock tempered by the band's ongoing talent for a soaring chorus hook. Neil Cooper also arrived on drums, and has marked his place in the band with a penchant for a rolling punk rock percussive assault that suits their later material well.

Therapy? - 'If It Kills Me' - 2003 - from "High Anxiety"

Martin McCarrick departed soon after, which is a shame for him since the last great Therapy? record to date, "Never Apologise Never Explain" followed in 2004 and came as quite a surprise to most of their fans. A scuzzy hyperactive bullet-train of rumbling intensity, it is packed end-to-end with the sound of a rock band creating the rockiest rock they can rock. ROCK.

Therapy? - 'Die Like A Motherfucker' - 2004 - from "Never Apologise Never Explain"

I've always got the sense that Therapy? are uncomfortable following up an album with one that carries the same sensibilities as the last. I don't have a problem with that whatsoever, but it does make it really difficult to predict what direction on their ever-flailing trajectory the next recording will take. "One Cure Fits All" hit in 2006, and was in a sense the final entry in the melody/fuzz fusion trilogy that began with "Semi-Detached" and "High Anxiety". Said trilogy got patchier as time went by, but it still had some quality tunes on it.

Therapy? - 'Dopamine, Serotonin, Adrenaline' - 2006 - from "One Cure Fits All"

"Crooked Timber" followed in 2009, and was a slightly directionless mess of rock tunes that tried to pitch in every adjective I have previously used to describe their music. As a mish-mash of everything with songwriting that is below par for veterans of this caliber, it's not a must-have despite a couple of cracking songs in the middle. Their most recent LP is 2012's "A Brief Crack Of Light", and it comes across like a version of "Crooked Timber" that had a hell of a lot more work put into it. Or maybe a lot less, resulting in greater immediacy. Either way, the tunes are more tunely and the punch is more punchtastic. And it also proved that despite having been going all these years, they can still put out a killer single in the form of 'Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing'.

Therapy? - 'Living In The Shadow Of The Terrible Thing' - 2012 - from "A Brief Crack Of Light"

Listen To A Whole Load Of Therapy? On Spotify HERE.

Essential Records: Babyteeth, Troublegum, Infernal Love, Never Apologise Never Explain

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