I downloaded “Amber Hands” by S.C.U.M. back in July and was immediately taken by the atmospheric, driving glam shoegaze on offer. It sounds like a pop version of Loop with slight touches of goth around the edges, deriving mainly from lead singer Thomas Cohen’s vocals. The band are named for the “Society for Cutting Up Men,” (Big in Japan fans will be familiar with this concept), an odd conceit for a male-fronted band, but only part of the intrigue.
Cohen’s are quite distinctive, with some of the flat, atonal, emotionally tremulous vocals of Magazine-era Howard Devoto, or Interpol, or even the Chameleons – with beautiful and passionate lyrics (unlike Interpol). To these old postpunk ears, it is a tonic. I instantly bought the vinyl-only single, out on Mute, with a bside, an intriguing looped noise track reminiscent of Main, and two remixes, the inner-ear disorder remix of the Silver Apples and the “add more noise” remix by Sonic Boom.
The next single, “Whitechapel,” is a six-minute epic, building from a slow, entrancing, more overtly goth-tinged vocal to a captivating, faster mid-section with a terrific breakdown before building back to speed, with icy keyboards over the top, sailing on to the end. It’s a phenomenal song, and the keyboards at the end remind me of Gary Numan in the best possible way.
So, two great singles in, and, courtesy of Mute, I get the album, Again into Eyes, landing on my desk. Fantastic. Joshua von Grimm of the Horrors had just bigged them up in an interview I conducted, so I’m ready to like this. A little research uncovered that there was a bit of nepotism at play there – the bass player, Huw Webb, is brother of the Horrors’ Rhys Webb (aha!), which explains a lot – both in the promotion, and the sound of S.C.U.M.. Also, their debut single (“Visions Arise”) came a few years before on Loog, produced by yet another Horror, Tom Furse, and is now infinitely sold out. Bugger.
All that in my quiver, I’m ready to hear the album. And what an album. From the opening track, “Faith Unfolds,” I’m won over. Over layers of shoegaze guitars and Melissa Rigby’s compelling drums, Cohen’s extremely stylized vocals will either be to your taste or not instantly – they’re definitely to my taste. The rest of the noise, brought by Webb, Bradley Baker, and Samuel Kilcoyne, adds just the right atmospherics to the song.
“Days Untrue” follows, with a deeper goth feel soon overwhelmed by the howling noise of the track. This is postpunk of the highest order, and if it had come out in 1983, I would have been awestruck. As it is, it’s an enticing combination of sounds – overwhelming shoegaze on top of compelling, discordant pop songs, with glacial keyboards and Cohen’s unique vocals rounding the proceedings out perfectly.
The album can’t maintain this level of speed, but does maintain the intensity. “Cast into Seasons” is a descent into nightmare, all tribal percussion and atmosphere, cut to shreds by the aforementioned “Amber Hands,” and then the short sharp shock of the electrifying “Summon the Sound.” “Sentinal Bloom” is more psychedelic, with Cohen singing about bleeding colors and the like, and “Requiem” is a bit of a noisy mess, giving way to the Talk Talk drums of “Paris.” Cohen is summoning Marc Almond a bit here in his paean to the city of lights, but the sheer romance of him singing, “bury my love,” wins me over.
The palette cleanser “Water” gives way to “Whitechapel” – which is even more beautiful in this context – closing out the album. I’d say it’s an instant classic, and comparing them to the Horrors would be daft. Their antecedents, as I mentioned, are Magazine, the Chameleons, and, maybe, if you give them more credit than they deserve, Interpol (give Interpol more credit than they are due, not S.C.U.M., who already have more great songs on their first album). Yes, the vocals will be a litmus test for you, and I’m sure a lot of folks will be turned off. But for those that embrace them, as I do, there’s a marvelous debut album on offer here.
Oh, and I should mention, the album cover is worth the price of admission – as with the singles, it’s intriguing, sexy, and strange – completely justified by the sounds herein.