I’m fond of quoting Jacques Barzun’s statement about “experimental art” — that if one considers a certain work of art to be experimental, one must also concede that there is the possibility that the experiment has failed. I’ve since expanded my thinking on the issue a bit, and responded with a few questions of my own: What are the parameters of success and failure for a given “experiment”, and who dictates them, the artist or the audience? I don’t think these questions have fixed answers, either; you have to ask yourself such questions every time you approach something new, and see what comes of it. Nobody is ever trying to do the same thing the same way, or for the same reasons, or with the same ends in mind.
This Heat were one of many bands from England that had the labels “experimental” and “post-punk” pasted onto them, but I suspect in both cases it was a matter of sheer categorical sloppiness than anything else. The band was “post-punk” only in the sense that they released their first albums at roughly the same time as other “post-punk” acts, and had some of the same energy and brittleness of sound as the rest of those bands, even if they were putting it to entirely different ends. In terms of what they were trying to achieve and where they were getting most of their deeper inspiration, they probably owed more to European progressive-rock outfits like Faust. In fact, if anything, they were one of the few British bands that managed to match Faust’s reputation in terms of the eclecticism of their sound and the sheer level of mystery and oddity they conjured up out of nowhere. I know of few other bands from England that commanded the level of subterranean awe that This Heat did, and they sported two of the same hallmarks of other bands of legend: a small but scrupulously assembled body of work, and an enigmatic aura that stayed with them no matter what they might have done to dispel it.
This Heat, the debut record, manifested both of those things at once. They had worked on the record for almost two years, although they’d already earned some attention when they sent DJ John Peel a demo tape. Peel’s radio programs served as a point of egress for hundreds of eclectic and fruitfully experimental bands; everyone from Napalm Death to 23 Skidoo earned some attention thanks to him. Their approach was both experimental and industrious: the band had converted an abandoned meat-packing into a practice space, did their recording in what was once the freezer, and put together their songs with the discipline and care of art installations in a gallery (a comparison I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t be unhappy with).
The main thing This Heat did was radiate the kind of beguiling sense of mystery through their music that simply cannot be faked. You either have it or you don’t, and it’s hard to convey verbally just how the pieces fall together. The opening track, “Testcard”, sounds like a very quiet shortwave radio transmission, but it’s actually a guitar phrase that has been heavily processed — something we don’t learn until the very end of the record itself. When you first put the needle down, though, this tone simply seems to exist to serve notice to the listener about the alien sound of the album as a whole, but I suspect there may be something more prankish at work: you have to turn the volume way up to hear anything, and then the blasting rattle of the opening notes of “Horizontal Hold” hits you over the head.
“Horizontal Hold” is named for one of the knobs that used to appear on your TV, and back when I owned such a set I played incessantly with those controls like I was auditioning for a Nam June Paik tribute. The sound of the track suggests the jittery, shuddering chaos unleashed on your screen when you messed around like that, but at seven-plus minutes you might wonder how long something like that could go on before it became totally redundant. The answer is, it doesn’t: the band goes from one set of contrasting textures to another, introduces reed and guitar improvisations, and uses the basic conceit they introduce through that title (and that first blast of clattering, snaking noise) as a taking off-point for many other things.
This is by no means the only approach on the record. “Not Waving” uses Stevie Smith’s bleak poem of the same name as, again, a jumping-off point for both lyrical and musical departures. The song settles around you like fog, and the moaning of the music and the words together create a desolation I haven’t heard in a song since the last Keiji Haino record I picked up. This foglike suffocation is conjured up many times throughout the record, especially on the appropriately-titled “Music Like Escaping Gas.” “24 Track Loop” uses a basic rhythm loop as, again, a source for an endless series of changes provided by tape manipulation and electronic effects — to my ears, a precursor to the way techno and trance would use things like phase shifting and equalization as ways to tease great variety out of the simplest of note sequences.
The ongoing aura of mystery summoned by This Head was only fueled all the more by the amount of work a casual listener would have to go through to simply hear one of their albums. If you weren’t a rare vinyl collector (original pressings of This Heat’s albums change hands for hundreds of dollars), you had to spring for one of their CD reissues, which went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. More recently, two things happened which made their catalog all the easier to find: the release of a box set named Out of Cold Storage that contains pretty much everything they did that was worth hearing, and a good deal of their music appearing on services like eMusic.com. Despite having a subscription to eMusic, I actually ended up buying a used copy of This Heat for $3 — no joke — from JustTheDisc.com, although at some point I suspect I’m going to spring for Cold Storage for the sake of the included book. Music like this always deserves to come with its own liner notes — but at the same time, when I listen to it, there’s so much about it that is entirely self-explanatory and self-documenting. All that hard work in the meat locked paid off. The experiment was a success. xemusic.com=10929977