The Greatest Post-Punk Bands You Never Heard

Post-Punk Mix: 54 songs, 453.5 MB, 4:23:59Interest in post-punk seems to ebb and flow in roughly decade-long cycles since its initial heyday of 1978-84. A fair number of bands emerged in 2001-04 that were influenced by the likes of Joy Division, The Chameleons and Comsat Angels, particularly Interpol and The Editors. In 2012 a new crop of young bands received attention including Merchandise, Deep Time, The Soft Moon, Wymond Miles and Grass Widow among others. Based just on an EP and a single, Pins and Savages both tied for third on the Blogs Sound Of 2013 shortlist. Old timers Killing Joke, Breathless, Viv Albertine, Kevin Hewick, The Monochrome Set, The Wake and The Distractions all released new albums last year, and Section 25 has one due February 26.

There’s even a fundraising campaign (ends on February 27th!) for a magazine called Post-Punk that would be published by William Baker out of Berlin. It looks like it would be a great looking magazine, taking a glossy MOJO-like approach to well-researched historical articles, and coverage of new bands. There should be a large enough audience to sustain it, given how deeply popular The Smiths, The Cure and Joy Division are, and the success of movies about Factory Records (24 Hour Party People, 2002) and Joy Division (Control, 2007).

Another movie is in development called Eternity Road: The Story of Lowlife, chronicling the cult Scottish band that formed in 1984 and released its final album a decade later — promise to expose “the greatest post-punk band you never heard”. Production isn’t due to start until summer, and if they rely on Kickstarter, it’s obviously not guaranteed to be completed. But either way, it’s great to see the interest.

Now to the point. I borrowed that audacious tag-line, because there’s actually a number of contenders for that title, “greatest post-punk band you never heard.” I’m too young to have experienced the originals first-hand. While I may have heard a few cuts by Joy Division, Bauhaus and The Cure as early as 1981 on a college radio station, I didn’t get into post-punk until 1985. By then I’d read about some of the bands in Creem and Trouser Press, and gotten some dubbed tapes of Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen. In college I focused on post-punk for my Fester’s Bucket O’ Nasties radio show. By then I’d been clued into The Chameleons, Comsat Angels and The Sound thanks to Jack Rabid’s The Big Takeover zine, managing to track down a few vinyl albums to play on the show along with The Teardrop Explodes, Magazine, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Pere Ubu, Gang Of Four, Wire, The Monochrome Set, Killing Joke, Virgin Prunes, Associates, The Fall, Public Image Ltd., The Slits, The Au Pairs, The Raincoats, Liliput and even (early) Simple Minds. By the early 90s, most of those bands were reissued on CD with the exception of Comsat Angels and The Sound, which remained out of print until Renascent reissued them in the mid-00s. Since then, rarities from Associates, Ludus, The Wake, Crispy Ambulance, Section 25, Josef K, The Blue Orchids, The Names, Wild Swans and The Lines have trickled out. While I knew I hadn’t unearthed every single post-punk release, I kind of thought I’d gotten a handle of the most significant bands nearly 30 years after the fact. But I was wrong.

There was still a handful of bands I hadn’t heard of. Seven of these thirteen bands were completely overlooked by Ira Robbins in all the versions of the Trouser Press Record Guide, were never mentioned by Jack Rabid that I know of, and with one exception, weren’t even included in Simon Reynolds’ encyclopedic Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. I could easily feature more, but these reflect the mood I’ve been in for a nocturnal, driving and intense sound, the original incarnations of “dark wave.”

01. Modern Eon

Modern Eon - Fiction Tales (Dindisc, 1981)Hailing from Liverpool like Echo & the Bunnymen, Wah! and Teardrop Explodes, Modern Eon put out a handful of singles and just one album. But that album, the percussive, foreboding Fiction Tales (Dindisc, 1981) is really something. At a time when their peers, including The Sound and Comsat Angels, were at the peak of their powers, Modern Eon’s album measures up very well. The band did not achieve any sort of popularity due to some bad luck with drummer Cliff Hewitt breaking his wrist just before they were to record a Peel Session. Rather than persevere and record their second album, they gave up and Tim Lever ended up with Dead Or Alive. The only discernible impact they had is that their influence could possibly be heard in Sad Lovers and Giants, though the similarities could be a coincidence. While there was an entry for them in the Trouser Press Record Guide, it was so unenthusiastic I didn’t take note (“…not an easy album to like, Fiction Tales does convey originality and stylishness as well as flashes of accessibility; occasional use of odd instrumentation and a good drummer make this more than just a routine genre exercise.”) I only heard them for the first time last year due to a mention on the I Love Music discussion board.  [Correction, I previously thought a reissue came out on Dindisc in 2001, but that was not the case]. A complete reissue with all their singles and b-sides is badly needed.

