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Holy Hell! The Italian Flag Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Italian Flag Turns 20

Building on the promise of The Italian Flag, Prolapse’s late albums are the culmination of a formidable creation, and attest to its angular, ardent stance.

Archeology students and experimental drama types rarely join forces, much less to form a band. But that’s what happened with six young people in Leicester circa 1991. With a name that means “to fall out of,” Prolapse had a shambolic style that was inevitably compared to The Fall, and “Scottish” Mick Derrick was the Leicester group’s equivalent of the unpredictable Mark E. Smith. Hirsute and lumbering, Derrick towered over co-vocalist Linda Steelyard as the two tangled on stage. He mumbled and raved in a thick, impenetrable accent while she parried his physical and verbal abuse with a defiant English lilt, and often got the better of him in their tussles.

This relationship was enacted on record throughout the ’90s, and fronted a post-punk, shoegazer blend of harsh and gentle textures. Prolapse musicians fought back with their instruments against the vocal tag-team, thundering rhythms and slashing guitars alternating with tipsy saunters. The band earned critical acclaim but few sales, so revisiting The Italian Flag may entice indie-rock fans raised on Wire, PiL and Gang of Four.

The band’s debut album, Pointless Walks to Dismal Places, repeated songs from three eclectic EPs that appeared in 1993 and 1994. The title suited tracks like “Hungarian Suicide Song” and “Headless in a Beat Motel” that clanged out a dour mood. The latter sparked brief energy on a largely downbeat collection, though signs of life were sustained on “Tina, This is Matthew Stone,” an enactment of kitchen-sink strife. It’s the kind of manic performance where one expects to have that proverbial sink thrown in.

Prolapse perked up for Backsaturday in 1995, recorded in two days and rattling about more melodically, though still suggesting the din of a truckload of instruments careening about. “TCR” highlighted the band’s lead track with a knack for a catchy beat, which calmed the fears of fans that may have stayed clear of the band’s rowdy concerts, which had the reputation of steel cage matches.

The 13 songs on The Italian Flag benefit from enhanced production. Thanks to Julian Cope’s guitarist, Donald Ross Skinner, adding keyboards as well as studio expertise, Prolapse is far more assured on its third album, which stays sharp throughout. “Deanshanger” and “Cacophony No. A” highlight David Jeffreys and Patrick Marsden, who hammer out the loud and soft tones needed to complement the tension between Derrick and Steelyard. Churning chords sway about and spin as this guitar duo clamps down and pounds in the messages buried in a dense mix.

Unlike Prolapse’s previous albums, this features a lyric sheet, although the CD booklet renders them nearly unreadable. Still, a clever layout that separates Derrick’s words from Linda’s echoes their call-and-response arrangements. The album rises to happier moments with the chiming keys (thanks to Skinner) of “Autocade,” “Tunguska” and “Flat Velocity Curve.” “Visa for Violet and Van” emphasizes “Geordie” Mick Harrison on bass and Tim Pattison on drums as they interlock. Tunes remain punchy and compact, and freed from the gloomy detours which slowed down many previous recordings, glimpses of beauty finally emerge.

“Bruxelles” finds the two singers trading off a litany of nouns. Most are everyday items. But only one gets repeated by both voices in turn: “money.” This could have been a Samuel Beckett short piece.

Closer “Three Wooden Heads” leaves Steelyard in a schoolyard sing-song mode. She trills a refrain from an old chant while the distorted harmonies from the band conjure up a rustic and morbid past. An extended take on such an eerie lullaby morphed into Prolapse’s final album in 1999. Again well-named, Ghosts of Dead Aeroplanes (whose title echoes The Mekons’ Ghosts of American Astronauts) stirs electronic layers into a guitar-bass-drums foundation. Building on the promise of The Italian Flag, Prolapse’s late albums are the culmination of a formidable creation, and attest to its angular, ardent stance.

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