The Bevis Frond

The Hit Squad

Reviewed by Troy Southgate

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[Woronzow 56] Available from Woronzow Records, 102 Crescent Road, New Barnet, Herts., EN4 9RJ, England.

I GOT into The Bevis Frond after hearing Nick Saloman's brilliantly hypnotic contribution to Current 93's 'Hitler As Kalki', a Psychedelic odyssey containing one of Nick's mesmerising guitar performances. As a result, I've spent the last few months collecting everything I can get my hands on, including various Frond offshoots like The Fred Bison Five and collaborations with people like Country Joe McDonald and various others. This also led to me discovering Psychedelia in general, something I've been enjoying tremendously. Groups like The Outskirts of Infinity and Alchemysts are now part of my staple diet, although nothing quite comes close to Nick Saloman and his prolific repertoire of songs about life, love and good old London Town. 'The Hit Squad', therefore, is fairly special to me because it's the first album to be released since my relatively recent conversion to the Frond cause.

Based on 1950's b-movie imagery, the cover is very tongue-in-cheek and tells of one band's struggle against the rip-off merchants of the modern music industry. The comic sleeve illustrations are very self-indulgent, but that's what I love about Nick and his ability to bare his soul to his ever-faithful audience and elsewhere he has explained how difficult it was to motivate himself to actually complete this album in the first place. The songs are full of disillusionment and despair at the darker side of the human psyche and the way things are increasingly heading in this beleaguered country of ours. Over the years, Nick's immense creativity and innovation has seem him write, produce and record music single-handedly on albums like 'Son of Walter', for example, or utilise the talents of some of his closest friends on the two 'Acid Jam' albums. Here, on the other hand, Nick (guitars, keyboards, synth, harmonica and vocals) is joined by ex-Hawkwind bassist Ade Shaw, Jules Fenton (drums) and special guest appearences from Roddy Lorimer (trumpet), Paul Simmons (guitar) and the irrepressible Debbie Saloman, who has been providing her father with occasional vocal contributions since she was knee-high to a grasshopper.

The first of these eighteen tracks, 'All Set?', is an ode to apathy and complacency, idle thoughts echoing a determination to escape 'The stress, the fumes [and] sell up and move to the country', but fears about financial turmoil inevitably lead those of a worrying disposition 'to stay where we are'. The music is gentle and lilting, an acoustic guitar providing a folky intro as the drum and bass join in after the first verse before making way for a trumpet. The vocals are delivered in a nursery rhyme style, like a jaunty mix between Madness (circa 'The Rise and Fall') and The Teardrop Explodes. 'Dragons', on the other hand, is a 70's-style glumfest of pessimism and disillusionment, which finds the lads 'Waiting in the rain for a modern St. George' and bemoaning the rise of the treacherous fedora-wearing middle-men ('fire-breathing lizards'). Meanwhile, the guitar solo on this track is just amazing. 'Through The Hedge' begins with a looped sample concerning butterflies and woodpeckers, with the slightly eccentric English accent sounding vaguely familiar. Apparently, Nick found it on an old tape somewhere and has completely forgotten its origins, but it sounds rather like a coherent Stanley Unwin reflecting on an idyllic childhood. The lyrics tell of 'progressive disconnection' and learning to survive the pitfalls of life, whilst a distorted guitar effect gives it a nice Psychedelic feel. This is one of the best tracks on the album, to be sure, and you can't help but join in with the infectious chorus. The way the guitar and keyboards nicely combine before letting the vocals and controlled drumbeat phase back in for the beginning of the next verse is truly stunning.

