More than a mere offshoot or a piece of artistic limb-stretching.
Draw a line out of the band Wire, in any direction, and you hit genius. Indeed, as the band temporarily broke up in 1980, bassist B.C. Gilbert took the centrifugal energy of the band’s acerbic and achingly precise explorations and was flung out into multiple incarnations, cut loose to fully explore the non-musical inclinations that he had originally bought to the band. Let’s not forget, this is a musician who famously considered Wire, even by 1980 a significantly important punk and post-punk voice, as a kind of “living sculpture,” a means to transform and transcend what punk had become.
Of course, Gilbert is not the only member of Wire to take that impetus into frenetic over-production, but, in the years between their short-term dissolution and reformation in 1985, Gilbert was involved in the production of a series of band-projects with fellow Wire member Graham Lewis including a collaboration with Mute Records’ Daniel Miller, the production (with Lewis) of The The’s debut single “Black & White/Controversial Subject,” and a series of film and performance scores and multi-media installation pieces. It’s during this period that A.C. Marias was born, a collaboration between Gilbert and sometime-Wire collaborator Angela Conway, releasing the single “Drop” on Gilbert and Lewis’ Dome label in 1981, and following this with the single “Just Talk” in 1986, and the stand-alone album One of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) in 1989.
Album opener “Trilby’s Couch” takes the Svengali myth and inverts it, giving the subject of Svengali’s mesmeric influence in the original Du Maurier novel agency over this mysterious power and reducing the mesmeric volunteer to an anonymous “he.” Over a suitably geological bass pulse, a solo woodwind introduces the song, opening up a space that is defined as much by the decay of the reverb and the fade in of a walking bass line and simple repetitive percussive click as it is by the absence of anything more substantial or, perhaps, less ethereal. The focus is Conway’s voice, gentle and oddly lilting, occupying a tuning that is askew and slightly to one side of the bass while, every fourth bar, synthetic birds chirrup, echo and flutter. As Conway cycles twice through the short verse-like phrases, we’re told that “Between two chairs/ On Trilby’s couch/ A volunteer lies in a trance/ He rises up, up, up/ And floats in the air …”. Now, looking back through the Lynchian glow of artists like Julee Cruise, such disturbingly gentle compositions are no longer so strange, but at the time this slightly askew musical poem was unexpected and it remains an oddly affecting opening gambit, even given the album’s left-of-center provenance. By starting with the Svengali story, however disguised, and by returning to Svengali’s victim the power of speech, Conway has given Trilby her voice while at the same time claiming the possibilities for that voice to be literally hypnotic.
“Just Talk” picks up with strummed multi-tracked guitars in the foreground, Conway’s heavily reverbed vocals swimming behind, another composition of simple layers that cycle past regular song structures, ignoring the standard verse-chorus demands and instead rolling out blocks of sound, of vocals and guitars, of guitars alone and, after a series of these alternations, a block of additional guitars that chime out above everything else. Gilbert’s fascination with this additive process, blocks on blocks, helixical returns, is the compositional mainstay of the album, providing the translucent frame upon which Conway sings often-surreal lyrics, telling us in “Just Talk” that “Its heart throbs heart jobs/ Inca Gods/ Your leave has been cancelled/ The shark has no teeth, dear”.
“There’s a Scent of Rain in the Air” utilizes a deep and steady pulse as its centerpiece around which guitars are repetitively strummed and invoked and through which a drone emerges, as before an accretion of elements that gather behind Conway’s voice for the song’s first third, sit alongside it for the middle third and then overcome it for the song’s final portion, smothering her final lyrics in a muddled timbre that seems deliberate in its desire to obscure her. Out of this rumble and dismay, “Our Dust” is almost upbeat, a shuffling brushed snare rhythm and bell-like synth framing Conway’s noting that “There’s a book on a shelf/ A dress on myself/ There’s some dust on the stair/ I don’t care,” her repeated claim that “I don’t care/ I don’t care …” eventually drowned out by the sounds of male voices in a bar as the music fades and retreats. Similarly pop-like is “Give Me,” synth bass notes pulsing and growling across a simple drum machine as Conway asks “Give me/ Give me/ A stolen kiss/ A stolen kiss/ Many,” while “To Sleep,” as close to an ambient piece as the album gets, pushes back the energy and returns the listener to a place of spaciousness, fluted synth notes and major guitar chords rising and falling around us. As before, it’s the simple repetition of elements, vocal lines, the regular addition of noises as the song progresses that lead to its effectiveness, such that even as the lyrics are blurred or obscured, the voice itself remains as another musical element to be explored and structured.
Finally, it’s the album’s title track that brings these elements together most effectively, Gilbert’s guitar providing the kinds of solid and immovable frame that Wire would call upon for their next incarnation in songs like “Kidney Bingos,” “In Vivo” and “Silk Skin Paws.” Here, a flutter of percussion across a solid bass note lead into strummed guitars and anxious synth lines while Conway’s voice, breathy and urgent, tells us that “One of our girls has gone over the wall/ Under a wire/ She’s cut and run/ But where is she now?/ She’s gone.” It’s a deeply unsettling song with Conway’s voice at times mono-tonal and at angles to the song’s central tuning, surrounded throughout by a dusting of reverb that adds a breathless feeling to the sense that there’s a story being told but that the key to understanding it is lost with only the hint of threat remaining.
One of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) would produce two singles, the title track and “Time Was,” and with that A.C. Marias was finished. Gilbert would return to Wire, finally leaving in 2004 but continuing to explore sonic phenomena as widely as he had ever done. Conway continues to work as a music video director and has produced over 80 music videos since, including material for Nick Cave, Erasure, Bryan Ferry, Wire and the Smashing Pumpkins. The album, though, is more than a mere offshoot or a piece of artistic limb-stretching and it’s almost perfect that there will be no more for an album that explores new territory and turns its back on that forever. The songs that are here are fully formed, even as they experiment with form and tone and, perhaps most of all, what remains after listening is Conway’s vocals that float across and through, her lyrics a tone-poem, the voice returned to the mesmerist’s victim and mesmerizing in turn.