Whisper it quietly, but The Fall, a group not renowned for stability throughout a tumultuous 30+ year history, have plotted a course that has veered sharply into more secure waters over recent years. Of course, things would not be the same without at least some friction and tension. After a number of spats with former record label and home of the wannabe hipsters, Domino Records, the group have taken the circus and camped in the grounds of Cherry Red records for the release of their 29th studio LP. Administrative troubles aside, The Fall’s dictator for life, and self-proclaimed “original white rapper”, Mark E. Smith currently presides over the tight and efficient unit of Pete Greenway (guitar), Dave Spurr (bass), Keiron Melling (drums) and Smith’s third wife Elena Poulou (keyboards). For the first time, The Fall have recorded and released three consecutive LPs with the same line-up. The one present on Ersatz G.B. were also present for 2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent and 2010’s Your Future, Our Clutter, records that showed enough touches of class, craft and ingenuity to reassure The Fall’s notoriously hardcore following that the future was surprisingly rosy.
As with the prior two records, Ersatz G.B. shows that Smith, at least when he wants to, can pour enough bile, surreal observations and grit into his work. It proves that age, alcohol intake or even boredom cannot dim the mind of one of the most caustic commentators in British music.
Opener “Cosmos 7” races out of the blocks like a greyhound jacked-up on amphetamines; Smith’s utterances and curses anchored dead centre amidst a whirling cacophony of rockabilly clatter. Business as usual for Fall fans, but it serves as an old-fashioned warning to first-timers and casuals: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
As is the norm, there are a number of style variations on offer here. “Mask Search” keeps up the rockabilly theme, “Nate Will Not Return” has Smith supporting a rare lyrical rhyming scheme for near six minutes and “Happi Song” is a morose and introspective ditty led by Poulou on vocals. “I’ve Seen Them Come”, a straight forward and pulverising rocker, calls to mind the intensity shown on “Youwanner” from 2005’s Fall Heads Roll.
Speaking to The Quietus in 2010, Smith warned his followers that the next album would resemble “Greek heavy metal”. There is no stronger evidence of this promise than in “Greenway”, four minutes of filthy riffage and genuine vocal fury. Smith aims his loaded barrels at cheap imitators, music video television and a lot more besides. We are also treated to the strangest of images: “I had to wank off the cat to feed the ***in’ dog”, growls Smith. That is a scenario with the potential to haunt a person for life. More instances of The Fall’s leaning towards a heavier sound make themselves known later on. The first two minutes of “Monocard” resemble a long-lost Black Sabbath number; crashing chords, lingering bass and powerful drums all delivered at a frightening and ominous crawl. Smith dips in and out of the song at will, allowing the track to create the necessary atmosphere at its own pace.
The album’s final track, “Age of Chang”, sees Smith railing at the huddled masses over a vocal awash with crackles, pops and hisses. “TIME FOR CHANGE!” he and his group shout. Is this a warning to expect more chaos in the future? Perhaps it is Smith casting a wry aside at The Fall’s history and his own reputation instead, because the last thing The Fall need right now is change.