Hyaena serves a bridge between the post-punk darkness of the band’s earlier albums and the more pop-oriented music that would follow.
In late 1982 the Banshees made a critical personnel decision. Guitarist John McGeoch, whose virtuosic and innovative playing pushed the group’s landmark album Juju into bold and new directions, descended into an alcoholic mire. After suffering from a nervous breakdown that culminated in a collapse during a show in Madrid, McGeoch was soon hospitalized when the band returned from its tour. Unable to deal with the guitarist’s mounting issues, the band fired him. Taking his place was one Robert Smith, frontman for the Cure, who stepped in on guitar duties in November 1982.
This wasn’t Smith’s first foray with the Banshees. In 1979, Smith struck up a friendship with Steven Severin when the pair met at a Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire concert in London. The Cure had already released Three Imaginary Boys on Polydor’s Fiction imprint, the same label that released the Banshees’ The Scream the year prior. Severin was impressed with Smith and invited the Cure to open for the Banshees when they went out to tour in support of their sophomore album, Join Hands. When the Banshees guitarist and drummer both quit right before a show in Scotland, Smith helped out on guitar, doing double duty in both bands for the rest of the tour.
This time around, Smith was taking a break from the Cure. He himself was suffering from depression. The creation of Pornography had absolutely drained him, the sessions so fraught with inter-band fighting that bassist Simon Gallup left the group. Once Siouxsie and Budgie returned from Hawaii where they were working on their first Creatures LP in early 1983, the group began to work on the songs that would comprise Hyaena. First, at Smith’s insistence, they released a cover version of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” as a single in September. It was instantly popular, hitting third position in the UK Singles Chart and going down as the Banshees’ biggest hit. Following a pair of shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall on September 30th and October 1st, the band hastily released live album Nocturne on November 25th featuring Smith on guitar. However, working in two bands proved too much for Smith and in May 1984, shortly before the release of Hyaena, Smith retreated from the Banshees and returned to the Cure full-time.
In the Banshees’ discography, Hyaena serves a bridge between the post-punk darkness of the band’s earlier albums and the more pop-oriented music that would follow. While not the harrowing listen of Juju, Hyaena still has its share of dark moments that linger in its nine tracks (the US version also includes “Dear Prudence,” added as the first track on the second side). Opening with the simply gorgeous intro to “Dazzle” featuring a 27-piece orchestra, it is obvious that Hyaena would signal a new direction for the band.
As “Dazzle” fades in with the sweeping swell of the string section, Budgie’s drums push the song from high art towards the pop sensibilities that dominate the album. Siouxsie’s vocals soon appear as she sings, “Swallowing diamonds/ A cutting throat/ Your teeth when your breath/ Reflecting beams on your tombstones,” an oblique reference to the film Marathon Man. And while Siouxsie’s vocals take the song to dark places (Russian roulette, bloody thorns), “Dazzle” is still one of the most beautiful songs in the group’s discography.
“Swimming Horses,” the album’s lead single, features the same gender politics Siouxsie explored on her first Creatures LP. According to the singer, “Swimming Horses” was inspired by a television program she saw that documented an organization that rescued woman from Middle Eastern countries who faced death for pre-marital sex. She evokes these murders, usually perpetrated by an older male relative, in lyrics such as “Kinder with poison/ Then pushed down the well or a face burnt to hell/ Feel the cruel stones breaking her bones.” The show made Siouxise ache with sadness, so the inclusion of seahorses giving birth gave the singer hope, since the males carry the young, they are the only male species on the planet that can understand maternal instinct.
However, not all of Hyaena indulges in the dark tendencies of Siouxsie’s past work. “Take Me Back” feels loose and almost upbeat, the introduction of New Wave tendencies into the singer’s music while “Belladonna” is missing the cloak of paranoia that covered most of Siouxsie’s songs up to this point. At the time, Melody Maker attributed Smith’s presence for this leap in the Banshees’ sound. “Parts of it are so wistfully carefree that it’s impossible not to credit Robert Smith as the talisman – his irreverence seems to course through everything.”
Yet, Smith’s best effort comes on the stunning closer “Blow the House Down,” it’s dark and ominous vision leaving the listeners on an unsettling note as his signature guitar sound pushes the song forward. In one lyric, Siouxsie intones, “Shift the ground, caterpillar man.” The Cure would release the song “Caterpillar” in the same year where Smith sings of a caterpillar girl “flowing in and filling up my hopeless heart.” Smith’s fecund collaboration with Siouxsie was short-lived, but it’s very possible the effort was immortalized in those two songs.