March 15, 2017
Words: Dominic Valvona
Blue Orchids ‘Skull Jam’
Released by Tiny Global Productions, 17th March 2017
I paraphrase, but the old in-joke adage that everyone who ever meets Mark E. Smith ends up serving a penance as a band member in The Fall isn’t far from the truth. It doesn’t seem to even matter if you have any musical knowledge, let alone can play an instrument (in the conventional sense), Smith will soon knock it out of you. If you happened to have lived in Manchester, let alone Smith’s native Salford, in the last forty years and consider yourself on the fringes of the music industry, then you’ve probably served an apprenticeship; a baptism of fire as a Fall initiate.
Part of the (depending on your viewpoint) iconic augur or shambling ravings Live At The Witch Trials lineup, Martin Bramah was a fleeting, but no less important, member of the ramshackle group; leaving halfway through sessions for The Fall’s second LP Dragnet. With legendary ennui and gusto, and a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, when Smith falls out with someone others usually follow; rallying to banishment, culled as it were. Joining Braham to form the Blue Orchids in 1981, a litany of former shunned Fall members filled the ranks. Travelling a far less painful parallel trajectory, Bramah’s Orchids shared but managed to forge a more harmonious Manchester sound during the 80s. Driven by similar influences, from The Monks to Arthur Lee, in a haze of rambunctious garage and post punk and giddy Mellotron psych, the Blue Orchids were a less discordant rabble, producing a controlled, more melodic, noise.
Christened, though in true rock’n’roll mythology, misheard, by the revered unofficial poet laureate of Salford, John Cooper Clarke, the ‘Blessed’ Orchids (as they would have been), have had a checkered history; plenty of ups and downs, break-ups and reformations, the last significant one being in 2012, put back together on a surge of new interest. Playing with more or less every significant musician on the Manchester music scene, Bramah has collaborated and even formed new bands along the way, including Factory Star in 2008.
On a roll in recent years he’s returned to ignite the Orchids, releasing a new album (riffing on T. H. White’s Arthurian masterpiece) The Once And Future Thing in 2016 off the back of a number of re-releases. Recorded at the same time and forming half of the group’s latest EP (their first release of 2017) Skull Jam, the title-track and swirling vortex centerpiece, Hanging Man, were originally earmarked as a follow-up single. However, clocking in at the seven-minute mark Hanging Man proved impossible to press onto vinyl without “drastic edits”. And so, it was put on hold. Shortly thereafter, and with another personnel change (Vince Hunt taking over on bass duties from Chris Dutton), rehearsals bore fruit, with two new songs, The Devil Laughs and Work Before The Moon Falls: ideal companions for the single that never was. In what would be another Mark E. Smith crossover, the latter of these more recently thrashed out tracks is an ironic riff on The Fall’s Before The Moon Falls, from the band’s second album, Dragnet. Bramah’s fingerprints were all over that original and half the music on the album, but in true curmudgeon Smith style, he went unaccredited – though even this petty-mindedness wouldn’t stop him from later returning to The Fall’s fold; before being unceremoniously sacked.
Proving to be on-form, dynamic, if not sagacious, Skull Jam, a prelude itself to a brand new album (no dates on that yet), is an intense but melodious carousel of quintessential Manchester psychedelia, garage and counter-culture rock’n’roll. The title-track has a certain air of acid country to its garage band guitar wrangling and constant churning “break the chains” incited mild rage – though mild irritation would be a better description. A lax Steppenwolf or Sky Saxon musing on the range, Skull Jam has a steady candour and looseness, playing lightly with its influences. Hanging Man, billed as the “full version” in brackets, is a worthy tour de force; an Inspiral Carpet and Teardrop Explodes dazzler realignment of the Modern Lover’s Roadrunner with gnarled but softened edges. The Devil’s Laugh maintains the post punk foundations, albeit slightly more thickset with a touch of hushed revenant organ and a Flamin’ Groovies feel, whilst Work Before The Moon Falls has a trace of The 13th Floor Elevators tripping on the Tex-Mex border with a ska gait rhythm and lonely plucked banjo for company.
It seems Bramah and his comrades haven’t lost faith, and continue in their inimitable way to call for us all to break free and loose from the man – “Must create a new regime, or live by another man’s”. With what seems like renewed vigour, the band going out on their longest tour in nearly thirty years, supporting The Nightingales, the Orchids have announced plans for a new, as yet untitled, album, which promises to bare a “more intense and disturbing sound”. Approaching another decade, and the band’s fortieth anniversary, it seems there is plenty more to come and look forward to from a blossoming Orchids.