I don’t have any fond back-story about Strange News From The Angels—my memory of 1997 is a little too blurry. I don’t think I even owned a copy of this first time around. It didn’t appeal to me all that much back then and apart from “Dust” and “Animal” most of the songs here don’t feature on my memory’s radar at all. I certainly would have heard it a fair few times, but generally, listening to the album in 2012 has been more about fresh discovery than re-discovery. What I’ve discovered I think is the crater of that meteor which appears flying across the cover of The Venus Trail, a nose-dive into deep woe. The 3Ds’s trajectory seems to have been one in which discontent has slowly usurped the thrill of making great pop, if the lyrics are anything to go by, but also by the kind of songs and structures we get here—a lot of that doomy, plunging power chords vibe, lots of ‘broken’ stuff, decay, a dreary world in disarray, paranoia, pain, mental anguish, and possibly a deliberate attempt to represent this ugliness by the band refusing to revive any of the uplifting melodic madness of their earlier work. Not that these weren’t all regular 3D themes as far back as their first EPs, but here there’s little light to be found in amongst the noise. The pace is often slow and rarely do the musicians allow anything so spirited as a hummable melody to grace these otherwise gloomy ruins of the 3Ds’s (spurious) reputation as a ‘fun’ band.
One note about this album—I see it was all written and recorded by November 1995, yet the album didn’t see light of day until some time in 97. There appear to be no guest musicians this time around, no mandolins, and no dulcimers, no fiddles, accordions or kalimbas either, and worse, no sparkling-jewel vocals from Denise Roughan. Just lots of stabbed guitars, punishing bass, and the attendant electric flotsam caused by the combustible physics of electricity, volume and the wands of disillusioned sonic magicians. Given the overall feel of Strange News From The Angels, it’s perhaps not surprising that the band broke up after this. Wielding my machete and jumping into the carnage now…
Dust… was the first single, and true to 3Ds album form it opens Side One with the most immediately melodic song here. Having said that, it’s not a patch on either “Outer Space” or “Hey Seuss” in my humble O. It kicks off with a scratchy, hard riff over a hard pop beat, bouncy bass, and a statement of intent: “We go out in stormy weather,” sings Saunders, after which his voice gets drowned in a stuttering itchy warbling riff. The chorus is kinda fun though: “Hey if you think I’ve been a pain / You can flush me down the drain / But I’ll just come back again / Cos I’m stuck in the U-bend.” That idea of coming back is thematically addressed with what is essentially the same main riff repeating endlessly through the song, and tig-a-tig-a-tig-a out. Not bad.
Seven Days Of Kindness… is one of those Mitchell songs with a lovely soft melody at song opening, followed by delicate interweaving of discordant melodies between the two guitarists. Lyrically, it addresses some kind of breakdown, words popping out such as “broken people,” “you hated everyone,” and “lift your body up again / Throw your skin to the ground / No one’s gonna be around.” Mitchell seems to be railing against falsity, singing about lies and truth. There’s a disjunction between the melodic verse parts and the harder electric chorus, while a jangling part takes the song into fadeout. I like this one.
Fangworld… lyrically, it’s not dissimilar to the previous track: “I’ll make it back and break it … / Going nowhere / Heading nowhere / Out of nowhere / … take a shot at you / Bang bang bang bang,” sings Saunders, complaining that we’re never learning in spite of the world which goes on turning. The tune is a bit tired, but the chorus lets loose some pretty random splotches of feedback. “You would be scary if you were hairy / You would be here if you were scary.” Given the title, it seems to suggest there are werewolves or vampires out there and one must be on one’s guard to avoid them. “Medicate me / Isolate me / Sedate me / Hate me,” sings Saunders, offering one possible solution to these problems. Bee-like siren lines wobble over the grungy rhythm, but I find the bass playing to be too repetitive and dull for the song to really catch properly beyond its neat screwy riffing.
Animal… Saunders and Mitchell really seem to be on the same page here. This time it’s the latter singing about “days going nowhere.” He doesn’t want to go there, wherever that might be, and the chorus: “Animal / Animal.” It’s slow, with Hendrix-like pauses to shoot off staticky riffs wailing between strong but downer rhythms. Can’t really catch any more words, other than “I’m lost in the rain.” Regarding Mitchell’s suggestions that he feels like an animal, one is inclined to wonder whether it could be related to his role in the band. There’s some turbulent changes in the song, again with quite neat squalling guitar lines. The song’s a real downer though with Mitchell complaining that he’s “been an animal too long, long, long.” One of the best tracks here, nonetheless.
Vector 27… more “break[ing] it down” as this noisy faster number takes off and Saunders sings about being stuck in a picture (?) and a dayjob. He sings about things breaking again, before the song churns out of itself into that viciously stormy chorus part. The song ends with the words, “I don’t know” repeated until it tailspins away. Short and not exactly sweet. Kind of forgettable.
Riding The Whale… more of the same unfortunately, slowly ascending and descending chords, as Saunders tells us that “what goes up must come down” and that he’s “coming down, down to the ground.” By this stage, I can’t help feeling that the song’s structure sounds too familiar—slow power chords that form a heavy doomy riff in between verses with spindly theatrical feedbacking fretwork, but largely devoid of a purposeful tune, and while that may well be the point of most of these songs, it makes it a hard album to love, unless you just want to be sort of bummed out. In this song, Saunders is “riding the whale,” whatever that could mean.
