Siouxsie and the Banshees proved their mettle with Kaleidoscope.
“I’m not altogether surprised it happened… Still, at least we’ve got rid of two spineless prima donnas,” declared Siouxsie Sioux regarding the sudden departures of guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris. The Banshees were set to commence their tour behind sophomore album, Join Hands, and ended up having to cancel a handful of dates as a result. While the vacating duo in question went on to do little else, Sioux and remaining bassist Steven Severin only went from strength to strength. Their comeback album, Kaleidoscope, would prove to be their most successful yet, a top 5 hit in the UK, heralding an era of forward thinking creativity and commercial success for the band.
Adopting the Slits’ Peter ‘Budgie’ Clark on drums and Magazine’s John McGeoch on guitar would prove to be a coup as their unique styles drastically moved the Banshees into more experimental and arty territories. At the same time, Sioux’s songwriting continued to morph into warped dimensions of gloomy goth pop and rock — her lyrics honing in on the depressing and disturbing sides of humanity including illness and insanity. “They were outsiders bringing outsider subjects to the mainstream,” later proclaimed Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, one of Sioux’s many acolytes.
A dark and gloomy album that unsteadily grooves and lurches about, Kaleidoscope is all about tension. Album closer “Skin” glides on slippery drums and droning guitars and bass constantly pushing and pulling against each other in order to create a violently imbalanced rhythm. Sioux’s double tracked vocals sound particularly powerful as they’re engulfed by the demented beat and decaying guitar distortion. While Sioux had always been a commanding presence, she exudes a prominent confidence throughout Kaleidoscope as she contorts her voice to high pitched wails and ghostly whispers.
Whereas previous guitarist McKay would blast explosions of distorted noise, McGeoch paints with a more subtle and precise brush. His emphasis on finger-picked rhythms and harmonically focused overdubs set the stage for future guitar wiz kids of the ‘80s like Johnny Marr and Roddy Frame, and his tasteful use of effects — whether it be a sharp, pinging phaser or queasy tremolo waves — create subtle textures that dress the album’s minimal arrangements. His guitar riffage in “Trophy” rollicks in glammy slashes of noise mixed with clean arpeggios that call and respond to a squawking saxophone.
Clark’s minimal take on drumming recalls Jaki Liebezeit with a heavy emphasis on groove. His minimal style both drags and propels when needed, usually focusing on a single component of his kit to drive the rhythm. His buzzing, reverb heavy hi-hat on “Tenant” incessantly ticks like a hand on the doomsday clock as warped synths zoom about. Meanwhile, Clark shakes a menacing tambourine in “Paradise Place,” letting the song breathe before filling in the gap with slashing hi-hats.
Unafraid to utilize drum machines when needed, cuts like “Red Light,” with its reverb heavy drum machine claps and lumpen rhythm, recalls both Suicide at their most playfully bleak and “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop. “Lunar Camel”’s deep hits of bass, low humming synths and scratchy drum machines echo Bowie and Eno in Berlin, Sioux’s higher melodic vocals acting as an eerie counterpoint to Severin’s bassy drone.
Pop moments also abound, as opener “Happy House” bursts forward with a driving rhythm, ping ponging bass and minimal arpeggiated backing from McGeoch that bubbles and oozes behind Sioux’s commanding vocals. It managed to break into the UK top 20, their second single to do so. Peaking at #22, “Christine”’s bright, chiming acoustic guitars gallop into a haze of flangers as Sioux paints a tale of a schizophrenic: “She tries not to shatter, kaleidoscope style/ Personality changes behind her red smile/ Every new problem brings a stranger inside/ Helplessly forcing one more new disguise.”
As resilient as ever, Siouxsie and the Banshees proved their mettle with Kaleidoscope. “The new album is called Kaleidoscope because of the nature of the situation we are in,” explained Sioux. “It’s all quite fragmented but every fragment is strong, bright and positive.” Their next couple of albums featuring McGeoch would see those fragments come together to create vivid hallucinogenic pop.