Band Of Holy Joy – Neon Primitives Album Review
Band Of Holy Joy – Neon Primitives (Tiny Global Productions)
CD / LP / Digital
The ‘Arch Romantic Mysticists and Radical Indie Fundamentalists’ are back with another call for ‘the resurrection of hope and possibility!’ Replace all M*rriss*y records with Band of Holy Joy ones says Ged Babey.
On the last song Johny ‘One En’ Brown addresses his audience, not by name exactly, but with brief descriptive phrases… which one are you? – I know which I am.
Hey all you,
Lovely clowns, you lonely people, naked survivalists, chance opportunists, heroic failures, electric pilgrims, beauty addicts, dream novelists, psychedelic flaneurs, drunken throwbacks to futurist times…Glam merchants, bible sceptics, mystery evolutionists, anti fascists, fugitive romantics and cosmopolitan scum, those of you being ready to depart of be deported in all your noisy incandescent pagan glory now
(The drunken throwback if you must know.)
Warning to all! An unanticipated problem has occurred, check back soon and try again!
That is the error message you get when you try and access the heart and soul of the UK currently…. because there are too many systematic impact assessment overseers, practitioners of hostile architecture and branded content providers and not enough Electric Pilgrims, Urban Pagans and Neon Primitives – and because the Devil and his disciples, do indeed, have a Hold on the Land.
But the Band of Holy Joy are here to lead us to the Island of Light. If only, metaphorically, spiritually and temporarily, for as long as their romantic poetry and heart-lifting music fills our ears and illuminates our broken spirits.
Neon Primitives is the follow-up to the impossibly beautiful and inspirational Funambulist We Love You, so has a helluva job bettering perfection -but one song gets there, as it becomes, regrettably the new National Anthem.
The Band of Holy Joy are a difficult band to describe to someone unaware of their existence. With the post-punk/indie blogosphere dominated by the Oswald Moseley of Indie -then you could say that they are like the Smiths from a Parallel Universe where Morrissey was more into Brecht than Billy Liar and was a true poet and artist rather than Alf Garnett with a quiff, hiding in plain sight.
It’s only by sheer bad luck that the Band of Holy Joy didn’t have the commercial success of contemporaries (aforementioned Smiths and the Bad Seeds) and fail to get the attention of American bands of a similar ilk, like Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev. Their long and winding story is perhaps best summarised in their potted biography here.
Like a lot of people I initially heard them on the legendary Carry On Disarming NME CND video-compilation in 1989. Notable for being the first time Vic Reeves appeared on our screens, it was a strange anomaly – an accordion-led tea dance in post-war charity-shop chic which sounded like Marc Almond fronting an English Pogues. I liked it, but not enough to check out the band further… (World Domination Enterprises, Pussy Galore and the Parachute Men commanded most viewing time and interest…) I was a fool. It took me twenty-eight years to rediscover the Band and acquaint myself with the literal Holy Joy of Johny Brown and his poetic scum convictions thanks to Gus Ironside and his review of Funambulist here.
Tiny Global kindly sent me the bands 3 Disc compilation of 1985-87 recordings The Clouds That Break the Sky – it’s a ramshackle, monochrome collection of Brechtian Soul made with junk-shop equipment and (gulp) No Electric Guitars by squat-dwelling art-school politicos…. A London via Newcastle take on the Bad Seeds or Pogues but with a sound and ethos all of their own. I will forever kick myself for missing out on them at the time. (Take it away PR person…)
Band Of Holy Joy have gone through many incarnations of musical imagination, inspiration and output, without straying from their roots in poetic expressions of social observation and critique – and good tunes!
As are their diverse spiritual brethren – The Mekons, Nightingales, The Pop Group – Johny Brown and compatriots are best in periods of social upheaval and rule by opportunistic, insipid demagogues, which is why Band Of Holy Joy, like the aforementioned bands, are in the midst of a powerful renaissance.
Rarely had an album title inadvertently captured the zeitgeist in as perfectly absurd a manner as the last full-length, Funambulist We Love You, and its ‘hit’ (if you will) was the metaphorical To Leave Or Remain, which caught the shock of the Brexit vote results at a moment so hazy with confusion that the issue could still be read as a metaphor for confusion in a personal relationship.
Lost In The Night opens the new album in upbeat style, like a garage band playing a Sixties TV theme tune before decelerating into a languid torch song segment which establishes where we are now.
The Devil Had A Hold On The Land follows – a declamatory vocal, preacher-style and musically like something from Nick Caves’ Dig Lazarus opus. The guitar-solo is a thing of clamorous beauty.
A cover of Vincent Gallo’s So Sad is the drowsy Sunday morning hangover of a song – Jonnys vocal reminiscent of his contemporary-gone-bad Moz. .
Ecstasy Snowbirds, described as a’ woke realisation of a failed relationship’ is a very beautiful-but-sad piece of poetry and faultlessly apposite music. These are songs which achieve what very few can, they make you want to cry and laugh and smile at the same time. (Resorts to copy/pasting press release as he can’t put it any better in his own words…)
Take Head Calumniators is a call to arms against deceivers, breaking the introspection of the two previous songs.
The second side features four songs of loose optimism performed in a mixture of styles. Some People Have Winged Fortune fractures a version of the melody from Orange Juice’s Upwards And Onwards to a message of hope. Urban Pilgrims, lyrically reminiscent of Band Of Holy Joy’s early song craft, is a half-told tale of spiritual renewal in a landscape which would seem antipathetic to any form of rebirth. Electric Pilgrims links the process of aging to the nearness of satori. The epic closer We Are Sailing To The Island Of Light is a dark sea shanty championing the shambolic assortment of people who offer hope in dark times; a riposte to those forces of evil called out in The Devil Has A Hold On The Land.
I wanted Neon Primitives to be Funambulist Part Two. I wanted it to give me answers as well as questions, but of course, life and art is not like that. It’s not simple and straight-forward or logical and predictable… and the Band of Holy Joy, like all great artists would not repeat themselves or slip into formula.
I do love this album though, there are moments when it shines like Bowies Blackstar and others when there are echoes of the Correct Use of Soap (Magazine) so long time fans will not be disappointed. Newcomers like me should delve into the back catalogue of the strange and wonderful and indescribable Band as well and discover that the Holy Joy has been there all along, when we have worshipped at the feet of, maybe not ‘false idols’, but definitely lesser mortals…
Some people have winged fortune tattooed on able skin and always seem able to fly and prosper.
Other folk . . . you see their scars, on nervous arms like the gnarled stem of the lovely rose, with unseen root dragging them forever down
Elvis Costello collects his OBE to please his mum, but Johny Brown is Our Scum Poet Laureate with a band which create Holy Joy as the Devils grip tightens…
All words Ged Babey except where specified.