If anyone asks I didn’t review In Black & Gold in anticipation of doing this double album feature. Ok? It’s not laziness – it’s well disguised forward planning.
At this point Hey Colossus probably should not be a thing. That might sound cruel but 12 years is way longer than the average half life of noisey British bands. Here in Blighty, and particularly in the capital, we’re rarely short of noisemongers refusing to settle on a sound for more than 5 minutes, seemingly following whatever perverse whims happen to hit them while they’re in the studio. But they’re rarely built to last. It’s not long before the ship sinks, usually after a couple of records and a few split eps. Then the driftwood is gathered up and hammered into another weird looking sea vessel – another band of guys merrily making a haphazard ruckus is born and the cycle continues.
Hey Colossus, however, have somehow kept on sailing. Over the years have had so many line up changes, picking up and lost members like a broken katamari ball, that it feels like they’ve been teetering on the brink of collapse for the entirety of their run. But somehow they’ve just about held it together with spit and duct tape. Stranger still they’ve somehow brought something new and unexpected to the table this year – consistency.
That’s not something anyone could have predicted for the bulk of their lifespan. Over the course of their previous 7 or 8 albums (I lost count – they probably have too) they displayed a healthy wanderlust, albeit within a sludgey/doomey/droney wheelhouse. They’d do stuff like A Witch Is Born from debut record Hates You – a lengthy droning doom number that drags the listener through fields of of fuzz and static while the drums give them a sound kicking – fairly often but somehow never quite sounded like the same band twice while doing it. When they did similar tracks on II the vocals were hollered in a similar tenor to the drunken sailor yelling of Ian McKaye, whereas on Project Death they went for more of an Iron Monkey sludge vibe full of gnarled screaming over the big stoner grooves. If you listened to any two of their albums blind you probably wouldn’t guess they were the same band.
This loose sort of patternless pattern continued more or less until 2013 when Cuckoo Live Life Like Cuckoo shifted things into even stranger territory. Whilst they’d flirted with kraut-ish psych influences before any sort of blissed out trance they created was through blunt force and perseverance – it was the sort of high you get after a punch to the temple rather than anything overtly druggy. But tracks like Oktave Doktor and English Flesh dredged those influences to the surface in a way they’d only hinted at before, like on I am Bunga Bunga from RRR, but never quite committed to. Whilst they still played hard the noise seemed less important. It wasn’t so much a dulling of the edges so much as a broadening of the horizons.
The first of this years two records, In Black and Gold, felt like the completion of a metamorphosis. You could say it was the lightest of the records they’d done so far – the dreamy synth of opener Hold On must have had a few people checking the cover in case they’d picked up a John Carpenter soundtrack by mistake – but that’s doesn’t tell half of the story. The weird cracked cosmic blues still pounds and grinds, particularly on the magnificent Eat It, but there’s a lightness of touch on display too. It’s like half the guys aren’t playing like they’re in a heavy band anymore – there’s a certain finesse to the guitar work that’s new – and the other half didn’t get the memo. Take Sisters and Brothers, stomping along undeniable menace, the rhythm section heaving heavily while the guitars drift through almost gently. There’s a sense of control, of purpose, that was rarely present in their earlier incarnations.
And it continues from there, feeling like a proper album rather than a collection of weird and wonderful fuck-arounds from a band who really don’t want you to get comfortable. There’s inevitably a bit of that in Lagos Atom, an impenetrable 9 minutes of acoustic guitar, insistent bass and weird robotic voices that sounds a bit like Teeth of the Sea have broken into their rehearsal space and fucked with their equipment. Old habits die hard and all that. But then Sinking, Feeling comes along all maudlin and sombre, Sykes singing, “Take or leave/attempt to recreate the pain/kiss and taste/nothing will ever be the same and silently/they slip beneath the waters edge,” as the tempo slows down like they’re just too downhearted to carry on, and you’d be forgiven for thinking these men of sarcasm and strangeness might be dabbing in being earnest. And sounding pretty confident doing so.
