Published 31 December 2013
Fear Engine II: Almost As If It Had Never Happened
(Read this article online here. Read all my writing for The Quietus here.)
Joe Banks looks back at an iconoclastic statement by a much overlooked band and speaks to David Knight and Karl Blake
“We’ve kept an almost open mind, and things have wandered in. We’ve tolerated much and gone deaf with the din.”
‘Hate On Sight’, Shock Headed Peters
I remember 1993 as a peculiarly bleak year for alternative rock music, particularly of British origin. With the grunge hangover still raging on, the UK music papers were doing their best to stage a fightback by stoking the weak flames of what was to become Britpop, with much talking up of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish and Suede’s eponymous debut. Somewhat ironically, the only UK record to receive mainstream attention that had any real balls to it was PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me.
But lurking in the permafrost during rock’s tundra years was an album that’s both a definitive statement in British art rock and one of the UK’s few convincing responses to the US post-hardcore scene. It’s Shock Headed Peters’ Fear Engine II: Almost As If It Had Never Happened… And if you’re scratching your head at this point, then let me explain with some words from the main players themselves…
Shock Headed Peters were formed in 1984 by Karl Blake and Ashley Wales. Blake had previously been one half of Dadaist experimenters Lemon Kittens alongside Danielle Dax, while Wales would later go on to form Spring Heel Jack. David Knight joined soon after, an inventive guitarist and sound arranger who ended up collaborating extensively with Dax on records including the excellent Inky Bloaters.
Blake is one of the most fascinating and colourful characters to emerge from the fertile loam of the post-punk scene, an imposing and formidable multi-instrumentalist, singer and lyricist who, right from the off, took a contrarian stance with his new band. “I formed Shock Headed Peters with a ‘reactionary to reactionary’ mindset. The Pharisee-like crap that kicked in after punk was awful - it was snootiness on one side and thuggery on another. Lemon Kittens had done a gig with Killing Joke where we’d been accused of sounding like Led Zeppelin and the audience just spat all over us. SHP were formed almost as a delayed reaction to that incident and other occasions when quiet material was talked over – I wanted SHP to be a full-on onslaught.”
Shock Headed Peters initially came to prominence/notoriety with debut single/EP ‘I, Bloodbrother Be’, a swinging jazz psych number over which Blake delivers in his superb baritone a humorously robust analysis of male homosexuality. Further EPs and debut album Not Born Beautiful followed, which consolidated their reputation for literate left-field rock that was half-abrasive and half-reflective, sometimes accessible, sometimes challenging. But it was with 1987’s Fear Engine that the band upped the ante by fully embracing the ‘rock’ part of that descriptor, producing an album packed with big 70s-derived riffs and fuelled by the same primal energy being mainlined by contemporary US acts such as Hüsker Dü and Big Black.
One band loomed particularly large in Blake’s psyche and musical make-up: Black Sabbath. “We covered ‘Electric Funeral’ live to show just how damn good Sabbath were, not to be ironic. I wanted to convince the audience that we REALLY DID like Sabbath – well, I did, anyway. The drummer we had at the time would only stretch to doing the one song though – you couldn’t get the staff back then...”
This was a pretty bold statement to make back then within the UK music scene. Many critics were still positively Stalinist when it came to notions of ‘rock’, representing in their eyes everything that was reactionary and backward-looking about popular music. While there was a grudging acknowledgement of the alternative American bands ‘re-inventing the guitar’ (more often than not a euphemism for the rediscovered joys of rocking out), the only home-grown ‘rock’ that UK critics deemed acceptable (though not for much longer) was the stadium-embracing post-punk dramatics of U2 and Simple Minds.
Shock Headed Peters split after Fear Engine only to reform in 1990 in a climate that was, on the face of it, even more antithetical to their aesthetic – while rock was back on the agenda, albeit in a shiny and increasingly corporatised format, the rave scene was the coming thing, with indie bands up and down the land suddenly discovering a hitherto unhinted at ‘dance element’ to their music. Shock Headed Peters (now just the duo of Blake and Knight) responded with the album Several Headed Enemy, which took the undercarriage of hip hop and welded it to the black juggernaut of Blake’s darkly comic worldview and corrosive riffage – and in ‘Headstock Of Underframe’, produced a truly scary piece of proto-trip hop.
