(The album) is quite magnificent in its cowl of self-enforced bleakness.
Okay, first thing to start off with here is a little history lesson I think, as not everyone will be aware of the strange wonder which is/was the Doctors Of Madness. Formed in 1974 by vocalist/guitarist Richard ‘Kid’ Strange, and featuring the distinctive violin of the rather splendidly named Urban Blitz, the band sought to combine mid-’70s glam and prog with a punk aesthetic which barely even existed at the time! Their debut album, Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms saw Strange sporting blue hair, and the others short, spiky cuts, as early as 1975, and the music was as fascinating as the image, culminating in the dark, 16-minute epic Mainlines which did more than anything to define the band. They followed this up in 1976 with the brilliant Figments Of Emancipation, which utterly defied categorisation. Unfortunately it defied it so well that hardly anyone bothered to try, and it sank without much trace, leading to the band’s break-up after one further album.
The news was good recently, however, when all three original Docs albums were reissued in a box set by Cherry Red entitled Perfect Past, enabling people to see and hear what all of the fuss was about by the small yet vocal minority who had championed the band for the intervening four decades. They even reformed for some live dates, but the one thing that few people could foresee was another Doctors album at this very late stage in the game – yet, rather wonderfully, here we are. Sadly it isn’t a reunion as such, with only Strange present along with a host of guests (including, bizarrely, a Japanese power-trio – yes, there IS one – called Sister Paul, and even more surprisingly, Joe Elliott from Def Leppard). The instrumentation is faithful, however, with the presence of violin recalling the playing of the sadly absent Blitz.
Now, I believe I mentioned the word ‘dark’ earlier. Keep that word in mind, as it will become your new favourite adjective as you listen to this astonishingly bleak collection, which takes as its starting position the fact that the world is a hell-hole of nihilistic gloom which is hurtling to hell in a handbasket faster than you can say ‘play Mainlines again guys’. The opening track greets you with its cheery title of So Many Ways To Hurt You, before it is joined by other party anthems such as Make It Stop!, Sour Hour, This Kind Of Failure and the four minutes of existential hopelessness which is This Is How To Die. I’m not sure if anyone remembers, but in the wonderfully anarchic sitcom Father Ted there was once a discussion about the fact that black socks did not exist except for priests’ socks, and in fact any other supposedly black socks were in fact only very, very, very dark blue. Priests’ socks alone were truly black. I mention this because this album is essentially the ‘priests’ socks’ of dark albums. At times it makes Leonard Cohen appear as if he has been attempting a career long audition for Kool And The Gang.
Hang on though, because I hear you asking whether this makes the album something to be avoided. Well, you would be forgiven for thinking so, but in actual fact it is quite magnificent in its cowl of self-enforced bleakness. The music matches the despairing tone of the music entirely, with Strange’s vocals perfectly evoking the Doctors of yore. The album contains just eight tracks, delivering its message in a trim and perfectly judged time of around forty minutes – just as it was in the ‘old money’ – and rather bizarrely it will make you want to submerge yourself in it again.
Absolutely spine-tingling, utterly riveting and, if listened to alone in a darkened room, possibly needing to come with a warning.
For most of the duration highlights are hard to pick as the record comes across as a fully unified whole, existing in its own grim reality, though Sour Hour (in which ‘the gloom room’ also makes an appearance) is catchy in a funereal way, while So Many Ways To Hurt You is like a punch in the soul as an opener. As the conclusion arrives, however, we have the definitive one-two to finish things. Blood Brother manages to express just about everything The Wall took eighty minutes to get around to in just two minutes and 47 seconds, and I still don’t know how, but even that is overshadowed by the towering hopelessness of ten-minute closer Dark Times itself. It is little more than a constant spoken-word litany of everything which is hopeless, broken and hideous in our disastrous world, broke up by a dramatically minor-key chorus – it has to be minor key, I don’t think they do anything else – intoning how these are indeed ‘dark times’, in a ‘big black night gone bad’, reassuring us that while we will know the truth, that same truth will ‘drive us mad’. It’s absolutely spine-tingling, utterly riveting and, if listened to alone in a darkened room, possibly needing to come with a warning. The sleeve notes have Strange informing us that this is an album of hope that we can band together and rescue this seemingly hopeless world, but I beg to differ. Hope has no place here, and so much the better.
It’s hard to imagine an album which could possibly provide a fitting summation of the legacy of the Doctors Of Madness after four decades of waiting. Somehow, Richard Strange has managed to deliver just that. While it is hard to imagine the recording sessions being a constant laughter riot with Buck-A-Roo tournaments taking place, the esteemed Mr Strange can take (dark, lonely, grim) pleasure in the fact that he’s just about done the impossible. The Doctors Of Madness are back, and the surgery is open for patients. It’s been worth the waiting list…