The Monochrome Set: Volume, Contrast, Brilliance (re-release) (Optic Nerve Recordings)
Reissue of seminal 80’s compilation from The Monochrome Set, post-punk pioneers of outre weirdness.
The Monochrome Set were something of the unsung heroes of the post-punk world; they fitted into absolutely no category whatsovever and their puckish take on spaghetti western soundtracks meets lounge jazz via the twisted lyrical imagery of vocalist Bid was as singular as it was unique.
Comprising a couple of ex-Ants in Andy Warren and Lester Square, with singer / guitarist Bid and drummer JD Haney, their filmic, playful material found favour with many, including John Peel (whose voice links a couple of songs on the album) although they failed to match this with commercial success.
Their influence persists, however, and anyone who thinks Franz Ferdinand took all of their schtick from Josef K needs to take a look here.
Volume, Contrast, Brilliance is a compilation from 1983 that gathered up single A and B sides, sessions and oddities and is beautifully repackaged here with the addition of a couple of songs from the later CD version. Proper heavyweight blue vinyl, too.
Bid, being allegedly descended from Indian royalty sings in his precise, cut-glass voice throughout and many of the songs feature tales of high society goings-on and goings-wrong. The Jet Set Junta (from their masterpiece, Eligible Batchelors) is typical; urgent, ringing guitars surround Bid’s lyrics telling of dodgy arms dealings and armoured limos as Lester Square’s Ennio Morricone twang bends and reverbs as a counterpoint.
Love Zombies (from a BBC session) is an odd, speeded up waltz-time tune with some swirling, garage-psychedelia-style guitar motifs and ghostly sound effects atop the sparse vocals before gently sliding into the song proper. This was the thing with The Monochrome Set; they could effortlessly mesh styles and genres without sounding like anyone else. The term “arch” is too often used to describe them although this, I feel, does them a disservice. There’s a real knowing warmth to much of the songwriting despite the wordy, wilfully obtuse lyrics.
Silicon Carne is indicative of this; it’s difficult to grasp how Bid manages to stuff all of those words into the bars and verses but it works melodically and literally. The Ruling Class is another one in which Bid takes ones expectations and turns them inside out. Superficially, the lyrics are from the perspective of a privately schooled toff; in fact, the words take a sharp turn into a perverse world of privelege and unhappiness amidst abuse and solitude.
One of the central songs in the MS story is included here. And believe me, Ici Les Enfants is a stone-cold classic. Taking its cues from The Velvets and Blow-Up era soundtracks, it’s lyrics remain a trifle risque in this post-Saville world but we have to remember that The Monochrome Set recorded these songs some 30 years ago and there’s clearly no malice intended in Bid’s observational, commentative style.
Avanti (Ten Don’ts For Honeymooners) sees the crystaline guitars and strident bass tie each other in knots whilst Bid’s soaring voice sounds effortless. Square’s short solo is all Subway Sect dischord mixed with Ventures-style surf.
There’s little fat on any of these songs and they’re as memorable as they’re timeless. I bought this album when it came out first time and played it till it was worn out.
I reckon I’ll do the same with this one. I’ve never given an album full marks before but this one is getting it. It’s worth every one.
The Monochrome Set will be touring in October / November, dates as below:
19/10/13 – The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, UK
20/10/13 – The Georgian Theatre, Stockton, UK
23/10/13 – Eric’s, Liverpool, UK
24/10/13 – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham, UK
26/10/13 – Thunderbolt, Bristol, UK
23/11/13 – 229 the venue, London, UK
30/11/13 – MJC / Espace Hélios, Lambres-Lez-Douai, France