Nobody really uses the term “post-punk” these days with a straight face, do they? If they do, it’s usually in reference to second-class, misdirected male-order pap rather than a fresh delivery of angular pop thrills. In fact, so maligned and contorted is the reference, you’d be well advised to go back to the source (ooh, round about 1979-84) to truly understand what a transformational era “post-punk” was for popular music as we know and love it. The sheer critical mass of creativity – as deliciously documented in Simon Reynolds indispensable Rip it up and Start Again – shaped the future of independent music for decades to come. If you want to know your Throbbing Gristle from your Rip, Rig and Panic, I suggest you start there.
Why the post-punk pre-amble daddi-o, you’re grumbling? Well, Girls Names have a new album out. And Girls Names are to stark, dark post-punk what The Horrors are to posh lads with tight jeans and guitars. Five years and two albums into a “small p” progressive rock and roll career, Belfast’s Girls Names are back (by the way, the town pre-fix is purely a way of roughly attributing a geographical origin. “BGN” would be a rubbish name for a band conjuring horrifyingly un-gothic notions of “Jacinta” and “Jacqueline”).
From the start of the album title all the way to, um, the end of the title, Arms Around a Vision is immediately a more optimistic sounding proposition. But a minute of haranguing, clanging thrashed dissonance that introduces opening track ‘Reticence’ invokes a cracked Blake rather than a utopian MLK sort of a dream. It’s clear that the vision Girls Names have in mind is more of the existentially bleak variety that they’ve (effects) peddled so compellingly since their debut back in 2010. ‘Reticence’ then segues into something more tunefully angular, more acme “post-punk” if you will, but it’s only a blood-red herring as the song collapses back into a dense unsettling conclusion.
One thing that’s immediately noticeable is that even though much of the lyric seems stream of conscience and impenetrable, Cathal Cully’s singing is more strident, more confident in cadence than before, the sense of sibilant ire to the fore. When you do pick up on words – such as the mantra on the towering ‘Chrome Rose’, it’s snarling ripostes. “You and your friends are no friends of mine” anybody? What also surprises about ‘Vision is the number of little musical “Easter eggs” littered throughout the album. Little sonic flourishes and fragments that hook, thrill, then bugger off before you have a chance to fully process what’s happened. It’s what migrates even some of the more pedestrian tunes on this album to repeat listen territory. The great spiralling outro on ‘An Artificial Spring’ is one, the great chord change at the end of ‘Malaga’ that steers into a 10 second chiming release of preceding tensions is another glee-inducing shot.
‘Desire Oscillations’ as you might guess, has an irresistible motorik throb at its heart, but escapes being Editors by dint of the fact that Girls Names spit where others polish. You don’t have to stumble too far to trip over their influences. In fact there’s much pointless fun to be had spotting the references (a smudge of Monochrome Set here, a little weft of Felt there) but Girls Names transcend mere copyism with the sheer verve, ideas-led enthusiasm and an utterly straight faced intensity. Artifice has never felt so finely sculpted or authentically delivered.
A pair of short instrumentals, especially ‘Obsession’ – in which a gorgeous icy synth pattern wheels and circles vulture-like about a simple descending bass line – may point the way to an even more austere electronic direction for the band. But it’s the closing triptych – ‘Exploit Me’, ‘Take Out the Hand’ and ‘I Was You’ that packs the biggest, most satisfying gut punch. Closer ‘I Was You’ morphs from glacially ponderous, twisted Birthday Party, where the walls are crumbling about the band into a growingly insistent, desperate howl for release. Arms Around a Vision is Girls Names mark 1 transforming finally potential energy into perfect noise, successfully incorporating those long-held European cultural and sonic fixations into what was an already vital and, yes, post-punk sound.
“The only person I ever wanted to impress was myself” Cully has said of the album. “I’ve never got anywhere close to succeeding in doing that until this album. I’m proud of it. I think I can start saying I’m a musician now.” I can’t wait to hear what these musicians do next, but for now, Arms Around a Vision will do very nicely.
Girls Names launch new album Arms Around a Vision at The Empire, Belfast, tomorrow, October 2nd. The album can also be streamed in full here.