02. Breathless

Breathless - Chasing Promises (Tenor Vossa, 1989)Despite the fact that singer/keyboardist Dominic Appleton appeared on This Mortal Coil’s Filigree And Shadow (1986) and Blood (1991), Breathless are truly obscure. I have been actively looking for anything post-punk related in magazines and forums for at least 27 years, and I just learned about them in 2012, again through the I Love Music forums. Unless you were British and in the scene, or one of the handful of post-punk obsessives I probably know, you probably hadn’t heard of them either. It seems the reason is that they released all seven of their albums themselves on their Tenor Vossa label. Running your own label isn’t always a bad choice if you do it right, like Dischord or Merge. But from the quality of their music it’s clear that had they signed to, say, 4AD, they could easily have been at least as successful as Cocteau Twins. The band has never released a weak album, including their most recent, Green To Blue (Tenor Vossa, 2012). Schoolmates Appleton and guitarist Gary Mundy played together in A Cruel Memory before forming Breathless in the early 80s, rooted in the sweeping, anthem-like qualities of Echo & the Bunnymen and lush, darkly atmospheric stylings of The Chameleons. Their debut The Glass Bead Game (1985) sees them emerged fully formed and firing on all cylinders, while Chasing Promises (1989) seems to be a consensus favorite. But it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, from Three Times And Waving (1987) to Between Happiness and Heartache (1991), Blue Moon (1999), Behind The Light (2003) and their latest. Since the early 90s they have added more psychedelic, shoegazy elements to their repertoire. Their entire catalog is available at CD Baby.

03. Opposition

Opposition - Breaking The Silence (Double Vision/Red Sun, 1981)Opposition are responsible for yet another lost classic from 1981, Breaking The Silence (Double Vision/Red Sun). Formed in London’s southern suburbs in 1978 (demos from that year were reissued by Right Back Records as Lost Songs in 2005), Opposition could easily be credited for being the architects of the shimmering guitar sounds later employed by The Chameleons, had anyone actually noticed them. A listen to “Breaking The Silence” and “Very Little Glory” will leave no doubts that they were trailblazers, and the later cuts like “In My Eyes” display their angry power. Their greatness was recognized by at least one industry executive, as they were signed to Charisma records and released a string of consistently great albums — Intimacy (1983), Promises (1984) and Empire Days (1985). Unfortunately the label did no better than Breathless did in promotions, and all they had to show for their efforts was a strong cult following in France and the Netherlands. Marcus Bell and Mark Long recorded some dance pop in a side project called SO, achieving a minor 1988 hit, “Are You Sure.” They released two more albums in the 90s, broke up, and got back together and released the solid Blinder (Mrs. Jones, 2003). Breaking The Silence was reissued in 2001 on Netherlands-based Red Sun and is still available here. Now will someone please reissue the Charisma albums?

04. And Also The Trees

And Also The Trees - Virus Meadow (Reflex, 1986)While the majority of post-punk bands invoke the grim, grey industrial environments of cities, And Also The Trees, as their name suggests, focus on a more pastoral approach while still maintaining a dark intensity. Formed in Worcestershire in 1979, the band took a little longer to develop, releasing their self-titled debut in 1984. Despite touring with The Cure in 1981 and Lol Tolhurst producing their album and taking off from elements of Joy Division and The Chameleons, they remained unknown. Perhaps they were too gentle for the punkers and too post-punk for the goths, but to anyone who appreciates this style will find a mind-blowingly consistent body of work that spans four decades. Virus Meadow (Reflex, 1986) stands out slightly to my ears at the moment, but they remained incredibly consistent through The Millpond Years (1988), Farewell To The Shade (1989), and Green Is The Sea (Normal, 1992). The Klaxon (Normal, 1993) and Angelfish (Mezentian, 1996) were transitional but solid albums incorporating different vintage sounds and jazz. By their self-releasd Silver Soul (And Also The Trees, 1998) they had absorbed the influence of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. They’ve explored that territory with great results since then with Further From The Truth (2003), (Listen For) The Rag And Bone (2007), When The Rains Come (2009) and most recently, Hunter Not The Hunted (2012). One of their all-time best, Hunter… is just as good as anything Nick Cave, Grinderman, Killing Joke and Swans have done. It’s amazing a such a prolific, long-lived band could have stayed under my radar for so long. I’d like to hope that they have been comfortably sustained by devoted, semi-geeky following similar to fans of proggers Porcupine Tree or Marillion, who pioneered fan-funding by raising $60,000 for a tour back in 1997.

