Pop Will Eat Itself
New Noise Designed by a Sadist
Cooking Vinyl/Metropolis, 2011

Pop Will Eat Itself occupy an unusual place in the history of popular alternative music. Starting as a standard bearers in the largely press-constructed Grebo scene (a classification which the band gleefully embraced and mocked by turns), they rapidly assumed the form of a pop-culturally omnivorous dance group before the tightening noose of copyright law hastened their evolution away from sample-happy rave-rockers into their final incarnation as cynical industrialists and prophets of pre-millenial tension. That kind of rapid-fire evolution in their original 5-albums-in-7-years run has often made them a victim in alternative music’s ongoing classification war, their legacy positioned (or ignored entirely) at the whims of journos and musical trainspotters. That alone makes New Noise Designed by a Sadist, the first new album to be released under the Pop Will Eat Itself banner since 1994, tricky to assess as part of the group’s oeuvre, and that’s before even taking into account that this new incarnation includes only one original member, songwriter and co-vocalist Graham Crabb. For a band that so deftly utilized context and the clash thereof as part of their MO, that frame of reference isn’t just relevant to the album, it’s intractable from it.

Many of the songs on New Noise started life as part of the never released album by Vile Evils, the group formed by Crabb and former Poppy Adam Mole in the wake of the classic line-up’s abortive mid-decade reunion. Two of the compositions specifically credited to Mole, “Nosebleeder Turbo TV” and “Seek and Destroy” are the most typically Pop Will Eat Itself-esque, handily leveraging bass grooves and chunky guitar reminiscent of The Looks or the Lifestyle to good effect. A third Mole composition (co-credited to another former bandmember Fuzz Townshend), the punky “Chaos and Mayhem” chugs along hardily but suffers from an anemic performance from new singer Mary Byker, who fails to channel his own sneering delivery from his years in Gaye Bykers on Acid. It’s on Byker’s spotlights (like the similarly ill-fated “Disguise”) that former frontman and co-vocalist Clint Mansell is most keenly absent, although Crabb proves himself capable of carrying the characteristic chanting/rapping of the group’s classic era by himself, the lack of a strong melodic presence to bounce off of undermines much of the proceedings.

The real issue with many of the songs on the album is the vortex of energy at the center of them. While the instrumental performances and production can’t be faulted, they also can’t make up for just how lifeless and inert songs like “Mask” and “Captain Plastic” are. Byker composition “Oldskool Cool” comes close to achieving lift-off but stretches itself too thin while “Equal Zero” fails to capitalize on an initially promising groove, meandering through a variety of breakdowns before coming to a full-stop. That lack of traction is endemic even in New Noise‘s best moments; even at their worst Pop Will Eat Itself should never sound like they’re trying this hard.

Whether or not the listener accepts the legitimacy of this incarnation of PWEI, New Noise Designed by a Sadist can’t help but be dragged down by the same factors that occasionally buoy it up. In the absence of any truly killer songs, it relies on a pastiche that invokes Pop Will Eat Itself while never delivering on the free-wheeling experimentalism and forward thrust that the name implies. While it doesn’t fail at being listenable and occasionally enjoyable, it sadly rarely succeeds as a Pop Will Eat Itself record, more’s the pity.