Glancing backwards can be a perilous thing. Memories long subsumed can bubble to the surface revealing a deeper and more fractured shade to half-formed recollections refracted in the stark light of day. Revisiting one’s younger self can often come accompanied with an uninvited array of shudders and regrets both for the relative brevity of what might seem in the moment like an eternity, and the potential it may have once represented. You know what they say – there’s no going home again. But despite this fact, the music industry has never been shy of raiding its back catalogues for 30th anniversary editions, best-of’s, remixes, reappraisals, extra tracks and a tacky badge.
But sometimes it’s more than a cynical cash-in or contractual obligation at play. Sometimes it’s a labour of love and a stab at preservation. Sometimes it’s about completing the story and laying ghosts to rest. Sometimes it’s worth re-treading storied ground.
For stalwart New Zealand gothic rock act (big G) Disjecta Membra, (which I believe is Latin for ‘cutting off one’s own penis) it is all of these things.
First released in 1997, their debut LP Achromaticia has been long out of print and fetching absurd prices on eBay and Discogs as successive generations succumb to word of mouth surrounding this hidden artefact from the mysterious island battered by the tyranny of distance.
Today, the album is increasingly referred to in terms like “majestic” (Six Noises, New Zealand); “seminal” (Ed Shorrock, UK/Absolution NYC); “New Zealand’s finest” (Gothic Magazine, Germany); “classic” (Cathedral 13, USA); “iconic” (Shadowplay Radio, Australia); “essential” (Virus G, Spain); “legendary” (Mick Mercer, UK); and “a true masterpiece of the genre” (Gothic World, Italy).
Re-released to mark 20 years since it’s first foray into the world, this ludicrously comprehensive 89 (!) track 3 CD plus download set comprises the original LP plus demos, remixes, live takes, rarities and more minutiae than you can shake a clove cigarette at, and is set to be the final word on this landmark release and perhaps New Zealand gothic rock full stop.
And it’s worthy of reappraisal. The title Achromaticia is itself a neologism drawn from the term ‘achromatic’, literally ‘without colour’. An apt title for a set of songs so stark, pallid and steeped in monochrome. Drawing liberally from a playbook inked by the likes of Bauhaus, The Banshees and The Cure, this is assuredly a period piece, albeit one that has aged well, as fashion spirals in and out of favour like some kind of sine wave on which they’ve once again found the upswing.
The sinister intonations of opener ‘Cathedral’ set the scene with an unnecessarily puffy sleeved heavy hand (none more goth) but by the time ‘Skin Trade’ rattles into view we are off to the races. It’s Juju-era Banshees bass intro ushering in an intoxicating blend of wiry guitars and Corpus Delicti inflected vocal mannerisms all tinted to a pleasingly opaque hue. ‘Malcolm’ recalls Neubaten’s ‘Blume’ with Anita Lane of all things, offering space and story before psychedelic guitars spark to life and confirm an early highlight.
‘Androgyne Waltz’ sees a wildly Sex Gang influence issuing from a broken Zoltar machine, sixty seconds of intermission steeped in carnival semiotics and ‘Rats’ is flanged out and wringing wet, shades of Bowie bolstered by the insistence of that ever-present drum machine and its Teutonic style precision (you know the one).
There are some plodders here too however, both ‘Necrophilia’ and ‘Candlemas’ reach for ‘Gustav Dore’ but wind up landing on ‘Halloween font’. The latter segues nicely into ‘Cauldron of Cerridwen’ though, which slaps you awake and it asserts itself as a worthy fan favourite dance floor staple. ‘The Sleep’ is even better, reaching a new high-water mark as it lopes and tumbles beneath washes of wah-wah like an excerpt from a bizarro-world version of The Cure’s ‘The Top’ LP. This is class.
Then like true showmen, with the contents of their sleeves still sitting bulky, they save the best for last with the sprawling ‘Danse Macabre’ channelling Bauhaus in their ‘Sky’s Gone Out’ phase and showing a deft understanding of what made those early classics tick and click. Ambitious, by turns sparse and dense as lead, it casts a long shadow as an emphatic statement of intent and mastery of their chosen milieu.
Exhaustive extras abound once the album wraps, with 76 (count em!) other tracks to both delight and confound the casual. Their inclusion renders this as the definitive edition of an album that has rightly been heralded for two decades now. This ludicrously generous swathe of bonuses throws numerous layers of contrast to rival the main event, offering a range of styles that should have seen their own release as they aptly display the bands evolution and experimentation, plus there’s an absolutely menacing live rendition of ‘Nerves’ by Bauhaus included that speaks to their reputation as a truly formidable act in concert.
Limited to 500 hand numbered copies and available to pre-order from Bandcamp this is an essential purchase for anyone who ever fell in love with this record the first time around or for anyone who wants to know what the fuss is all about.
Still going strong, they should have been huge. Sometimes objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than they appear.