Anyone can create art, but relatively few create something meaningful. Even fewer construct something likable, never mind profound. Only a handful of untrained musicians will leave a lasting impression if they fail to learn a conventional way to play their instruments. In other words, legions of Furious Georges exist in the shadow of every Ramones.
Consider the odds against The Shadow Ring. Original members Graham Lambkin and Darren Harris never picked up an instrument before they decided to record their debut album. A lot of the band’s early songs consist of relatively simple guitar patterns, sometimes accompanied by a few notes held down on a keyboard. Their lyrics, for the most part, explore seemingly mundane themes, such as water or their daily routines.
Yet somehow The Shadow Ring harvested their ideas and honed their musical inclinations, authoring truly unique, strange, and captivating music throughout their 10-year existence. They were chameleons, naturally shifting genres, while still retaining their original DNA. Their albums are warehouses of ideas, wherein the surreal seamlessly pairs with the tangible to spawn a universe only the band could inhabit.
Like any confounding and brilliant band, an anthology cannot easily sum up The Shadow Ring’s discography, a body of work containing nine albums (including a double LP and a live album) and five singles. But Life Review, a two-disc, 34-track, 140-minute collection, does an adequate job. Compiled by Shadow Ring visionary Graham Lambkin, the album takes us through each period of the band's lifespan with grace and fluidity.
Three distinct phases mark The Shadow Ring’s career, each seeming like a dramatic break from the last. The band worked out their ideas on one album and mastered the particular style on the next; when they decided to step outside whatever genre they spent two albums exploring, one record would transition into a stylistic shift for the band.
Different influences also marked each phase. As the band matured, their taste progressed from the basic Forced Exposure finds into a deeper realm of outsider composition. Their earliest recordings -- including two albums for Siltbreeze -- exhibited an amateurish take on folk while revealing affinities for early T. Rex, The Fall, and Vibing up the Senile Man-era Alternative TV. After their Siltbreeze years, the band jumped onto the Swill Radio roster, shed their guitars, focused on composition, and delved further into the Nurse With Wound list. With label-head/Idea Fire Company-member Scott Foust's think-tank environment, they expanded their musical ideas, morphing into an icy electronic trio, assimilating bits of compositional technique from sources like Walter Marchetti and Asmus Tietchens while retaining the homemade edge of their craft.
Still, the band’s influences revealed themselves like temporary images on the retina; one must look closely to uncover their musical roots. Shifting from one style to the next, staying miles ahead of their peers, they sounded like nothing before or after them. Using Harris’ stern, unemotional speaking voice to communicate keen observations and surreal imagery ensured that no one could mimic their lyrical bent. Lambkin’s instrumental accompaniment -- be it performed on a detuned guitar, thrift store microphone, or with field recordings -- sounded truly unique with limited materials and limited knowledge of music theory.
Although they lacked any sort of formal training, Lambkin and Harris initially set out to create a dreary, bedroom-folk record. During The Shadow Ring’s earliest albums -- the Don’t Open the Window 7-inch, City Lights LP, and the Tiny Creatures 7-inch -- they tested the limits of their abilities. A few of their songs serve as a band workout, wherein Harris and Lambkin (jointed occasionally by Klaus Canterbury) probe rhythmic, instrumental, and poetic dynamics. Others provide a vehicle for Harris’ vocal interpretation of Lambkin’s musings.
On Life Review, eight tracks -- two of them previously unreleased -- document this early period. “Don’t Open the Window,” the oldest track on the comp, showcases the band keeping a small improvisational edge while fashioning rhythms from the same repetitive cloth as The Fall -- albeit with simple keyboard strikes and an out-of-tune ax, played by either Lambkin or Harris like it’s the first time they picked up the instrument. The band truly finds its voice on the very next track, the previously unreleased “Computer Forms.” A one-chord boogie on the guitar and crystalline xylophone percussion provide groundwork as Harris recites post-modern commentary on the band’s music. Lambkin’s lyrics showcase a Ulysses-esque narrative flow, beginning with the protagonist turning the knob on a faucet and thinking about writing music. He proceeds to lay out his thoughts, discussing furniture, giving advice to future musicians, and describing a stuffed frog.
