Popular music is peppered with bands that really should have crossed over into the mainstream and enjoyed wider appeal, but for often unaccountable reasons, remained comparatively unheralded. In the realm of ‘indie guitar bands’ The Go-Betweens, That Petrol Emotion and Kitchens of Distinction spring immediately to mind as bands that should have been huge. Similarly, whilst recent years have seen renewed media and consumer interest in a slew of post-punk bands, with the usual suspects like Joy Division, PiL, Wire, Gang of Four and Magazine garnering the lion’s share of the coverage and praise, London’s The Sound have remained largely unsung.
At the time of their existence, from 1979 to 1988, much the same situation existed. The Sound’s records often met with unanimous critical acclaim in the music press, yet they never managed the same mainstream success that, say, Joy Division eventually achieved. Neither did they gain the same sizeable cult status of their contemporaries The Chameleons and The Comsat Angels, bands with whom they shared certain sonic similarities and aesthetics. Somehow The Sound remained unjustly under-rated and overlooked.
Collecting together the band’s first three albums, EP tracks, radio sessions, incendiary live performances and a scattering of hitherto unreleased tracks, this new box set represents serious value for money. The music is spread over four CDs housed in replicas of the original albums’ outer sleeves, alongside an informative 36-page colour booklet containing an essay on the band, interviews and full lyrics.
The Sound’s 1980 début album “Jeopardy” is a taut and flab-free blast of post-punk energy. Recorded in a cramped studio in London in just a week, reputedly on a budget of under £1000 - remarkable particularly as the band were signed to a major label, Warner Bros’ Korova imprint - it feels like the work of a band with incredible need and focus, desperate to get their message across. Musically, there are similarities with label mates Echo and the Bunnymen’s debut “Crocodiles” and The Teardrop Explodes’ early catalogue, particularly on the organ-driven “Heartland”. Singer Adrian Borland is a man possessed, his vocals often damning or brimming with disgust: “Who the hell makes those missiles when they know what they can do?” he spits on arguably the album’s highlight, “Missiles”. “Jeopardy” was a fine statement of intent, still heady from the excitement and verve of punk, but moving into something new, deeper and more finely crafted.
“From the Lion’s Mouth” followed exactly twelve months after the début, its sound comparatively measured and polished, perhaps in part due to the involvement of Hugh Jones as producer, fresh from his work with on Simple Minds’ “Sons and Fascination” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Heaven Up Here”. The songs, at their best, such as on the opener “Winning” (particularly in its live incarnation elsewhere in this set) and “Skeletons” are easily the equal of “Unknown Pleasures” or “Script of the Bridge”. The production on the album perhaps reins in the ferocity and energy a little too much at times, but it’s still a mighty fine album demonstrating the band’s growing musical maturity and self-assurance and Borland’s superlative lyric writing. “Silent Air” is a particularly affecting and effective confessional, its lyrics compounded by the delivery, Borland’s voice occasionally cracking slightly, as it often does on these recordings. There’s an honesty and directness to his lyrics; perhaps one of the reasons that The Sound have stood the test of time so well.
By their third album, 1982’s “All Fall Down”, The Sound were under pressure from their label to produce a record that was a commercial success. The band, meanwhile, appeared to be more concerned with expanding their musical palette and experimental artistic expression. These competing pressures yielded mixed results, with the album occasionally falling awkwardly between the two. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent moments, though. “Monument”, in particular, is a gorgeous and sumptuous pop song, whilst “Calling the New Tune” is reminiscent of Gang of Four’s “Songs of the Free”, released the same year, boasting relatively glossy production values and definite crossover potential. At the same time, one can only imagine the look of horror on the faces of Warner execs when they first heard “Glass and Smoke”, seven bloody-minded minutes of percussion-heavy repetition and discordant guitars. Needless to say, commercial success did not follow “All Fall Down” and The Sound were dropped by their label.
The final disc in the set brings together two live performances originally broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in 1981 and 1985. The first catches the band in full flight with a set drawn from the first two albums and a sound midway between the raucous immediacy of the début and the assured control of the second. The 1985 concert finds the band sounding far more atmospheric and textured, although the recording occasionally sounds very much of its time due to the synthesizer sounds and the addition of saxophone, courtesy of Fiat Lux’s Ian Nelson. Even so, the song writing and Borland’s passionate delivery stand out, particularly on an excellent take on “Total Recall” from their album “Heads and Hearts”, released the same year by the independent label Statik. There’s also a return to the début album with a solid and expansive eight-minute take on “Missiles”, bringing the box set’s contents full circle.
The Sound eventually called it a day in 1988, after which Adrian Borland continued primarily as a solo artist but also as a producer to bands including Felt, The Celibate Rifles and Into Paradise, while other band members retired from music or passed away (keyboard player Max Mayers died as a result of an AIDS-related illness in 1993). Borland had long experienced debilitating mental health issues and these eventually contributed to his premature death from suicide in 1999.
From time to time, The Sound’s albums are reissued and gain respectable coverage; a book appeared a few years ago and now there is talk of a documentary film being made about Borland and his music. If there is any shred of justice left in this world, this box set will further cement The Sound’s reputation as one of the great post-punk bands. Whilst the five hours of their music might be a daunting prospect, if you have any interest in post-punk past or present, this box set deserves your time and attention. It will repay you handsomely.