Shriekback is not an easy band to classify. They borrowed heavily from funk but had a very different agenda; their music was more suited for contemplation than for parties. They combined synthesizers and drum machines with throbbing bass lines and unorthodox vocals to evoke a primordial world where the line between human and animal was blurred. The title of their fourth album, Big Night Music, might be the most succinct summation of their work: Shriekback's music was always an appropriate soundtrack for life in the dark, but with the emphasis on the possibilities rather than the dangers. Though often haunting, it was not gothic and harbored strains of pop and dance that rose to the surface from time to time. Still, however accessible they became, Shriekback cultivated an air of mystery that made them hard to pin down. Further complicating any evaluation of their career is the fact that they never made a single, brilliant album that concentrated all their strengths in one place; their best material is spread out across a decade during which they underwent a great deal of evolution.
Shriekback came together in 1982 as a loose association based around the trio of Dave Allen (bass), Barry Andrews (keyboards/vocals), and Carl Marsh (vocals/guitar). Allen and Andrews had previously been members of Gang of Four and XTC, respectively; Marsh had played with the more obscure Out on Blue Six. They quickly developed a trademark sound that had little to do with the members' previous credits. The bedrock of that sound was Allen's muscular yet liquid bass playing, which was a quantum leap beyond his relatively crude work with Gang of Four. On top of this Shriekback deployed creative and intricate drum programs; Andrews' multifaceted synthesizer shadings; strategically placed, mostly rhythm guitar from Marsh; and whispered vocals from Andrews along with Marsh's more melodic singing. Both vocalists were technically limited, but this was more than compensated for by the band's tight playing and evocative, intelligent lyrics.
The first Shriekback release was the six-song EP Tench, which appeared on the English Y label in 1982. It was followed in 1983 by the LP Care, also on Y, which featured the quasi-hit "Lined Up," the song that put Shriekback on the map for many people. Care was picked up and released in the U.S. by Warner Brothers, with an altered running order and two different tracks, including the polyrhythmic "My Spine (Is the Bass Line)."
Although Care was critically acclaimed and garnered a fair amount of airplay from both college radio and fledgling modern rock radio, that was not enough for Warner Brothers, who dropped Shriekback and deleted Care shortly after its release. As a result, the follow-up, 1984's Jam Science, was released only in Europe (this time on Arista). Slicker, less murky, and more focused on electronics than its predecessor, Jam Science contained the dub-influenced single "Hand on My Heart."
Much of Shriekback's music from this early period is most readily available on two mistitled, poorly packaged, but indispensable CDs from Kaz Records. The Best of Shriekback: The Infinite is made up of seven songs from Care, three from Tench, and the single "Working on the Ground." The Best of Shriekback Volume Two: Evolution offers one more song from Care and five from Jam Science, along with a nice assortment of remixes and B-sides.
Toward the end of the Jam Science sessions, Shriekback became a quartet with the addition of drummer Martyn Barker; however, they quickly became a trio again when Carl Marsh departed midway through the recording of their third album. Andrews took over as sole vocalist and the addition of Lu Edmonds on guitar brought a more aggressive sound to Oil and Gold, which was released in 1985. Songs like "Malaria" and "Nemesis" rocked harder than anything Shriekback had recorded before, bringing them a far wider audience than they had previously enjoyed. Oil and Gold sold well in its U.S. release on Island Records.
Shriekback released two more albums on Island in the '80s. 1986's Big Night Music featured a core trio of Allen, Andrews, and Barker augmented by hired hands like Mike Cozzi (guitar), Steve Halliwell (keyboards), and Wendy and Sarah Partridge (backing vocals). Continuing Oil and Gold's move toward accessibility, Big Night Music had a more organic sound with an emphasis on live percussion. Shriekback seemed poised on the brink of unlikely stardom, but Allen departed before the recording of Go Bang! (1988), which was poorly received by both critics and fans. Perhaps they were put off by the absence of Allen's signature low end, or maybe it was the inconsistent material, including an ill-advised cover of KC and the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight."
That appeared to be the end of Shriekback, who dropped out of sight in the late '80s and early '90s. Their only release during that period was the pointless and exploitative 1990 compilation The Dancing Years. But Allen, Andrews, and Barker reunited in 1992 to record the excellent Sacred City, which essentially picked up where Big Night Music left off. There was another long silence after that, but as of 2000 some form of Shriekback was apparently still in existence; an album called Naked Apes and Pond Life, featuring Andrews, Barker, Edmonds, and two new members, was released that year by the Australian Mushroom label. ~ Bill Cassel