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Throbbing Gristle, "Heathen Earth"

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http://brainwashed.com/common/images/covers/ir0009.gifWhen I first found Throbbing Gristle's live album, I expected it to be the ultimate TG time capsule--preserving TG's live sound for future generations—but the band had other plans.  Rather than a live recording made at a pubic gig, Heathen Earth was a contrived and controlled affair that captured the sound of Throbbing Gristle performing for an invited audience in their studio. Rather than a blistering assault, it played more like a subdued (albeit menacing) jam session. They never made it easy.

Industrial Records

Heathen Earth - The Live Sound of Throbbing Gristle (Remastered) - Throbbing Gristle

I picked up a copy of the original CD release of Heathen Earth when I was in college.  I paid little attention to the liner notes when I first scanned through that strange, muddy mess of a record so I had no idea that it was a live recording until sometime later. I was already familiar with 20 Jazz Funk Greats and D.O.A., but I had always treated TG as an act to be revered and appreciated more than truly enjoyed. Drew Daniel's wonderfully exhaustive book on 20 Jazz Funk Greats reignited my interest in trying to understand TG in the context of their time. So, when it came time for me to revisit Heathen Earth through the newly remastered reissue, I jumped at the chance to experience the live sound of Throbbing Gristle anew.

To be fair, Throbbing Gristle's recorded sound was so raw that it often carried about it the noise, imperfection, and energy of a live recording anyway. So if Heathen Earth sounds not so far away from a studio recording as one might expect, well that only makes sense given the constrained conditions under which it was recorded and the unpredictable nature of the artists who wrote and performed it. How fitting for a band that skewered expectations at every turn to release a live album that sounds in some ways more polished than their studio records.

This remastered edition benefits the source material greatly. The remastered mixes feature more stereo separation and a much-improved frequency range.  I hear the difference the most in the low frequencies, as if some of the low mid-range has been carved out of the mixes to provide a little more separation. The mechanized kick drum and bass line in "Something Came Over Me" feel pumped up, while the squealy static noise in "The World is a War Film" sits higher in the mix.  Chris Carter says that he didn't EQ anything during the remaster process in an effort to preserve the sound of the original records, but the revisit on the source material has made a notable difference here.  Everything is just a bit louder too, though thankfully not bashed over the head with the brick wall limiter that might be tempting to apply to a 30 year old, eight track recording.

After all these years, the aspect I find most striking about Heathen Earth is how it defies TG's confrontational image.  The track list seems to be chosen specifically to avoid the freakout energy of tracks like "Hamburger Lady" and "Subhuman," and while Heathen Earth is far from easy listening, it is generally smoother and less difficult than many other TG records. The record's most abrasive moments come early in "The Old Man Smiled" and are then followed by a noisy jam of synth noodles, hisses, and feedback on "Improvisation," the creepy if relatively mellow "The World is a War Film," and the synth-driven "Something Came Over Me," that serves as a blueprint for early Skinny Puppy if ever there was one.

"Still Talking" is built around a simple oscillating synth tone and overlapping layers of tape loops that hint at dark sexual energy without ever exploding into it outright.  "Don't Do As You're Told, Do As You Think" brings TG back to something that sounds more recognizable as a band, but still, the song is little more than a loop that grinds on for seven minutes as the band throws sounds over it before the whole thing comes to an abrupt stop.  Throbbing Gristle ends the set with a bit of ironic humor by bringing the audience out of the performance with the recorded voice of a hypnotist on "Painless Childbirth," and just like that, it's over. The sound of a slide projector advancing slides can be heard in the background, but without the slides or a video or some other reference for the event, I can't help but feel that the record is somewhat limited in its ability to capture the live experience.

This reissue contains a bonus disc of live recordings made at more traditional performances from 1980 and it's here that I begin to get a better sense for how tense and strange a TG performance might have been. The recording quality for most of these tracks is considerably inferior to the material offered on Heathen Earth, but somehow these recordings feel more like being present at a TG gig. "Trained Condition of Obedience" feels almost completely unhinged in a way that nothing on Heathen Earth ever does. "An Old Man Smiled" recorded at Club Berlin sounds radically different than "The Old Man Smiled" recorded back at the Industrial Records studio. On this disc the band is more given to sprawling noise and the pitch black squalls that I think of whenever anyone mentions "Throbbing Gristle" and "Live Show" in the same breath. Maybe all of that just winds up being a product of my own bias, having never seen Throbbing Gristle perform but having had years to imagine what it must have been like.

The bonus disc closes out with the 7" Single versions of "Subhuman" and "Adrenalin," two tracks that couldn't sound much more different and still be contained on the same record. If "Subhuman" represents TG at its most violent and overtly confrontational, "Adrenalin" is decidedly more subversive perhaps because it sounds almost like a proper electro track that some madman has grabbed hold of and added weird shit to. While these two songs don't tell the whole story of Throbbing Gristle, they do a great job of revealing some of the band's strange breadth and general demeanor.

samples

 

  • An Old Man Smiled
  • The World is a War Film
  • The Old Man Smiled
Last Updated on Monday, 05 December 2011 00:03  


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