Monday, December 8, 2014

Happy Ever After: A Quick Look At The New Stockholm Monsters Reissue

Manchester's Stockholm Monsters were never gonna be huge. In an era where they were competing with Factory label-mates A Certain Ratio and New Order they were too similar to completely stand out and too unique to entirely appeal to the fanbases of either act. Stockholm Monsters made smart, sharp, complicated rackets that worked well when nudged in the direction of dance music and almost as well when they veer towards the then-burgeoning post-rock sound. At their best -- and this new reissue does a great job at showcasing that and more -- Stockholm Monsters presented a hint of what the Happy Mondays would do so well later. That Stockholm Monsters did the same sort of thing but without a lot of humor could be the key to their lack of a huge breakthrough.

Brooklyn label Captured Tracks has done a the world a favor by reissuing pretty much all of the essential Stockholm Monsters stuff on a beautiful 2-LP set. All at Once collects the singles and the debut album, Alma Mater (1984). It's a significant re-issue and a splendid package of music.

On the best tracks, the band seems to be mining a similar vein as New Order and A Certain Ratio and one wonders now how people differentiated between these acts back in 1981 or so. That sounds like a stupid thing to say but, really, the bands sounded a lot alike back then and only a year or so later would New Order perfect their sound with "Blue Monday" and subsequent singles and A Certain Ratio produce funkier, more expansive music.

Of course, I'm saying all that as a guy who was in his teens in 1980, 1981, and who was, if anything, only reading the name of New Order in Creem at most.

Still, there's no shame in sounding like New Order circa 1981. The superb "Life's Two Faces" answers the question of what Human League would have sounded like with Peter Hook playing bass in the band. It's a gloriously bright bit of electro-pop business with urgent, nearly-punky vocals from Tony France. Produced by Hooky, it's no shock then to hear how much bassist Jed Duffy's instrument of choice is favored on these tracks. The second half of the album is, in some ways, more focused and better conceived than Movement. This is the sound of the direction that New Order could have gone in had they not released Power, Corruption and Lies in 1983.

Martin Hannett and Peter Hook both had a hand in the production of a lot of this music and it's apparent. Take for example "Fairy Tales" which is the sprightly cousin of "Leave Me Alone" from that 1983 New Order album I already mentioned. "Milita" ends the New Order comparisons a bit as France's vocals approach a sort of forceful delivery that Sumner was not pursuing in that era.

Look, let's be honest: Stockholm Monsters are never gonna make you forget New Order but they don't really have to. Stockholm Monsters, as this compilation illustrates, brought a lot of energy to the Factory template of the era. On first listen you might think how much these guys sound like other bands on the label. On second listen you might notice the many ways in which they were vigorously pursuing a new sound.

All at Once by Stockholm Monsters is out now on Captured Tracks.