Available on: Terrible Records LP
San Franciscan musician Glenn Donaldson (aka Horrid Red’s ‘Edmund Xavier’) has had his fingers plunged in many pies over the last few decades. The Blithe Sons’ drone-folk, The Birdtree’s pastoral pop and the unhinged lo-fi of Der Teenage Panzerkorps all bear his prints. Horrid Red, his collaboration with mysterious German vocalist Bunker Wolf (also ex Der TPK) and sometime member Clay Ruby (of Burial Hex), have been putting out EPs since 2010, and Celestial Joy is undoubtedly their strongest statement to date.
Where Der TPK’s music was a thrilling mess of shattered rhythms and awkward angles, Horrid Red’s output is comparatively straightforward. The shredded German vocals and sludgy sonics remain, but the music is a highly familiar strand of noirish post-punk. On Celestial Joy, Horrid Red definitely aren’t concerned with hiding their influences: ‘Colored Lights’ is essentially a facsimile of The Cure, and as Joy Division impressions go, the title track is up there with Sam Riley’s turn in Control. It’s often very hard to believe these recordings share a birthday with the iPad2.
Yet, however obvious its signifiers are, Celestial Joy is undoubtedly a record with something individual to say. Much of this is due to Wolf’s presence as a vocalist, particularly when set against Donaldson’s sleek instrumentals. On much of last year’s Pink Flowers EP, the vocals were muffled and gurgled – at times, it was like listening to a Gary War record. Here, Wolf’s (heavily distorted) contributions are up the mix and in your face. He mutters, stutters, raves, snarls. Take ‘Forever Is Too Long’, where the jangle of the verses stands in sharp contrast to Wolf’s barked chorus. Or ‘Marble Staircase Part III’, where Wolf languidly slurs the word “schnell” over a metronomic drum pattern. Yes, the ghoulishness is more than a little knowing, and you don’t need your Collins German Dictionary handy to work out that lyrical finesse isn’t one of Wolf’s strong points. But, brought together, Wolf’s singing and Donaldson’s lush compositions create a thrilling dialectic between scuzziness and elegance.
For all that’s predictable here, there are also unexpected thrills to be had. Donaldson has made heavy use of field recordings in the past, and that same ear for unusual detail is evident here. Odd rattles, parps of brass, synths that slip suggestively out of tune – there are plenty of striking sonic moments that make Celestial Joy an idiosyncratic listen. ‘Tragic Image’ bucks in all sorts of different directions: it starts with a breakbeat, abruptly morphs into an industrial record, then locks into a motorik groove and zooms off into the night. The ambient interlude ‘Meager Vines’, meanwhile, provides some welcome light amidst the gloom. More than anything else, however, the strength of the songwriting is what commands attention. Standout ‘Nothing In My Heart’ might share a sonic palette with New Order, but the track is as simultaneously wistful and danceable as anything Sumner et al have put their name to. ‘Wheel Of The Dead’ is a great torch song, albeit one recorded in a crypt. And closer ‘Horrid Life (Burial)’, at once navel-gazing and forward-moving, is simply exceptional.
Pastiche is only ever a half-step away from parody, and there are undoubtedly moments where Horrid Red confuse schtick with style. But the positive tension at the heart of the record – this strange combination of grit and glitter – makes for a thoroughly evocative listen. It’s role play, certainly, but done so affectionately as to be entirely infectious.