And then in 1993, in that leanest of years for passionate and intelligent rock, came Fear Engine II: Almost As If It Had Never Happened…. When most bands stage a sequel to a previous record, or revisit/rework earlier material, the result usually varies from underwhelming to outright desecration. Fear Engine II is that rarest of beasts (and yes, it is a beast of an album) – a sonic reboot that not only improves on the original songs, but creates a head-spinningly heavy experience that’s greater than its constituent parts. If you want a cinematic comparison, we’re talking the difference between The Terminator and T2.
It’s Blake’s brutally candid vision that fuels the fires of this particular engine, alternately tortured and transported by the complications of love and lust. It’s rare to find an artist in rock as unashamedly literate as Blake who doesn’t fall into the trap of self-conscious verbosity – while he certainly doesn’t allow his vocabulary to be restricted by the rock format, his words are always sharp and pungently amusing, even at their most allusive. “I started out as a poet – leastways that’s what I wanted to do as a job! This was before I realised you can’t do that if you’re a comprehensive schoolboy with only an English O-level to your name. At the same time, I was singing in bands who were doing Status Quo and Rolling Stones covers - the two strands hadn’t quite come together yet.”
Blake is a one-off, but he walks a similar line (both lyrically and vocally) to intense individualists such as Peter Hammill, Nick Cave, John Cale, Cathal Coughlan and Scott Walker.
Talking of covers takes us onto Fear Engine II itself, which opens with a spectacular mechanical demolition of Roxy Music’s ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’. Comparable to Big Black’s crunching version of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’, Shock Headed Peters transmute the original’s art glam stomp into full-on industrial metal, Ferry’s knowing foppishness dissolved in an acid bath of fizzing guitars. Two other cover versions turn up later on in the album: Lydia Lunch’s ‘Suicide Ocean’ (which Lunch guests on), a dank epic of despond lifted by a glorious surge of guitar in the chorus; and The Yardbirds’ ‘Evil Hearted You’, the sprightly psych melody turned into an inhuman, hammer-precise riff (the original Fear Engine album contains a similarly monolithic version of ‘For Your Love’).
‘Re-Make/Re-Model’ highlights a key element in the crisp and punchy sound of Fear Engine II, which is the use of an Alesis SR16 drum machine. But while the Roxy cover foregrounds the pounding rhythms of the machine, you quickly forget that you’re listening to programmed beats as the album progresses. As Knight explains, this is because, unusually for the time, the drum patterns were tweaked to react to the other instruments as they went along rather than vice versa: “We realised we could get very precise by step-programming the drum patterns on a sequencer, instead of internally on the SR16. Working with technology seemed a lot more exciting at the time.”
After the opening cover, we’re into the original material, and original it certainly is. I can’t think of any other band that has wedded this level of heavy rock riffola to such clever and witty wordage, creating a unique hybrid that’s like Sabbath’s Master Of Reality through the filter of Ministry’s Psalm 69 while channelling Jacques Brel. And my, Blake is certainly generous with his riffs. There’s many an album by respected rock acts where you struggle to recall any memorable riffs, but on Fear Engine II, they’re stacked up like planes over London. Second track ‘Hate On Sight’ delights in this cornucopia of heavy moves, dispensing enough runs in its introduction alone to populate an entire album. But when the main riff hits, it’s worthy of Tony Iommi himself, a gloomily descending chord sequence that matches the unholy guest vocal of Danielle Dax, who rasps, “We’ve pillaged the grave like a modern Burke & Hare, I’ll always see that hole in my dreams and she’ll pretend it’s not there”.
‘Conditional Discharge’ maintains the rock action with another precision-tooled riff and an astonishingly powerful vocal performance from Sam Ireland of Die Cheerleader, who sounds like she smoked an entire carton of Woodbines before stepping up to the mic. As with many of the other songs on Fear Engine II, it’s both crushingly dense while being surprisingly nimble-footed, and never leaves you in any doubt about the flesh and blood behind the pristine heaviness. It also highlights the wilfully opaque approach to songwriting that Blake takes - often happy to eschew choruses and conventional structures, he can still produce tunes with an almost pop-like appeal. On saying that, the other track that Ireland takes the lead vocal on – ‘The Waiting List’ – does have a verse/chorus design of sorts, albeit like super-charged prog turned inside-out.
The adrenalised rock side to the Shock Headed Peters’ oeuvre is epitomised by the rollicking ‘Lovecore’, which barrels in on a furious bass riff before Blake’s fluid metallic guitar theme takes over. Its ever-so-slightly deranged refrain of “Not out to stud – Not out to pasture – Just out to lunch”, and the repeated “Apply in writing – Application rejected”, puts me in mind of Alex Harvey’s version of ‘Next’ (back to Brel again).