Although they found instrumental footing on the Tiny Creatures 7-inch, they refined their sound on their second LP, Put the Music in Its Coffin, which finds them at the pinnacle of their early folk phase. Represented on Life Review by three tracks, the album is painted as rusty industrial English landscape with low bass lines, feedback, and cheap keyboard drones. The plodding rhythm guitar dirge on “Nocturnal Middle Rumbles” moves steadily above an underbelly of light, tumbling chord fragments. Harris describes a Kafka-esque scene: “Figure falls out of the alley/ Figure looks a lot like me in clay.” It’s a simple, direct statement accompanied by instrumentation that mimics the lyrical feeling. With it, The Shadow Ring mastered their initial folk phase; it was time to move onwards.
Tom Goss was recruited for their next album, 1996's Wax Work Echoes, and he ushered in The Shadow Ring phase two. With the acquisition, the band smattered drones and sparse percussion atop their rancid guitar rhythms. “Wallet of Wasps” rumbles along with gypsy guitar fractures and pounds of a bass drum. Goss smears space-synth drones over the instrumental passages, as what sounds like drawn-out notes on the violin emerge in the background. While not far removed from the selections on Put the Music in Its Coffin, Goss’ presence underscores the dread and anxiety that runs through so much of The Shadow Ring’s early work. Lambkin and Harris allow Goss to spread his wings on “Apricot Rat,” where he covers a simple guitar line and pot-and-pan percussion with a gray, droning smog cloud.
The band sanded down the edges in their second phase with Hold on to ID, the penultimate statement of their two-album stint on Siltbreeze. Focusing their lyrical and instrumental vision, they created a cohesive album that tells the tale of rising water and heightening paranoia with intertextual commentary on the band’s history. Recorded in Coombe House -- the drafty white tenement house featured on the cover -- the album captures a dark winter sound, with slow-moving piano and one-dimensional frosted drones forming around Harris’ vocals. Some of the simple guitar rhythms found on Put the Music in its Coffin crop up on Hold on to ID, notably on the title track, which appears in a live version on Life Review. Mainly, guitars are used as percussion, drowned out with gray electronics and pushed to the back to make room for Harris' vocals.
Lambkin’s emerging role as a meticulous craftsman is also apparent on Hold on to ID. A few spare piano strikes add multitudes of detail beneath the swirling industrial smog of “Wash What You Eat.” The tape hiss solo that ends the title track compliments the frightful mood contained in the tune: synth frequencies rise and burst along with each verse like a screeching firework. Although Lambkin’s lyricism began to blossom on the Mouse on Mouth single (also included in Life Review), it really comes to fruition on Hold on to ID. “The Way of the World” highlights the album’s obsession with nautical creatures. “You’ve got to watch the water that is in your life,” Harris warns. “Filter out impurities and try hard to find/ Aquavermin, the cancers of H20/ Stray fish that pass up through the plug hole.” Surreal and dark while remaining playful, the song contains a style that figures prominently on the band’s final trilogy.
While Hold on to ID keeps a steady focus, Lighthouse marks the sound of a band prying open their skulls and squeezing every last brilliant idea from their minds. The last album recorded at Coombe House and their first for the Swill Radio imprint, Lighthouse exists outside any of the band’s phases and in a league with Walk to the Fire, Twin Infinitives, and other classic outsider double albums. A much looser experience than previous recordings, Lambkin and Harris laugh, cough, leave in mistakes, and invite friends like Idea Fire Company-members Karla Borecky and Scott Foust with Harry Pussy drummer Adris Hoyos to fill out the sound. Guitar plays less of a role in Lighthouse, as a madhouse of tape experimentation, drums, synth, and piano carve the curvy path through each song. The minimalist tendencies and attention to detail that the band would cement on their final two albums rear its heads on Lighthouse, while vikings, a woman working for a shadowy government agency, death visions, a father-to-be, British noblemen, King Arthur, and a lighthouse-keeper all factor into the lyrics, which, despite their wide range of subject matter, contain keen observations about life.
Represented by only four tracks on this anthology, Lighthouse's scope and sprawling musical vision is apparent; it's an album that begs to be heard in its entirety on its original vinyl format. The jittery keyboard rhythm, slow-moving piano strikes, and ascending and falling synth streaks on “I Am a Lighthouse” take a backseat to Lambkin’s startling lyrical insights. Harris speaks about taking “a walk to where color does not grow” and “stroking rough hours into smooth minutes.” He comments: “I got depressed and amazed together/ When I thought how quickly time goes.” Harris’ speak-singing accentuates Lambkin’s simple but profound observations by injecting rhythm into his stern delivery. Meanwhile, the speed-walking pace of the background music mimics the psychedelic thought processing patterns in the narrator’s skull filling.
