Post-punk agit-funk sound terrorists rekindled. People are always using the phrase “the band least likely to re-form” but surely the least likely band to reunite were The Pop Group. Political, mercurial, uncommercial and terrifying, The Pop Group’s legacy was that of a band who sounded like The JBs being compacted in a scrapyard, with a singer who seemed determined to collapse in on himself: their original albums and singles sound like nothing on earth.
On one hand, it's refreshing that the Pop Group have returned to action sounding nearly as volatile as they did in 1980. On the other, it's more than a bit depressing that so much of the injustice and madness they ranted about back in the day is still recognizable in our daily lives more than three decades later. The 21st century edition of the Pop Group -- Mark Stewart on vocals, Gareth Sager on guitar and keyboards, Dan Catsis on bass, and Bruce Smith on drums -- made a memorable return to the recording studio on 2015's Citizen Zombie, and 20 months later, they return with another studio effort, 2016's Honeymoon on Mars.
Brain-melting mash-ups of dub and punk-infused funk laced with hardline leftist politics and the avant-garde, The Pop Group’s first two LPs, Y and How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? were radical even by post-punk’s boundary-pushing standards, though realising them pushed the band to the limits of their creativity. Perhaps inevitably, the Bristolian provocateurs opted to fall on their swords before they compromised their lofty ideals, yet they finally resurfaced with 2015’s belated third, Citizen Zombie: a highly credible if noticeably more linear return to the fray helmed by in-demand producer Paul Epworth. Overseen by a dream team of Y producer Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell and former Public Enemy studio wizard Hank Shocklee, impressively brisk follow-up Honeymoon On Mars maps out a more hazardous terrain to traverse.
Albums by The Pop Group are like buses: you wait 35 years for one and then two come along at once. At least that was the size of the gap between their 1980 second album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? and its 2015 comeback follow-up Citizen Zombie. And now here comes Honeymoon on Mars, their second album in 12 months. Perhaps the key to this renewed activity is not the reformation per se, but the continued musical activism of influential leader Mark Stewart, whose agit observations here are a continuation of his ongoing solo and collaborative work.
With 2015’s Citizen Zombie the Pop Group returned triumphantly from a 35-year hiatus. The album succeeded in translating their original, quirky, noisy sound to the modern age and updating it with new elements. Citizen Zombie had driving grooves and strange glitchy accents that made for an enjoyable listen. The songwriting was predictably cynical and politically charged, addressing new concepts but serving the same purpose the band’s music served in the late ‘70s.
In the late 1970s the Pop Group found themselves at the avant-garde end of the post-punk continuum, meshing together elements of dub, free jazz and radical politics. Their second post-reunion album occupies similar ground. With production by old collaborator Dennis Bovell and Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad (best known for their work on early Public Enemy albums), there’s an appealing push-and-pull throughout between the former’s exploratory journeys into spacey dub and the latter’s denser, more abrasive soundscapes, most notably on album closer Burn Your Flag.
On paper, The Pop Group’s fourth full-length, Honeymoon On Mars, seems like a nuclear explosion. The U.K. post-punk annihilators worked with Dennis Bovell, who also produced their groundbreaking 1979 debut, Y, and Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad, the production team behind Public Enemy’s most incisive, exciting work. Frontman Mark Stewart, meanwhile, calls the album “a stand against manufactured hate, a hypersonic journey into a dystopian future full of alien encounters and sci-fi lullabies.” In reality, however, Honeymoon On Mars lacks the ferocity and danger intrinsic to both The Pop Group’s early work and its most recent album, 2015’s Citizen Zombie.