The preponderance of high energy riffage on Fear Engine II is counterpointed throughout by a series of short instrumentals that allow the listener to catch their breath. With titles including ‘Hellkite’, ‘Shaitanist’ and ‘Pazuzu’, they range from chilly ambient drones to churning electric storms of processed guitars, and create a strangely occult undertow to the album. David Knight: “The instrumentals were mostly pieces I'd constructed with guitar loops played back at various octaves on an Akai S-1000 sampler – the inspiration was definitely Fripp and Eno, especially from around the time of 'Evening Star', and of course, our old favourites Faust.”
As noted already, there’s a dark and misanthropic seam of humour that runs through Shock Headed Peters’ material, in both lyrical and arrangement terms. Fine examples of this on Fear Engine II include ‘We Breathe The Same Air’, insurrectionary heavy metal cabaret which features lines such as “Can you hear a ticking? Not an anarchist bomb, it’s just this loyal subject sharpening up his knives for some phlebotomy” before mordantly concluding “Ours is a marriage made in Heaven – If needs be, it will be consummated in Heaven”. ‘Head Thorax Abdomen’ is cut from similar cloth, being swinging music for serial killers, while ‘Wrecked Submarine Me’ could almost be Britpop, albeit Britpop dragged through the bowels of Hell.
The flipside of this relative levity is the claustrophobic grind of ‘Love’s Dumb Mechanics’, a wailing, nightmarish take on mid-70s Hawkwind over which Blake’s half-spoken words are echoed in spooky falsetto: “I couldn’t express myself much better and there’s something so terribly, horribly, wrong about this”. The horror show vibe is maintained on ‘Katabolism’, a potent blend of Red-era King Crimson and Godflesh, with Blake continuing to castigate himself – “Re-run like an old television show; I get the baddy role again and again” – before letting loose with a searing guitar solo.
As a grand finale, all these various elements are brought together on ‘Son Of Thumbs Of A Murderer’. A mainstay of any Shock Headed Peters’ live set, it dates back to one of the band’s early EPs, and like much of the material on this album, its original conception is earlier still, with Blake dating each of his lyrics – ‘Son of…’ is tagged 31/1/81, while ‘The Waiting List’ stretches right back to 1977. While the form and arrangement of these songs may have changed by the time of Fear Engine II’s recording in 1993, they’re testament to the power and persistence of Blake’s vision over the years, and his over-riding belief that ‘heavy music’ can also be serious music.
‘Son of…’ starts with a disarming passage of Spanish guitar, before the steady chug of an electric guitar starts to build the tension, and Danielle Dax blithely delivers the killer opening lines, “I’m a law unto myself most of the time – Most of the time I’m somebody else’s problem.” When the big riff comes, it’s a one chord bludgeon that the Stooges would be proud of, over which Blake coolly intones the interior monologue of a madman.
On its release, the critical reaction to Fear Engine II (such as it was) was decidedly muted, though given the state of the contemporary musical landscape in the UK, that’s not altogether surprising. In 1996, the band released their last (to date) album Tendercide, which saw a return to the more eclectic style of earlier releases – ‘Sublime Prince Of The Royal Secret’ is particularly, err, sublime.
After that, Blake has worked as a jobbing musician for a variety of avant rock bands (including Sol Invictus, who he eventually had a major falling out with over their far right leanings), while Knight developed his solo electro-minimalist project Arkkon and currently collaborates with ex-Coil man Stephen Thrower as one half of UnicaZürn. Shock Headed Peters still exist in name – as Blake says, “it may be dormant at points, but it’s only over when I am over - not before!” – but the band’s last live performance was in 2006. (Though tantalisingly, Blake adds, “I have spoken to all the original SHP who play on Not Born Beautiful to see if they would be up for doing something again and all have agreed.")
Every music fan has their own secret stash of unsung bands and albums that they like to push on unsuspecting listeners. But Shock Headed Peters near-disappearance from the critical radar strikes me as a particularly grievous oversight, because we’re not just talking worthy and peripherally interesting here – we’re talking about one of the best bands this country has ever produced and a burning beacon of rock righteousness during the bleak anti-rock years. Yes, there’s a bitter irony in the subtitle, but Fear Engine II: Almost As If It Had Never Happened… is simply astonishing – if you dig big riffs and aren’t afraid of big words, then this is an album you absolutely need in your life.