It's fitting, somehow, that on the same day your reviewer has been re-assessing the notorious Throbbing Gristle's reputation, that he should also be writing about one of TG'S most ardent supporters, Alan Hempsall of CRISPY AMBULANCE. The Crispies turned in a fine version of TG'S "United" on their live album "Fin" and - while they are considerably less stomach churning than Gen and co - for too long were also considered outcasts of sorts, or at least Factory Records' black sheep.
Thankfully, things have a habit of finally coming full circle, and while few expected it, Crispy Ambulance's surprise reformation album "Scissorgun" (2002) found the re-animated Mancunian quartet not only finding their feet, but turning in a powerful and creative new effort in the process.
And the great news is that with "The Powder Blind Dream" they've bettered it. OK, stylistically it's not that different - built mostly on whiplash rhythms, Robert Davenport's stinging guitars and Alan Hempsall's expressive vocals and Graham (808 State) Massey's strategic, live-sounding production - but this album captures the Crispies with a new-found confidence to forge ahead and mould vibrant songs that will sound convincing this side of Y2K.
The album's first half is consistently rocky and surprisingly anthemic. "Quarter Caste" is a fine, strident start with the band obviously in rude health and Hempsall's great yobby vocal sounding like the missing link between early Ian Curtis and Dub Sex's stupidly overlooked Mark Hoyle.
The highlights then come thick and fast. "Triphammer" is fractiously funky with choppy guitars, while "Evil Eye" is no-nonsense and memorable, with the repeated catchline ("I'll keep doggone moving") turning a similar trick to the "hear me, hear me" chant on CA's still classic "Deaf". Following this is tough, but the insidious rhythms and cheesewire guitar of "Protocol" will do nicely and then we get "Any Second Now", which is bulilt on a brilliantly nimble bassline from Keith Darbyshire and is truly exciting.
More of this and we'd have a superb rock album, though mid-way through the band confound you with the U-turn that is "Four Line Whip". A lengthy workout with timpani, samples, ARP synth and too much feedback, it horrendously outstays its' welcome and the momentum is lost somewhat.
This isn't to say the album's second half is devoid of great moments, only that it does take a notable turn towards more challenging territories. "Chimera", for instance finds a dense squall of Hendrixian feedback gving way to a brooding and sullen set piece reminiscent of the Gang Of Four (circa "Solid Gold"), while "Lucifer Rising" is named after the notorious Kenneth Anger film and features furious drums, forlorn vocals and lonely, chiming guitars mixing with tolling bells and an atmosphere best described as 'Macbeth'-esque. Spooky.
Things take a brief turn back to the light with the funky, disciplined "Bad Self", though we're soon back on slippery ground with the tense "Houses Sinking," where distant synths and muscular guitar goad Hempsall into a weirdly rousing chorus that's slightly queasy at the same time. Nonetheless, the track is first rate and extremely atmospheric. After this, there's the mournful, keyboard and female vocal-assisted "Pain & Pleasure" to act as the epilogue and its' elegiac quality does that job to near perfection.
"The Powder Blind Dream", then, is another quality album from a band who've been dismissed as has-beens with a silly name for far too long. If you'll pardon the footballing cliche, it is an album of two distinct halves, though which one you'll prefer will probably depend on your preference for in-yer-face rock'n'roll or something a little less upfront. Whatever, the end result is a satisfying whole suggesting the reformed Crispy Ambulance have embarked on a journey with a future rather than a quiet trundle downhill to the rock'n'roll scrapyard.