Tuesday, April 12, 2016

REVIEW - Department S: When All Is Said and All Is Done

Anyone who doesn't believe in second chances in the music business needs to take a listen to Department S.

Formed from the ashes of Ska-infused British one-hit wonders Guns For Hire (1979's “I'm Gonna Rough My Girlfriend's Boyfriend Up Tonight"), Department S possessed everything that should have made them one of the major acts of the 1980s. Armed with a strong guitarist/songwriter (Mike Herbage), a stellar rhythm section (bassist Tony Lordan and drummer Stuart Mizon) and a commanding frontman in Vaughn Toulouse, the band hit the ground running in 1980 with “Is Vic There?” an instantly memorable slice of moody Post-Punk that sounded like the perfect collision between Bauhaus, Joy Division and Delta 5. Produced by Dale Griffin and Overend Watts of Mott The Hoople fame, “Is Vic There?” rightfully hit the UK Singles Chart and brought Department S to Top of the Pops. (Fun fact: A young Bananarama served as the group's backup singers in the early days!) Clearly, the stage was set for further success, but Department S fell as quickly as they rose.

Just as “As Vic There?” started denting the charts, the group suffered their first personnel casualty with the departure of keyboardist Eddie Roxy (a.k.a. Anthony Edward Lloyd-Barnes). After releasing two singles on Stiff Records (“Going Left Right” / “She's Expecting You” and “I Want”/ “Monte Carlo Or Bust”), Department S hit the studio with Blondie engineer Dave Tickle (and the incomparable Terry Edwards on guest brass) to record their Stiff Records debut album, Sub-Stance. Tragically, a haze of inner band turmoil and industry politics prevented the album's release at the time, and the band subsequently folded in 1982.

Although the tracks from the Stiff album sessions were later included on the 1993 Department S compilation Is Vic There? (Mau Mau Records), it would take until 2002 - two decades after the band's breakup - for the album to see the light of day in its proper form. Issued on LTM Recordings, the '02 release of Sub-Stance includes the complete album as well as single tracks and live numbers from the band's original 1980-1982 run. Still the most readily accessible collection of early Department S music available, the LTM release stands as awe-inspiring proof of just how thrilling (and forward-thinking) this band really was. The charging drums and deep vocals on “Of All The Lost Followers” predict the arrival of Interpol two decade later, while the bulletproof “Romany Blood” could have easily found a home on Killing Joke's What's THIS For...! Later on the disc, the Punk/Funk-driven “Fighting Irish” and “Whatever Happened To The Blues” showcase the balance between edginess and commercialism that so many bands of the era attempted - and failed - to capture. Other highlights of the disc include the broken Disco of “Just Pretend,” the Madness-quality Ska Pop of “Somewhere Between Heaven And Tesco's” and the early Psychedelic Furs vibe of “Put All The Crosses In The Right Boxes.”

Sadly, Toulouse's passing in 1991 prevented any chance of the ”Is Vic There?” -era lineup of Department S reforming and hitting the road to support the rejuvenated record. Despite creating one of the most intriguing repertoires of the Post-Punk genre, Department S was destined to be relegated to footnote status in the history of British music.

Or so we thought.

On May 27, Department S will release When All Is Said and All Is Done on Westworld Recordings. The band's hard-earned identify as a bonafide album act has been been steadily developing for quite some time. Initially reformed in 2007 with Roxy taking over lead vocals and most of the surviving original members in tow, the band made their return to vinyl that November with a cover of Alvin Stardust's “My Coo-Ca-Choo” (with Madness' Mark Bedford on bass, Edwards once again guesting on brass and original-era UK punk Michelle Brigandage on backing vocals).Two years later, they issued the exceptional Wonderful Day EP, a release highlighted by guest appearances by Edwards, guitarist Marco Pirroni (Siouxsie And The Banshees/Adam And The Ants/The Slits) and Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock. In 2011, the group issued the “God Save Savior” / “Slave” single with help from guitarist Sam Burnett (Back To Zero) and former Spandau Ballet drummer John Keeble. (A full-length live album, Mr. Nutley's Strange Delusionarium, followed later that year.)

In 2013, Department S began a new chapter in their career with the addition of former Public Image Limited /Brian Brain/Cowboys International bassist Pete Jones. Best known for his work on PiL's 1982 quasi-official Commercial Zone album, Jones has spent the last several years using the Internet as his sonic playground, releasing his own solo efforts (including 2000's stellar Twisted) and collaborating with a host of international musicians in a variety of projects. (His work with French guitarist Fred Suard as The Creepy Dolls and Clem Chambers as Pete & Charlie is especially worth seeking out.) After some lineup restructuring in recent times, Department S is currently comprised of Roxy, Jones, guitarist Phil Thompson and drummer Alex Lutes. (New dad Herbage is taking a sabbatical.)

With all of that out of the way, let's dive into When All Is Said and All Is Done.

It's always a tricky thing when a band with a decades-old past comes back with a new album these days. Typically, a group in this position either produce something as close to a carbon copy of their past glories as their ages and waistlines allow (often with embarrassing results) or takes their music in inventive and previously unexplored directions. Thankfully, Department S built When All Is Said and All Is Done around fresh musical ideas that honor the spirit of the band's history without being constricted by it.

The biggest difference between the new album and the Department S of old is the voice heard through the speakers, as Toulouse's deep register has been replaced by Roxy's lighter vocal delivery. (Think Gang of Four's Jon King.) Musically, today's Department S offers a considerably more stripped down Rock approach than what was heard on Sub-Stance. While the band has certainly evolved over the years (which makes sense considering that only one member remains from the “Is Vic There?” days), they remain as exciting as ever.

The 2016 incarnation of Department S launch When All Is Said and All Is Done with “King Of The World,” a uptempo scorcher not unlike The Damned circa Phantasmagoria. The album gets even better from there, with the fantastic “I Said You” and “Persia Dance” recalling Shriekback's peppier moments and the stellar title track harkening back to the days of Magazine. The brilliant, razor-sharp guitars are the truest stars of this show, shining from start to finish in a way that makes one imagine Andy Gill playing in The Fall circa I Am Kurious Oranj. (The six-string work on “I Believe” and “Cause” is especially interesting.) Just when you think you have When All Is Said and All Is Done all figured out, the band closes the whole affair with the bass-heavy Trance of “Age Of Control.” While this review mentions other acts when describing the songs on this album, rest assured that they are merely references. Department S have their own thing going on. Simply put, there's not a single dud on this thing.

After a hopeful start halted by disappointments and years of inactivity, Department S have finally achieved their fullest potential. Easily one of the year's best albums, When All Is Said and All Is Done rights the wrongs of the band's tumultuous past and opens the door to the fruitful future they've always deserved.

Photo by Paul Hammond

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

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