The freshest forgotten albums of yesteryear. Not the usual fawned over suspects but albums that ‘net-trawlers and second-hand record shop aficionados may come across and should snap up now.
Neil Gardner Recommends:
(Beggars Banquet) 1980
In Details about Great Lost Albums : Chrome – Red Exposure
“I am anti-fade and I can’t go away” Chrome -’Eyes On Mars’
When independent label Beggars Banquet was looking to capitalize on the huge success of Gary Numan at the cusp of the Eighties, their attention switched to a strange duo from San Francisco with an obsession with the darker aspects of science fiction.
No doubt Beggars were hoping for an American version of Tubeway Army, a band who could take troubling subjects, give them an offbeat but commercial twist, and turn them into a major cash-generating machine.
What they got was something rather different.
Formed in 1976 by vocalist/drummer Damon Edge and Gary Spain, Chrome’s debut album, ‘The Visitation’, a relatively straightforward take on Latino-tinged electronic rock (‘Eno meets Santana”) gave little warning of the aural carnage to come and it wasn’t until the arrival of maverick guitarist Helios Creed, and Spain’s departure in 1977 that things started to change for the weird.
The notoriously eccentric Creed nearly blew his chances with the band, allegedly irking Edge by turning up to their first meeting dressed as a pirate, but his influence on Chrome was immediate. His abrasive guitar sound coupled with Edge’s demented tape manipulation and powerful drumming gave their next two albums – ‘Alien Soundtracks’ and ‘Half Machine Lip Moves’ – a deliriously wild, chaotic quality, pitched somewhere between Suicide and The Stooges.
Chrome purists invariably gravitate towards those records’ primitive dark psychedelics – Julian Cope memorably referred to ‘Lip Moves’ as ”Turkish robots playing Hawkwind“, but the general view appears to be that their difficult fourth album was where the duo compromised their sound, initiating an inevitable decline.
Yet, even a cursory listen would suggest that was nonsense, as ‘Red Exposure’ is, if anything, equally as whacked out and individual as its predecessors.
Taking a much more electronic approach, it isn’t so much produced (by the band themselves with the wonderfully named John L Cyborg who received a credit despite actually being the drum machine) as submerged. Its dense and cluttered sound, described by one critic as “so murky and bizarre that basically EVERYTHING sounds like it’s in the background”, provided the soundtrack to a gloomy Philip K Dickian future, where horror roamed at the corner of the eye and unspeakable things scuttled in the gutter.
As well as playing with a bewildering array of tape machines, oscillators and delays, the duo share vocal duties throughout – Creed opting for more traditional rock yelp, while Edge remains buried under waves of effects, veering from ominous whisper to malfunctioning robot.
The diseased synth introduction to opener ‘New Age’, an unlikely choice as a single, sets the tone by not so much fading in as seeping out of the speakers like poison gas, while Edge wails menacingly through waves of static over squelchy percussion and a clanking riff.
Even more upfront tunes like ‘Static Gravity’ teeter on the cusp of madness, with a crunching cyclical riff underpinned by a woozy orchestral sample, while ‘Eyes In the Center’ delivers a particularly nasty synth line over cavernous mine-shaft drums, portentous bells and shards of feedback, that explode like firecrackers.
Elsewhere, the menacing ‘Jonestown’ with it’s distorted vocals and piercing bowed guitar line is a close cousin to the harsh industrial tones of Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Mix Up’, ‘Eyes on Mars’ is a delirious phasers-on-stun frug powered by some fierce tribal drumming, while the stentorian march of ‘Animal’ is enlivened by Creed’s deranged soloing.
Despite the album’s otherworldly qualities, flashes of beauty do occasionally rise out of the murk – the ghostly bleak ambience of instrumental ‘Room 101’ and the spooked piano of ‘Night of the Earth’ in particular.
There was even a cursory attempt at pop with the mutant Devo-esque ‘Electric Chair’, although inevitably it came out all wrong. Only Chrome would attempt to write a catchy song about an execution and although an increasingly hysterical Creed gleefully yelling “I know you want to fry!” over a gloopy guitar riff is oddly catchy, it was hardly Top of the Pops material either.
The deep, droning ‘Isolation’ was a suitably grim closer – with Edge’s repeated plaintive cry of ‘I’m so isolated’ proving to be sadly prescient.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘Red Exposure’ didn’t exactly find favour with the UK music press – the NME dismissed it as “fine for those moods where you want to contemplate life in a toxic atmosphere, like a slave mine on Alpha Centauri, or after the bomb” – and that was one of the kinder reviews.
However, British youth ignored its pioneering use of backwards masking, cut-ups and electronics too, in favour of the more palatable dystopian visions of Numan and Ultravox.
Subsequently dropped by Beggars, Creed and Edge went on to record two more albums together, adding a rhythm section (the great Hilary and John Stench) for the punkish guitar-driven ‘Blood on the Moon’ and the gnarled metallic ‘3rd from the Sun’ before a somewhat acrimonious split in 1982.
Unfortunately, the Chrome story doesn’t have a happy ending. Edge attempted to keep the name alive, relocating to Europe and recording a series of albums that removed Creed’s more extravagant, experimental flourishes and appeared to appeal only to French teenage Cure fans with noticeably diminishing returns.
Depressed by lack of recognition and the break-up of his marriage, Edge eventually became an alcoholic recluse in Los Angeles, ballooning to over 300 pounds and dying of heart failure in 1995. His body lay undiscovered for over 30 days, a bitter reminder of how far Chrome had fallen from the public’s consciousness.
Meanwhile, Creed who had made several well received albums of fried psychedelia under his own steam, including the excellent ‘X-rated Fairy Tales’ in the Eighties, reclaimed the name and has recorded and toured as Chrome once again – most recently with 2008’s occasionally brilliant ‘Retro Transmission’.
Despite their lasting influence, heard in bands as varied as the Butthole Surfers, Skinny Puppy and Prong, Chrome have been rather ill-served by the nostalgia industry, with sporadic re-issues of their material, often in limited quantities. ‘Red Exposure’ itself was given a rather shoddy repackage (even printing the wrong title on the CD spine) by Cleopatra Records last year.
But at least it is now available and, 29 years after its difficult birth, it deserves a higher place in the Chrome canon – a mesmerisingly haunted creeped-out classic that remains determinedly out of its tiny mind and gloriously out of time.