It must be strange to be a legacy post-punk musician in 2015. After years of underground success and mainstream influence in the late ‘70s and much of the ‘80s, the genre fizzled into college rock and ‘90s indie music before being revived in the ‘00s as the “fresh” rock sound. Joy Division and New Order began to be met by some with as much reverence as the Beatles while synthesizers and dance beats replaced blustery classic rock guitar riffs on the radio. Eventually, as a result of that latent success, key post-punk artists would return to the studio and the stage with a newfound audience, from Wire to Gang of Four and, now, the Pop Group, who only ever released two studio albums in the first place.
Citizen Zombie, the band’s third record, has the benefit of being released amidst an entirely different musical landscape than their classic 1979 album, Y, in a culture that has pillaged the band’s style for nearly two decades whether they knew it or not. It’s telling that hitmaking producer Paul Epworth (Adele, U2, Coldplay), apparently a longtime fan of the Pop Group, signed on to produce Citizen Zombie; post-punk has permeated the culture so thoroughly that it’s no longer much of a stretch for one of the world’s most sought-after engineers to himself seek out a collection of the genre’s luminaries, regardless of how little their volatile, disorganized sound meshes with his pop music methods. It’s a testament to both parties that Citizen Zombie mostly works, both as a Pop Group album and as a high-budget, professionally polished collection of modern music.
The album’s opening title track makes it clear that Epworth’s contributions to Citizen Zombie are all in service of the Pop Group’s signature sound. There are no attempts to level frontman Mark Stewart’s characteristically harsh, scratchy wail, no attempts to overtly tighten the band’s ambling compositions, and no attempts to broaden their deathly-narrow appeal. “Mad Truth” offers the best combination of Stewart’s absurdly infectious, violent songwriting tendencies and Epworth’s rich production techniques: humming synths ring on in the background as a funky disco bassline and palm-muted guitar riffs intertwine. It sounds something like a mutant version of Foals, one band that has certainly benefited from the advancements of artists like the Pop Group. Miraculously, Epworth has managed to modernize the Pop Group sound and at the same time do justice to it, a dichotomy that contemporary releases by artists like Gang of Four and Wire have unfortunately struggled with.
There are plenty of oddities, too, but they fit in much better now than they would have 30 years ago. “s.o.p.h.i.a.” hits on the ironic disco-punk that modern bands like the Rapture originally took from Y and albums like it; the band tries out a four-on-the-floor beat, dub sound effects and electronic influence in “Age of Miracles;” “Nowhere Girl” experiments with dense guitar effects, deep sub bass and atmospheric background vocals that put it somewhere near the symphonic shoegaze of Spiritualized. All the disparate sounds and influences can at times come off disjointed, but the Pop Group show a stunning amount of confidence 35 years after their last studio album, a quality that pulls them through many of Citizen Zombie’s more misguided adventures.
Fans should be pleased with the Pop Group’s third record, even if the band somehow managed to snag a spot at the “cool kids” table this time. Epworth shows himself to be a true fan by letting Stewart and company do their thing, only stepping in to enhance what the band has already built. Citizen Zombie is an album that probably shouldn’t have worked on paper, but in spite of itself, it’s compelling and original. The Pop Group once again show how post-punk has maintained such profound influence in modern music culture by delivering on what most nearly 40-year-old bands cannot: innovation and a persistent sense of self.