Elsewhere we have them getting good and raucous with Hey, Dead Eyes,Up!, locking into a ritualistic beat and grinding it into the dirt while at least one of their three guitars threatens to leave the atmosphere behind and try it’s luck on another planet, and also exploring their new found interest in melody via beautifully sinister title track in which vocalist Paul Sykes does his best Mike Patton snarled drawl beneath a smokey haze that’s every bit as sultry as it is seedy. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all at the time – I’d liked Hey Colossus as a reliably unreliable factory of noisey madness for a while and wasn’t prepared for them to suddenly be a proper band. With songs and such. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it to be honest. It wasn’t really until they doubled down on it with their second album of the year that it occurred to me that I actually love it.
Sensing the iron was at the very least warming up they decided to strike with a second record for the year, Radio Static High. On announcement I thought that even by their prolific standards this might be a bit much, but the results just show that when you’re on a streak you may as well milk it for all it’s worth. Much like In Back and Gold it starts low key, the slow burning title track drifting by like a dream, albeit a dream with vengeance in it’s heart, (“sold another enemy down the river/radio static high”) before racing off, this time with probably he best three track run of the year. March of the Headaches comes on like Primus’ Winona’s Big Brown Beaver with less frat humour and more corrosive, venomous intent. Hop the Railings is propelled along with the kind of almost motorik rhythm that can put some verve into the most languid of steps as gradually builds quietly to something of a stealthy crescendo. I’ve been listening to it on my morning walk to work and I swear I’m getting in 5-10 minutes earlier than usual. Unfortunately it also has the kind of don’t-give-a-fuck swagger that can lead to wanton jaywalking – there’s been at least on instance of me stepping out into traffic at the “if something’s worth doing/it’s worth doing wrong/you better run along” refrain, feeling so full of piss n’ vinegar that I figured that the cars better get the hell out of my way if they know what’s good for them.
Rounding off the trio is Numbed Out, another bruising affair, a wall of wild guitar noise loosely tethered to a pounding groove. Then Memories of Wonder breezes in much like Sinking, Feeling but with Sykes exploring his light falsetto further. It’s the perfect comedown from the preceding trio of bangers – it sounds like the record could end here, rounding off a brilliant victory lap of an ep. But then Snapping Undone injects some awkward energy into proceedings and brings some strangely touching united-against-the-world lyrics. The second half of the record doesn’t quite live up to the first, which is more a testament to how good that first half is than any deficiencies in the second. There’s more than enough however – in Another Heads hypnotic beat and almost David Byrne esque wall-of-voices chorus and in Hesitation Time’s return to the transcendental grind of that early three track run – it to make Hey Colossus’ second full length outing 2015 a triumph.
So. In little over 2 years, a decade into their lifespan, Hey Colossus have arguable pulled out career best album followed by career best album filed by career best album. This incredible run hasn’t gone unnoticed – BBC Radio 6 have been championing Hop the Railings and the album was premiered on the Guardian website. And whilst the Quietus love to back an underdog they didn’t start their lead review feature with Radio Static High and do a tour diary for them just because. In these two records there’s a sense of potential, that most unreliable of currency, being fulfilled. Of promise being kept. It’s hard to know what success for a band like Hey Colossus looks like amidst the wreckage of the music industry 2015. But whatever that is they deserve every bit of it to come their way – and not as some kind of collective lifetime achievement nod to a spent force but because they’ve now raised the bar so high you feel they can no longer be ignored. We like to think that quality will always be enough, that if you create something amazing it’ll get the recognition it deserves. All too often that isn’t the case. But in Hey Colossus there’s a decent chance that it might just happen – which would surely be enough to gladden the stoniest of hearts.
Have they found their sound 12 years in or is this just another incarnation of Hey Colossus along the road? Who can say what comes next; they’re as likely to put out a single 60 minute drone track lp next as they are a third album in this style. Somewhere along the way though they became the best band in Britain – at the least – and I’m not sure anyone can honestly say they saw that coming a few years back. Whatever they do next the sight of the good ship Hey Colossus still somehow still crashing through the waves has got to give any fans of underdogs and stubbornly brilliant guitar bands cause for cheer.