The Membranes were at the most abrasive end of the post-punk spectrum, but they always managed to keep it interesting and diverse as well as just loud. Formed by John Robb in Blackpool in 1977, they were prolific throughout the 80s, getting lots of critical acclaim, gathering devoted fans and influencing bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black, My Bloody Valentine and The Vaccines before splitting up in 1990. They’ve just released their seventh album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy, their first since 1989.
You might know John Robb, singer and creative force behind The Membranes, whether you realise it or not. He’s a regular talking head on culture shows like I Love the 1980s. He’s the one with the gravelly voice and the Mohican that, these days, owes as much to a receding hairline as to punk sensibilities. After The Membranes finished he founded a couple of other, less prominent bands, before becoming a successful music journalist, author and manager.
The band has been reuniting for occasional gigs for the past few years but, in what seems like a deeply improbable move, a conversation Robb had with Joe Incandela, head of the CERN project (the vaguely sinister organisation behind the Large Hadron Collider) inspired him to create a concept album about the universe with the rest of The Membranes. Dark Matter/Dark Energy is the result, and perhaps even more improbably, it’s excellent.
The band have consciously avoided rehashing their eighties sound, although the old aggression is still there, tempered by moments of introspection and melancholy and a range of musical styles. The album opens noisily with the cacophonous, gothic rock of The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light. The track builds slowly into an explosive crescendo, like a sonic Big Bang. Next up is one of the highlights of the album, Do The Supernova, a high tempo, industrial garage tune which owes a debt to the Pixies (for the title at least) and Elvis, for the lyrics (‘One for the money, two for the show…’). The choruses combine scratchy guitars, one note basslines and odd percussion before a drum roll launches the glorious punk chorus.
21 Century Man has a central riff reminiscent of Metallica’s One, while Robb’s vocals sound like Nick Cave singing Mark E. Smith at his most pissed off – ‘I’m an unapologetic, middle-aged, fucked up, 21 century man’. The album then quietens down with Money is Dust, a driving, atmospheric piece infused with threatening wah-wah guitars. It’s nice enough, but it’s eight minutes long and it never really goes anywhere.
The Multiverse Suite sees the band going full-on Pink Floyd, with a sample of Joe Incandela explaining dark matter theory over an orchestra-tuning-up soundscape. This is followed by the dirty, fuzzed-up funk of Space Junk. Angular, slashing guitars play over a hip hop beat as Robb rails against the debris mankind has left orbiting Earth. The middle eight sounds like R2D2 with Tourette’s and it’s one of the best tracks on the album.
Dark Matter is a slow building psychedelic tune, with dub bass, piano lines, electrified voices and snippets of astronaut conversation - more prog rock than punk rock, but it’s not out of place. If You Enter The Arena, You Got To Be Prepared To Deal With The Lions gets noisy again and it’s another highlight. It’s reminiscent of Fugazi at their best but the guitars could have been played by Steve Albini in his mid-80s prime.
In The Graveyard is a nine-minute dub track with maniacal vocals and lyrics concerning death – which is as unsettling as it sounds - while Magic Eye (To See The Sky) is an acoustic folk odyssey about the power of the telescope – which isn’t anywhere near as shit as it sounds. 5776 (The Breathing Song) is more dub bass, rhythmic panting, strings and a return of the electrified, robot voice from earlier combined to make a very unorthodox love song. Hail to the Lovers is an exciting piece of surf-style garage punk and the album closes with the epic Dark Energy and the slightly anticlimactic Hum of the Universe.
Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a concept album about space by a long dormant band, trying their hand at creating music together for the first time in over a quarter of a century. It really ought to have been a massive mistake, but it’s actually a fine album – atmospheric, exhilarating, expansive and original. The Membranes have moved on musically while playing to their strengths and it’s good to have them back.
Dark Matter/Dark Energy is out now and you can get a copy here