The Scream (1978) ***1/2
Icy and jagged are the twin adjectives that the sound of this album overabuses: the ice scalds courtesy Siouxsie Sioux's detached yet impassioned 'banshee' wailings, while guitarist John McKay icepicks at the temples with corrosive waves of metallic shards. A mighty impressive soundscape, careering precariously between the balance of jangle and metal (again, speaking of McKay's guitar), that takes its emotional antecedents from the Teutonic ice princess Nico side of the Velvets (again, speaking of the talented Ms. Sioux). Now of course at this point in the review, as longtime readers may guess, is where I predictably lay out the drawbacks to this particular record: in short, they stick solely to the same style throughout the album, and it's a rather monochromatic style; and secondly, they're a wee bit short on material, but only a mite - the opener, "Pure," is simply a wordless 1:46 intro to the true opening cut, track #2 "Jigsaw Feeling," and they rather pointlessly recycle the Beatles heavy metal oldie, "Helter Skelter," which perfectly fits their style (a proto-Screamer if there ever was one, heh), but again, rather beside the point. That leaves eight songs remaining, of mixed quality if rather similar terrain. I don't know who ripped off who, but even if I do know that Keith Levene's ringing guitar on "Public Image," bests McKay's on "Jigsaw Feeling," on every count, it's still a close enough race that I could feast on the circular ringtones of either for days. For all her star billing, it's McKay who makes this record for me: he's all over the place, setting the sonic template for which the rest of the band merely follows (fine drumwork, nice little bass parts, but lads we know who the leader of this band is), and when his riffs are less that inspired, so are the tunes. The slow grind of "Metal Postcard," falls flat despite the sharp guitar work, however, and the closer "Switch," flails as an attempted 7 minute epic; Goths have to bring the melodrama even when they don't have the technical skills to bring psuedo-operatic off. But when the band punches along punkily with the snappy "Nicotine Stain," or the absurdly sunny chorus of "Carcass," (which is closer to Alice Cooper than the VU, and concludes even more surreally with bouncy handclaps), it's a striking marriage of dark goth sensibility to punky metal hard rock. I should mention "Mirage," as it's clearly the most commercially accessible tune here and was (no surprise, no surprise!) the album's single; its somewhat brighter jingle-jangle points toward the more 3-D colors of the later, more pop-psych-melodic Banshees.
And finally for the lyrics and overall attitude exuded, which is half the appeal for an album like this. Siouxsie wails with an angry alienation the equal of any of her '77 U.K. punk counterparts, perhaps not as alienatedly angry as Mr. Rotten but certainly moreso than Poly Styrene or the Damned; she shades considerably more on the alienated side of the alley, which is to be expected (this is Goth, after all). Her visceral disgust with the human body is plain, and provides the prevailing subject matter, as the sarcastically jolly centerpiece "Carcass," enjoins; other songs describe loss of bodily control (“Jigsaw feeling – one day I’m feeling total the next I’m split in two my eyes are doing somersaults staring at my shoe.”), bodies that twitch like puppets, lack of control to cigarette addiction, it's better to be a machine than a creature of flesh and blood because, “Metal is tough, metal will sheen, metal won’t rust when oiled and cleaned.” And so on and so forth. A bit of biographical research should explain the traumatic roots of Ms. Sioux's bodily obsession-revulsion, but I needn't go into that here. Suffice to say that the sustained mood (and boy, do they that sustain that mood) is dark, dank, and morbidly depressing, and they pull it all off darn tootin swell. Its flaws duly noted (decidedly monodimensional compared to their later records), it's still a striking debut that belongs in the collection of any self-respecting (oxymoron?) emo kid in black mascara sporting a nose ring.