05. Sad Lovers and Giants

Sad Lovers and Giants - Feeding The Flame (Cherry Red/Midnight Music, 1983)Watford, Hertfordshire’s Sad Lovers and Giants seem to be the go-to band to namedrop when referring to under-appreciated post-punkers, cited as a primary example by the Post-Punk Magazine Kickstarter campaign discussed above. They actually had been on my radar for many years, having gotten a relatively enthusiastic write-up in The Trouser Press Guide. I didn’t unearth any recordings for my radio show in 87-92, but I was one of the first in line to buy the E-Mail From Eternity: The Best of Sad Lovers and Giants compilation in 1999. It’s a great introduction, but is just a gateway to the inevitable realization that their entire albums are essential documents of the era, and were finally reissued in 2009. Epic Garden Music (Cherry Red/Midnight Music, 1982) is actually a mix of their first singles with new songs, while Feeding The Flame (1983) has them blazing to full flight for an early peak, given that the band temporarily broke up after its release. In The Breeze (1984) collects studio out-takes and a 1981 Peel Session. The band reconvened and released the underrated The Mirror Test (1987), and finally suffered a lapse in quality with Headland (Voight-Kampff, 1990) and Treehouse Poetry (1991), but came back strong with Melting in the Fullness of Time (Voight-Kampff, 2002).

06. For Against

For Against - December (Chameleon/Words On Music, 1988)The sole American band in this list, For Against come from the unlikely location of Lincoln, Nebraska. Formed in 1985, they proved to be attentive students of the Martin Hannett school of production (Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Durutti Column, Magazine, A Certain Ratio, Psychedelic Furs, Crispy Ambulance, The Names), along with The Cure. Echelons (Words On Music, 1987) was an excellent debut, and a rare example of a US band that was doing post-punk better than most Brits at the time. December (Chameleon/Words On Music, 1988) was even better, getting piles of praise and rave reviews by the likes of Jack Rabid in The Big Takeover along with the Trouser Press Guide. It was a classic that measured up even to The Chameleons, no small achievement. The band went on to record six more albums in the following two decades. After a sort of backstep with Aperture (Independent Project, 1993), every subsequent album was generally an improvement over the last — Mason’s California Lunch Room (1995), Shelf Life (1997), Coalesced (Words On Music, 2002), Shade Side Sunny Side (2008) and last but not least Never Been (2009), their best since December. That band is reportedly working on a new album for 2013.

07. Lowlife

Lowlife - Permanent Sleep (Nightshift/LTM, 1986)We finally get to the band described in the PR for the upcoming movie, Eternity Road: The Story of Lowlife as “the greatest band you never heard.” But there is no shame in this #7 spot, as it’s certainly a close, perhaps arbitrary call on my part between the other great bands listed above. Formed in Scotland by ex-Cocteau Twins bassist Will Heggie and vocalist Craig Lorentson, Lowlife quickly produced the Rain EP (Nightshift, 1985) which displayed some residual influence of the Cocteau Twins, along with New Order and The Chameleons. Their full-length debut Permanent Sleep (1986) concentrates their strengths on their most consistent album, while Diminuendo (1987) reaches many tantalizing peaks, but with some of the ethereal songs veering into tuneless filler territory. Godhead (1989) is less consistent but San Antoreum (LTM, 1993) is better overall. The band broke up after Gush (1995), and Lorentson died in 2010, ending any possibility of the band getting back together.

