by Andrew Karpan (@donniedelillo)
Are there delights to be had in this music economy? Reissues are, perhaps, the most straightforward: either a flat-out, if harmless, cash grab or a pragmatic flattening of record store hierarchies, where the hard-to-find reveals itself as freshly made, shimmering in this new plastic. The past month has had a bunch of these: a gargantuan rock band selectively clearing out its vault, a seminal hip hop act outlining how it wishes to be remembered. And then there’s This Heat, a South London punk band that flickered briefly like a match in the late ‘70s and whose two full length albums have enjoyed considerable cult-ish shelf life as signifiers of bleak punk anger and anti-consumerist contempt. More recently, the reissue-heavy labels Light in the Attic and Modern Classics Recordings have gone about completing their vinyl reissue of the band’s discography, which has now come to lesser-known discs that include a comp of Peel Sessions, live performances and an extended play of two dirge-like remixes. They present the band’s work in a new light, radically disconnected from the political protest music of their more celebrated recordings and showcase the band’s ability to articulate pure sonic assault.
The most straightforward of these releases is Made Available, which collects music that the band recorded in 1977 for two sessions with beloved BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel and were originally released on CD in 1996. Notably, the recording antecedes the release of the band’s self-titled debut by two years and presents a version of it that is both better recorded and, at times, better than it would be. (At least three of the tracks on the record would also never make it to any kind of release and the record’s version of “Makeshift Swahili” wouldn’t appear until the band’s second and final record, 1981’s Deceit.) This Heat were notable for the rigidity of the atmosphere their two records had created: recorded over the course of two years, as it were, in an erstwhile meat locker called Cold Storage in South London that loudly carried the echo of lost mechanical vibrations. Inside Peel’s Maida Vale Studios, the band are caught without their crude avant-garde machinery and reveal their capacity as musicians who cut their chops in jazzy London prog bands and were desperate now to find some way inside their music that could leave themselves behind like abandoned carcasses still stained with blood. Guitar solos occasionally dominate, Yes-style stuff, disconnected from lyrics or anything else, strange and surprising joys.
In some songs, this creates a clarity that the band would never concede to on their own terms: here, “Horizontal Hold” has a Fripp-like precision that hammers down its unstated agony to the wall. “The Fall of Saigon” begins in media res, synthesizers blinking with the force of lights at a construction site, and the whole recording carries with it a kind of pure alarm full of articulated fear. The actual richness of Peel’s studio equipment elevates the recordings above many of the seminal versions of the same: each guitar line feels like a stroke on a black and white De Kooning, another visual reference which speaks to both the aural intensity and the havoc that This Heat sows, an anger that now feels frozen in time.
The reissued live record, originally released on CD in 2006 and culled from recordings of shows in various European cities between mid-1980 and early 1981, presents a version of This Heat that is all tense jazz, the noise of the street and loops of field recordings jarring against each other into the same mix. The work of drummer Charles Hayward, who around this time also played on the Raincoat’s Odyshape, which too conventional to make its way, reveals itself in cough-like explosions of shimmering energy. The wry and contemptuous lyricism that would punctuate Deceit appear as slight, ghostly chants in between flashes of improvisatory genius and squeezed-out bursts of combustible energy. You can feel these intricate parts, like small grams of dust in the light, moving toward each other and back, refusing fusion, until the record’s closer, a version of the title track to their 1980 Health and Efficiency EP. There, its easily the most conventional song This Heat has ever done, the closest they would approach to the catchiness of the post-punk luminaries they would eventually be sold next to but had little to do with. But it also represents the most coherent stretch of the band’s vision; on it, Philip Sherburne has written “the whole sweep of This Heat's project can be heard.” As a set closer (the track listing was based on their touring setlist), it is a funeral song, an elegiac, painful and earnest end that most approximates the kind of post-rock (Godspeed!, Mogwai, etc.) that would borrow components of the band’s sound.
But it’s probably Repeat/Metal, a twenty-minute remix of “24 Track Loop” from their self-titled album split with a twenty-minute edit of field recordings taken outside their studio overlaid with some bare acoustics, that most benefits from the vinyl treatment (and does away with the extended mix of “Graphic / Varispeed” that appears on the original 1993 CD issue of Repeat). The music spooks, sounds like creaking floorboards abandoned by Victorian London and the whine of a computer about to die. It yearns for the patient and fuzzy creak of a record needle running across its spine, creating more mysteries than it could ever answer. Why else bother reopening the past?