“I am a Lighthouse” represents a more straightforward side of Lighthouse -- at least for The Shadow Ring. The wilder side is shown on the anthology with “Fish and Hog” and “Arthuring Tina.” The funhouse explodes on the former, as Harris gives surreal step-by-step instructions for using a box (sample: “Three: Put someone in a box and cut them to twins”), while an ascending piano line gets interrupted by Hoyos’ drum bashes and a voice pleading “Don’t say no.” The album’s bizarre King Arthur obsession becomes blatantly obvious on “Arthuring Tina,” where, on top of a four-note keyboard pattern that occasionally gives way to negative space, Harris engages in consonant word play and silly commentary (“Half-a-dead Tina/ She was full of blood like us”).
After the wonderland of Lighthouse, the band ventured into the meat market of Lindus, a cold yet playful trip into the darkest region of the walk-in cooler. The album marks another transition for the band: a short jump into the world of minimal electronics. Although one must use very unflattering terms to effectively capture the mood of the album, it is one of the most consistently engrossing works The Shadow Ring ever committed to vinyl. Whereas Lighthouse painted a carnival inside of Coombe House, Lindus -- represented on Life Review by three tracks -- catches the band sketching out an alien atmosphere. Tape manipulation plays a prominent role in creating this atmosphere, allowing Lambkin to add bits of static and found sound to the mix and to slow vocals until they become something inhuman and almost unrecognizable. At times they sound contained, sterile, and stiff, as though they were recorded in an empty morgue. Lyrically, the album provides blunt insights into the human condition, comparing our race to urination and describing seedy beach people. Elements like footsteps and narration on “The Riverside” prevent the tunes from further drifting into orbit, while keyboards and electronics stretch out in the background like the steel lining of a meat cooler floor.
I’m Some Songs, the band’s swan song, turned out to be the perfect endpoint. Although it seems one-dimensional on first listen, it reveals its labyrinthine construction with repeated exposure, slowly morphing into a meticulously crafted masterwork on par with the upper echelon of avant-garde compositions. The minute details Lambkin mixed into the record -- like a clinging metal sound before the vocals on almost every song -- emerge like hidden treasure. He used the same backing tapes, played at different speeds and altered in different manners, on almost every trach, creating an aural sense of déjà vu. In a 2007 interview, Lambkin pointed out the pace at which he dropped a piece of metal to the floor during a particular song. At one point, he intentionally dropped the metal at the wrong interval. It’s a detail that one may not process right away, but it illustrates his progress as a composer and the lighter, playful side of his studious editing.
Flowing oceanic sounds and a steady cylindrical drone carve out the setting of “Man on the Land,” one of two tracks from I’m Some Songs that appear on Life Review. Lambkin crafts an abandoned factory of sound, as a soft, conveyor-belt drone and a ghost-wind flow through dilapidated hallways. Harris' vocals are slowed until they sound like Darth Vader’s recitation of shamanistic philosophy. It all solidifies Lambkin’s status as a top-tier thrift-store composer, using anything applicable to construct the right sound.
Of particular note on Life Review is “Veehay,” one of six stellar unreleased tracks on the anthology. Soaked in a rainbow spectrum of Tangerine Dream synth lines, the tune occupies a realm apart from most of I’m Some Songs' content. Once again, Harris’ vocals are stretched out and disfigured, but they wash over the drone, adding a relaxing feeling to the cold album. Fittingly, “Start Repeating,” a companion piece of sorts to “Veehay,” ends the disc. A spiral staircase of post-techno synth rhythms, the track adds a smattering of colors to the frost, all the while padding its belly with an airy drone and decaying organ breaths.
And, at the end of “Start Repeating," The Shadow Ring basically waved goodbye. But something has nagged at the band’s fans for the past five years; many of us believed Lambkin had at least a few outtakes stashed somewhere. On top of that, the band never received due portion of the burgeoning interest in avant-garde music that sprouted up over the past seven years. Life Review finally lends some closure to The Shadow Ring’s legacy with unreleased gems like “Stella Drive,” their take on Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” and two cuts from the City Lights era that are arguably better than that entire record. Even with all the album cuts, it's both fresh and exciting affair, and a nice introduction that will probably attract a wave of new listeners. Even as the final hammer smack nails The Shadow Ring's career shut, the band proves to be impervious to decay. What are the odds?