Release Date: Feb 24, 2015
Record label: Metropolis
Edgy, intense and confrontational—Britain’s Gang of Four are one of those bands continually pushing against boundaries, musical and otherwise. Their first album, 1979’s Entertainment!, was hailed as a post-punk classic even at the time of its release, and you can hear the influence of Andy Gill’s scratchy guitar riffing in any number of alt-rock acts today (Kurt Cobain cited the album as one of his all-time favorites). The band’s commitment to their integrity was revealed early on when they walked off the set of UK music show Top of the Pops, after refusing to censor a line in “At Home He’s a Tourist” (and sing “rubbish” instead of “rubbers”), to their label, EMI’s displeasure.
Their first new LP in 16 years, seminal post-punk outfit Gang Of Four’s previous studio set, 2011’s Content, at least intermittently evoked the jagged glory of the band’s landmark 1979 debut Entertainment!. Accordingly, Content was greeted by a hailstorm of critical acclaim but, with the applause still ringing in their ears, the band splintered. Vocalist Jon King departed, leaving lone surviving founder member/guitarist Andy Gill to shape the long-awaited What Happens Next with contributions from high-profile guests including Gail Ann Dorsey and The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, as well as input from a freshly conceived GO4 nucleus involving Content bassist Thomas McNeice and new vocalist John ‘Gaoler’ Sterry.
What Happens Next, the title of Gang of Four’s latest album, is a statement instead of a question. It’s also a judgment and so a major change of style for a band that has long avoided making bald generalizations or launching agitprop musical cocktails. Always content to observe from a neutral standpoint and so to expose, without unintentionally diluting, all of the insanity inherent in modern consumer culture, the band once preferred to keep their words as angular as their music.
More than one wag has referred to 2015's What Happens Next as the work of "Gang of One," since guitarist Andy Gill is the only member of the original Gang of Four lineup who was still on board for these sessions, following the departure of vocalist Jon King in the wake of 2010's Content. Much of What Happens Next sounds like a careful effort to balance the thick but limber "neo-Marxist funk" of the band's first era with a more streamlined and contemporary electronic attack, and the result sounds a good bit less like Gang of Four than a 21st century solo set from Andy Gill, especially given the presence of several guest vocalists (including Alison Mosshart, Herbert Grönemeyer, and Robbie Furze) and a production that's less funky and muscular than the group's best and best-known work. There's still a tough, dance-friendly core to these songs, and Gill's guitar work remains thoughtful, incisive, and challenging, but this feels less like a band's work than an project created by Gill and some sidemen whose job is to play well and stay out of his way (and they do both skillfully).
When legendary Leeds post-punks Gang Of Four reformed in 2004 for ‘Return The Gift’, they did so with the four-piece original line-up intact. Then their rhythm section left, meaning 2010’s fan-funded ‘Content’ was a Gang Of Two record. Now, singer Jon King has walked, leaving only founding guitarist Andy Gill for ‘What Happens Next’ – a solo record being hawked as the band’s ninth album.
Gang of Four returned to relevance in 2010 with Content, and now they've followed it up with What Happens Next, an album that sets out to answer its own titular question. With the comeback out of the way, now what? It is relatively easy for a legacy band to get back together, but it is another venture altogether to keep going. .
As a quick snoop through ex-frontman Jon King’s LinkedIn profile proves, even the most luminary Marxists have their price. His former leader’s prized scalp claimed by the ever-insidious world of digital marketing, guitarist Andy Gill is now the only link that the Gang of Four has to the piss-and-vinegar of its post-punk heyday. Not that King’s departure has done much to mute the aggression or ambition of his once second-in-command.
Upon first listen to What Happens Next, what struck me most was the lack of specificity regarding its politics. But after going back and revisiting Gang of Four’s discography, I realized they have never been all that specific in their criticisms of consumerism, warfare, and conformity in general. Rather than offer solutions or form any sort of fine-tuned narrative, their lyrics have always been more rooted in the anxiety that stems from the great human rat race, not actually breaking down the race itself.
The original 1977-81 version of Gang of Four was such a fearsomely airtight, telepathic unit that its individual constituents are rarely regarded among the finest in their respective fields. Though frontman Jon King uniquely channeled both the lithe physicality of Iggy Pop and the suave dignity of Bryan Ferry, he’s rarely spoken about in the same breath as either. Andy Gill is the quintessential musician’s musician, worshipped and imitated by countless celebrity acolytes (The Edge and Tom Morello among them), but not enough of a household name to land on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list.
At their peak, Gang of Four stylized 1970s dissent into cutting post-punk. Sadly, the qualities that once made the English act so influential are gone on its ninth LP, and first since co-founding singer Jon King's departure. The question posed by the record's title is not one the band seems to know how to answer. In place of once-sharp radical jabs, we get empty alarmism.
Always a band with racked nerves, Gang of Four rein in their frayed energy on What Happens Next, compartmentalized into a broad tonal range and spacious mix. Wide-panned guitars, keyboards and auxiliary percussion cycle through banks of distortion, compression and dubby echo, carefully balanced in relation to each other and suspended purposefully around a pulsing mid-tempo centre. To paraphrase the old free jazz adage, it's about the space between the sounds.
When bands lose a vocalist, it’s not necessarily a mortal wound—just ask Genesis, Van Halen, or Journey, who all soldiered on with replacements and continued to find success. But Gang Of Four losing frontman Jon King in recent years felt like a mighty blow; the vocalist’s discontented howls and pointed delivery had always boldly underlined the societal and cultural invective conveyed by guitarist Andy Gill’s knife-slash riffs. Without King’s snarling polemics at the forefront, Gang Of Four was destined to sound like a very different band.
Gang of Four What Happens Next (Metropolis Records) Gang of One, some have snickered upon hearing that singer Jon King has departed, leaving guitarist Andy Gill the sole founding member in the Gang of Four. Question is: After the remarkable reinvigoration of the band's Marxist funk in the new millennium via 2011's Content, can Gill retain and even forward this legacy post-King? A not-unwelcome air of dread pervades What Happens Next, like the sound of England falling apart. The general tone is that of the least fun dance group in the world, with Gill still spraying noise like a Strat thrown down a staircase across the works.