Mark E. Smith does what he wants.
In their 40 years of existence, the Fall have released enough music to fill entire shelves. With over 30 albums in the studio—and triple that with compilations, concerts and ephemera—this prolific band has long left behind its limited punk or post-punk labels. Yet they continue to remain punk in the purist sense: Mark E. Smith and whomever he recruits into the line-up keep producing music that sounds truest to themselves, and to no one else. Few musicians or vocalists who started in 1976 can continue to entertain us in such surprising ways today.
The Fall’s repetition sustains their prickly music, and their latest (and by now longest-lasting) version of the band has tightened its delivery. This approach combines discipline with chaos, and it buzzes, clangs and rambles on, to irritate or inspire. Many other veteran British bands totter along on the reunion circuit, churning out their hits, but the Fall keep looking forward, and even the one song remade here from their full-length debut, Live at the Witch Trials, gains verve from its fresh restoration, merged with one of their newest songs.
The Wise Ol’ Man EP introduces two songs along with remixes and alternate takes of others from 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet. On the opening title track, Smith’s voice warbles his sagacious frontman credentials over a forceful guitar riff from Peter Greenway. This song fits neatly into the band’s sound of the last few years, where the instruments collide with the mutters and mumbles of Smith, who challenges and subverts any definition of what constitutes a singer. Smith does what he wants.
Similarly, “All Leave Cancelled” bursts outwards, with production from Smith that plunges the listener into a maelstrom. While this may not be the best place for newcomers to enter, for veteran audiences of the Fall, this satisfies better than some of their post-millennial releases, in which too many songs went on far too long and felt like the tape kept rolling and the musicians kept doodling or dawdling.
“Dedication” remixes “Dedication Not Medication” from the last studio album. It and the instrumental installment of the EP’s title track move along fine, but for me they don’t open up the energy or experimentation of the first two tracks. Another remake, this time “Venice with Girls,” adds swagger to the opening track of Sub-Lingual Tablet, and the band appears to realize its catchy presence and lyrical fun. “Facebook Troll” shows off another great title, and presumably a target of Smith’s considerable wrath. It’s enriched by the interplay of Elena Poulou’s whirling keyboards with Smith’s rants, all backed by Dave Spurr’s bass and Keiron Melling’s drums. This segues into “No Xmas for John Quay” from their 1979 debut LP. Hearing the latest ensemble tackle the shambolic, sneering ditty from Live at the Witch Trials proves a delight. The continuity between Smith when he was barely out of his teens and the currently grizzled man pushing 60 reveals a twisted talent.
Closing this brief recording, “All Leave Cancelled (X)” continues the in-studio trend to take apart Fall songs and kick around the pieces before putting them back on tape. Commendably, Smith and company revel in what may seem to the unconvinced to be a mess. But to the committed, it’s another success. I look forward to more such revelations from a band that one can never consign to nostalgia.