Album: Fall Heads Roll
Artist: The Fall
Released: October 3rd, 2005
Highlights: Pacifying Joint, What About Us?, Blindness, Youwanner
Word on the dirty back alleys of rock music has it that The Fall, the highly prolific English post-punk outfit led by Mark E. Smith, produced – during their forty-two-year career – thirty-one albums that were all variations on a single theme. To a point, such poisonous gossip is true; after all, the group’s leader himself, in one of the most notable tracks put together by the band in the years that preceded the release of their debut record, boasted that: “We dig repetition in the music / And we’re never going to lose it”. Aptly titled “Repetition”, the song would go on to serve not just as a defiant anthem, but also as a musical manifesto to which The Fall would always remain faithful.
The repetition, however, though steady and relentless, was sneaky; constantly coming in different flavors. The band, slowly yet surely, incorporated new elements into their sound and dropped countless others in such an organic way that those who were tracking it closely did not see it happening, for exactly like looking at oneself in the mirror every day, the change could only be perceived by being confronted directly with the past. Therefore, even if most entires that stand side by side in the discography of The Fall are at times hard to tell apart, the differences come in droves when the items being compared are chronologically distant.
“Fall Heads Roll”, although certainly a product of various shifts, does not exactly respect that norm. Undoubtedly, like the albums that came right before it and similarly to every single piece in The Fall’s oeuvre, it grinds in a way that is as demented as it is threatening, like a chainsaw-wielding killer who is trying to break into a house and murder its occupants by using his only weapon against all obstacles that stand in his path, whether they are as solid as walls or as easily breakable as windows. Additionally, under the endless cyclical destruction, there can be found a myriad of synthetic noises, brought in by talented keyboardist Elena Poulou, that add a modern touch to the roughness while nodding to the electronic beats with which The Fall played during much of the 90s.
Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” feels rather different. Coming close to many releases, with its predecessor “The Real New Fall LP” being the exception, in which Mark E. Smith sounded bored and the band lacked any sort of forward energy, it is full of vitality; as if that old grumpy and drunk neighbor who could do nothing but yell threats from his window suddenly decided to get out of the house and attack by-passers. More relevant to that notable distinction, however, is the fact that the album simply sounds extremely muscular: it surpasses all other The Fall records as far as sheer strength is concerned, meaning that “Fall Heads Roll” pounds so heavily at its loudest moments that it might as well be pointed out as Mark E. Smith’s shot at hard rock.
It goes without saying that if “Fall Heads Roll” can indeed be labeled as such, then it is hard rock in The Fall’s own terms. The riffs are, as usual, so short and simple that it is sort of surprising nobody had ever used them before; or perhaps their absurd straightforwardness is what kept them from being taken by other folks in the first place. Moreover, the only sort of musical acrobatics that occur can be found in the band’s ability to build mighty grooves that sometimes go the distance by repeating the same idea over and over again while Mark E. Smith rants like a maniac over them. At last, while the instruments are captured with a clearness and crispness that is nearly unforeseen for a group like The Fall, the iconic singer is – as rules dictate – positively impossible to understand to many people in Britain and to almost everyone outside it.
Out of that fine-tuned formula, the band extracts a few career highlights. “Pacifying Joint” is a delightful racket; an obvious pinnacle in The Fall’s integration between repetitive riffs and electronic music. “What About Us?” follows the same recipe, with the difference being that the pulsating waves coming out of the keyboards build to an amazingly catchy chorus based on a call-and-response hook sung by Smith and Poulou where a man from East Germany complains to Harold Shipman, a real-life doctor and serial killer, that the criminal should give the morphine he uses to murder old ladies to him instead. Meanwhile, “Youwanner” is constructed like a vicious ever-descending spiral that drags listeners into its deadly guitar-based downward trip. And then there is “Blindness”; easily ranking among the best tracks The Fall produced during their incredible run, it is a gripping seven-minute jam that starts only with drums, bass, and keyboard but slowly swells to a tsunami of sounds that is both unstoppable and inescapable.
Although these tunes stand tall amidst the collection that surrounds them, the rest of the cuts in “Fall Heads Roll” are not to be ignored either. “Midnight in Aspen” and “Early Days of Channel Führer” are oddly introspective and nearly beautiful, with the latter featuring a very rare sight in The Fall’s catalog: an acoustic guitar. In “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”, a brilliant The Move cover, and “Bo Demmick”, which uses the Bo Diddley beat, Smith pays homage – in his own way, of course – to a passion of his that has always been present in the band’s sound: old-school rock and roll. “Ride Away” is an odd piece of stumbling reggae which immediately qualifies as the weirdest opener to a The Fall record. “Clasp Hands” has the group coming quite close to their post-punk origins. “Assume” is centered on an interesting snaking guitar line. “Breaking the Rules” is short and carries a riff that is almost playful. And “Trust in Me” is a bit of a lackluster closer that could have worked better towards the middle of the album as it does have a hypnotic weirdness to it despite a general lack of inspiration.
Given the overall consistency of The Fall’s lengthy and productive musical journey, “Fall Heads Roll” does not – in the end – feel like a revelation or a culmination. Its excellent integration between guitars and keyboards had already been achieved, albeit under much lighter distortions, in 1993’s “The Infotainment Scan”. Furthermore, the mightiness of Mark E. Smith’s band, although never captured so clearly, was not a secret to those who were paying attention. Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” is significant, not just because it is – ultimately – the heaviest album ever put out by The Fall, but also due to how it is a very strong late-career work. One that announced, twenty-four albums and twenty-nine years into the group’s arch, that they still had fuel to burn; and one that, with Smith’s passing and The Fall’s retirement, shines among the best pieces assembled by a one-of-a-kind relentless and repetitive madman.