Vengeance: The Independent Story (1987) ***1/2
One glance at the album cover tells you what you need to know about the tone of this music: coming across as the missing link between the early Cure and early Fugazi, this is post-punk at its angriest, angstiest, and grimmest. In retrospect, some of Margaret Thatcher's reforms were painful but necessary measures to forestall Great Britain from declining into a Eastern Bloc neo-Socialist basketcase, but it must have sure not as hell felt like that at the time; as always with the transition from an industrial to post-industrial economy, there were going to be a lot of losers, and New Model Army sang for those losers. Springsteen sang in the '80s for displaced blue-collar workers suffering the blows of the Reagan economy on the other side of the pond; NMA, being younger, poorer, and under the influence of punk (I mentioned the Cure, but there's one huge, massive influence overshadowing every other influence on the early NMA. Give ya a hint: name starts with a C and they were likewise singing about lack of career opportunities a decade earlier) were a hell of a lot angrier and bitterer. Bitter, very, very bitter - this is some of the bitterest music I've ever encountered. A spare power trio led by guitarist/vocalist Slade the Leveller (Justin Sullivan), bassist Stuart Morrow (whose busy lines serve, in classic post-punk fashion, as often as not lead instrument), and drummer Rob Heaton, the NMA took their name from Oliver Cromwell's militia. So right off the bat we're aware that these are intelligent, historically conscious punks, and a while a listen demonstrates that they could pen a football chant as brutish as any of their Oi! punk peers, a listen to the verses demonstrates that their intellectual capacities were miles removed from such beer-swilling shaved-head rabble. This compilation reissues their 1984 debut Vengeance and surrounds that with assorted pre&post-album singles, as well as a couple of Peel sessions.
When they're on, they're on, delivering punk with a savage, almost psychotic intensity, not so much in the music (which is actually quite measured; there's no mindless raving up, but rather a constant tension & release dynamic throughout of seething verses exploding into violent choruses) but in the lyrical outlook. The title track is, for better or worse, the clear highlight: when Sullivan bellows, "I believe in justice / I believe in vengeance / I believe in killing the bastard / Killing the bastard!" his intensity and conviction are genuinely frightening. He really does want to see those drug dealers peddling to 14 year olds, escaped Nazi war criminals, bent lawyers, and corrupt businessman swing high. Unlike the Clash, the NMA are devoid of a crucial humanizing factor: they completely and totally lack any sense of humor. They're far too angry and self-righteous for that. This means that the music, while extremely powerful, too often slides into thundering preachiness. Which is fine and peachy-keen if you happen to agree with Sullivan and Morrow's targets: "worshipping the Devil in the name of God," is how I've always felt about the "Christian Militia," and the condemnation of narrow-minded, go-nowhere routine in "Small Town England," crosses internationally to speak for anyone who's grown up in a rigidly conservative backwater. On the other hand, the exaggerated sarcasm of "Spirit of the Falklands," feels dated, despite once again the power of the anthemic chorus. The songs mentioned are all highlights; the other problem with this disc (actually, I have this on cassette :>}) is that for every genuinely powerful grunt of anthemic rage such as "Great Expectations," (a sarcastic sneer at a spoiled generation of brats with a sense of entitlement) or "Notice Me," (a sarcastic sneer at attention whores) there's either a song that pales in comparison or is an outright mess like the awful "Sex (The Black Angel)" (I don't think they're anti-sex, actually; I can hardly pay attention to the song to figure out what it's about, to tell the truth). If only the entire album had maintained the standard its six or seven great songs, this would count as one of the essential punk albums: this is the Sex Pistols' No Future generation come to fruition.