The Fiery Angel… has a slightly lighter feel. Mitchell’s vocals are way more restrained than his early work. Yet again, the structure of the song is the same old thing. Doomy slow chorus chords, with quite neat riffing in between, but which fails to ignite any kind of passion in me. Here we’ve got lyrics about walking “the road to ruin,” and a chorus that goes, “One more day to go / One more dead end road / One last seed to sow / One more dead end soul,” while sickness comes in waves, and Mitchell is caught in “raven’s hair,” as a “shadow sweeps across the land” and “carries off one more dead end man.” There’s a “shower of lice” and “barbed wire” too, all rather ugly images I guess, brought to the land by the fiery angel. Hm. Towards the end of the song, we get some of that awesomely squiggly demon-yelping in an electron pit-type stuff.
Ben… has a feel unlike anything they’ve ever recorded. It has a groove, with neat guitar sounds, little notes, curlicues spiraling here and there, and a lyric that suggests cult conspiracy and deep paranoia: “Momma, what have they done? … / I was born to die … / They broke my skull … / They took away the only friend I had / And the wires in this cage won’t cut my wrist / And the wires in my brain are [something].” It has a lyrical kind of melody, unusual, curious sounding. I can’t help feeling that Roughan’s bass lines are all a bit bland here and a bit too bassy. Chorus: “I’m not the only one / Who’s never seen the sun…rise.” An interesting song that never quite reaches the melodic heights it hints at, instead preferring to remain understated.
Devil Red… sounds pretty much like any of the last two or three songs from Side One. I’m gonna have to say straight up, I get bored by this point. It sounds utterly sub-3Ds, a disappointment. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he doesn’t have angel wings to carry him above these things, and that’s our loss too. He often mentions ‘friends’ in his songs—here they’re turning “devil red tonight” apparently. He sings of mistakes. Including this song on the album was probably one of those mistakes. Although, at that point of the song, the noise gets truly ugly and distorted. They’d already done ‘ugly and distorted’ so well on Hellzapoppin that it seems pointless to rehash it without adding something new.
Big Red Heart… is classic Mitchell in the repeat-a-neat-riff-until-the-song-falls-apart style. Again, I feel like I’ve heard it all before, except for Mitchell singing something quite severe like, “Didn’t mean to kill a man / Didn’t mean to crush his hands / Didn’t mean to tear his eyes / Didn’t mean to make you cry,” and “I fucked it up and I fucked it on.” A song about regret then. He sings something about a bridal gown and being “all wrapped up and out of sight.” He’s back to his sorcerer’s voice here, which is something I really like, and this is a pretty good song I suppose, just nothing really all that new.
I Believe In You… the song’s placement follows that 3Ds pattern of a hard ugly Mitchell number followed by a sweet melodic Saunders song, but it feels like formula and when I say ‘sweet melodic’ I should prefix that with ‘weak.’ I like the opening words though: “He’s going solo / On a leaky plastic lilo.” And later he sings about a “carpet-bagger” who “takes a walk out to the wall.” Carpet-bagger = north islander in the south island? Interesting. The song has a whimsical feel with a breezy rhythm.
Castaway… is slow, too slow, and kind of dull. “Cast away / Cast away your hate / Cast down your anger and your doubt / You don’t need it anymore / It won’t help.” The chorus comes on like a hornet’s nest and the vocal gets blasted inward. There’s some confusion “in your mind,” because of “too many things.” A trashy number that does little for me.
Carrion Days… is the song of the album cover. It’s freakin’ weird, a different kind of sound, more underground, heavy, nasty and pile drivingly mean-sounding with a totally cool rhythm, sort of voodoo drumming enmeshed in a web of guitar distortion, like a mangled engine still going about its business, but twisted and awkward. Again we get a “broken day” and “angels” who “come to play” but “they’re taking you away.” So the angels seem to be like vultures. Even though it’s pretty much devoid of a tune, it’s new, a different sound, kind of scary and bleak, with lots of low-flying screaming guitars, the beating wings of those angels are Dominic Stones on drums, and their screeching as they fly around and around in a very un-angelic circle is the sound of chaos I guess. The whole thing breaks down and down into an ugly dirgey mess. One of the best tracks here.
The Wish… after that last one this sounds hilarious. Echoing shards of guitar, a slow beat, with a slow sing-song kind of vocal from Saunders. It’s about coldness: “tears on snow,” “your heart must freeze,” and the “winter wind.” In this song everything you loved is going away except that Saunders sounds like he’s really enjoying pointing this out, with complete resignation, punishing someone for expecting anything different. But it ends on a positive note: “Tonight a satellite will guide your life / Give you a ride to face the dark and turn it into light.” Once again, the song doesn’t really have any changes, and thus no new hooks beyond the plodding rhythm, which means it starts to bore before too long.
Bummer. This album is. And sometimes they even sound like they enjoy bringing us down after themselves having landed somewhere altogether unpleasant. I wanted so much to find positive things to say about it, but this is where art and me collide I guess—at that point where my cultural make-up demands beauty out of ugliness which remains mostly unfulfilled by Strange News. I’m too much of an optimist I guess. This probably means the 3Ds might have succeeded at a level somewhere beyond me. Nevertheless, apart from the three or four tracks that sounded different to what’s gone before, overall it seems like a tragic crash into the wastelands of mediocrity. I bet though, that were I to hear any of these songs live, it would be a different story.