'I Feel Bad About You' reflects on a romantic misunderstanding and notes how convenient it would have been if a few consoling words had not been taken too seriously. This is quite a minimalist song, actually, which despite the remorseful tone has the effect of sounding both cold and detached. 'Hit Squad', the title track, is a more upbeat affair and opens with a tinkering bell before launching into a Batman-style chorus and rock 'n roll guitar break. The lyrics are hilariously semi-autobiographical, too: 'He's got a semi-detached and a family car / He's got a season ticket down at QPR / He's just turned fifty and he's deaf in one ear / And he grows more bitter with each passing year' (although Nick is quick to point out that 'I'm actually 51 and not deaf in either ear. Merely artistic license.'). 'Alpha Waves' is a fantastic song, Frond at their best. Like a guru's treatise on the accumulation of bad karma, the moral of this story is that what goes around inevitably comes around and the thumping bass and grinding guitar tally gloriously above a tapping snare and cleverly drawn-out stanzas. 'Way Back When' is a very mellow affair, its sad lyrics and soulful harmonies reflecting a relationship that has been dead for some time: 'It's been that way with you and me since way back when / And I've only just caught on.' Loud guitar and a thumping rhythm leads us into 'Mission Completed', where incantations of insecurity meet an awesome cacophony of screaming guitars.

'Flood Warning' is pretty similar in tone and more concerns about personal insecurity tend to echo the lack of action which was mentioned earlier on in 'All Set?'. But this song appears to relate to a fear of anything drastic or cataclysmic happening during the later stages of one's life, although there is also a positive side to all this disruption, too, because it's 'Better than sitting here vegetating'. There is little doubt that 'Your Little Point' has the best chorus on the album, it's a chanting declaration about love and devotion which is finely sliced in two by a prolonged guitar before coming to a sudden halt. 'Crumbs' is a slow acoustic strum in which six lines are separated by a beautiful guitar drifting over the top of it all like welcome rays of sunshine on an early-Spring morning. One to close your eyes to at the end of a long day. By sheer contrast, however, 'Doing Nothing' is a watery odyssey of punky bass chords and words ending in 'ing'. But the repetitive structure works really well because when the guitar break pops in on the three-minute mark it brilliantly drives a wedge between the calculated monotony of the words. Soon afterwards, a second break enters the fray and brings the whole song to an inevitable climax. Despite the references to suicide, 'High Point' really lives up to its name as one of the greatest tracks on the album. I never cease to be amazed how Nick can record in the twentieth-first century and still manage to create that remarkably weathered sound. Paradoxically, his vocals often sound very modern, but musically the band is successfully able to hang on to the halcyon coat-tails of the 1970's. I think the use of a harmonica plays some part in that, too, and it's certainly not the preferred instrument of those with a morbid chart-fixation and one eye on MTV. I can truly identify with the sentiments expressed in 'It's A Gut Thing'. It deals with an individual's changing attitudes and the wisdom that comes with age. But the song is a little ordinary, I must admit, although - once again - despite leaping in the proverbial Tardis and going back another decade you could be forgiven for thinking that it was carved out of 1960's stone.

'No Attempt' opens like a Pink Floyd number, slow keyboard chords flowing gradually towards an absolutely contagious chorus. I simply can't get this one out of my head and Roddy Lorimer's trumpet must come in for a fair degree of credit, too, it's simply flawless. 'Your Secret Doors' is vintage Frond and the foot-tapping beat has the electric and acoustic guitars combining perfectly with great words and even better delivery. 'Am I Burning' sounds like Arthur Brown guesting for Black Sabbath. It's certainly the most retro track on the album and the way the vocals follow the dark guitar sound  on the chorus is amazing. One of the heaviest Frond tracks I've ever heard and if this can be reproduced in a live setting the results would be phenomenal. And then we come to the final track, 'Fast Falls The Eventide', a lengthy diatribe against the modern world and those who have climbed to the very top of the shit-pile to 'rule with lolling jaws, with spittle and with oaths / Whose courtiers applaud with simian delight'. The backdrop to all this is a stuttering blend of distorted guitars, dark synths and high-pitched whistles, together evoking a hollow ambience. Think Steven Stapleton in a tank top and you're halfway there. A truly portentous and apocalyptic ending to what is a great album.