08. The Passage

The Passage - Degenerates (LTM, 1982)The Passage is the only band in this list covered in Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 probably because they took a more aggressively avant-garde approach to post-punk as art rock along the lines of Reynolds’ thesis that post-punk was more innovative than even the 60s psychedelic era. They don’t disappoint, taking influences from fellow Manchester bands Joy Division (who initially opened shows for The Passage back in 1978) and The Fall and incorporating the full-on art damaged post-industrial electronica of Cabaret Voltaire. Pindrop (LTM, 1980) and For All And None (LTM, 1981) are suitably difficult and impressive, while Degenerates (1982) finds them the most balanced between experimentation and accessibility. Enflame (1983) delves deeper into a slick electro pop sound while still remaining challenging along the lines of Associates’ Sulk (1982). Obsessed with the colors red, black and white long before The White Stripes made it a theme, each member was associated with a color, and the lyrical themes of love, fear and power, for real! The four albums were reissued on LTM in 2007. They were the last CDs I bought at Tower Records before it closed.

09. Crispy Ambulance

Crispy Ambulance - The Plateau Phase (LTM, 1982)It’s easy to understand why Crispy Ambulance remained unknown. Despite early associations with Factory Records and Joy Division (vocalist Alan Hempsall once substituted for Ian Curtis at a gig and Martin Hannett produced an EP), they don’t have any hooks to hang your hat on, instead focusing on prog and kosmische influenced soundscapes and guitar textures, and some of the bass ‘n’ treble sounds of Public Image Ltd. Their debut full-length The Plateau Phase (LTM, 1982) may require some patience to navigate the murky atmospheres, but is rewarding for any fans of dark wave and post-Siouxsie goth. It’s been reissued on CD twice, the latest in 1999, featuring the single “Sexus” and the aforementioned Hannett produced songs from 1981, the amazing 13:03 long “The Presence” and “Concorde Square.”

10. Asylum Party

Asylum Party - Borderline (Lively Art, 1989)Probably the most obscure band in this list, Asylum Party are a French band, and Borderline (Lively Art, 1989) may or may not be their first of two albums. It’s hard to know, as there is no entry on Allmusic, only brief posts about them on a few blogs. I’m working on accessing Mère (Lively Art, 1990). One blogger rated Borderline in the top ten best post-punk albums over the likes of The Chameleons, The Sound, Gang Of Four, Lowlife, Echo & the Bunnymen, Magazine, The Cure and The Smiths.

11. Sort Sol

Sort Sol - Under En Sort Sol (4AD, 1980)Sort Sol originally formed as Danish punk band The Sods in 1977, releasing the roughly recorded Minutes To Go in 1979. In the meantime they got into Joy Division and Pere Ubu, and sounded like a completely different band on the following year’s Under En Sort Sol. On the strength of the “Marble Station”/”Misguided” single, the fledgling 4AD label reissued it under the new name band name Sort Sol. Dagger & Guitar (1983) was released on EMI, and featured American No Waver Lydia Lunch on “As She Weeps” and “Boy-Girl.” They also recorded a country cover of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” popularized by Kenny Rogers. On Everything That Rises Must Converge (1987), named after the Flannery O’Connor short story, they developed a distinct Nick Cave influence on songs like “Marguerita” and “Shapes Of Summer.” A 1997 reissue includes covers of songs by T. Rex and Black Sabbath. By Flow My Firetear (1991), they started reaching mainstream audiences, at least in Europe, and Glamourpuss (Columbia, 1993) became their biggest seller when the hit Danish movie Nattevagten featured three of its songs. Since then they released Unspoiled Monsters (1993) and Snakecharmer (2001), and have discussed reuniting.

12. The Stockholm Monsters

The Stockholm Monsters - Alma Mater (Factory Benelux/LTM, 1984)Like A Certain Ratio and Section 25, the long-suffering Stockholm Monsters were critical whipping-boys of the post-punk scene. Formed in Manchester in 1980, they signed to Factory Records the next year and recorded the “Fairy Tales” single with Martin Hannett. They had a fan in Peter Hook, who produced most of their music, starting with the “Happy Ever After” single that was a critical and commercial flop. The Miss Moonlight EP (Factory Benelux, 1983) was more successful, the title track a minor classic. Their sole album, the low-key Alma Mater (Factory Benelux/LTM, 1984) married jangly indie pop guitars to electronic dance beats similar to what made The Stone Roses rich five years later.

13. Nyam Nyam

Nyam Nyam - Hope Of Heaven (Situation 2/LTM, 1984)With associations with Factory, Peter Hook, Vaughn Oliver and the Situation 2 label, the 2012 reissue of Hope Of Heaven (LTM, 1984) was inevitable, if belated. Formed in Hull in 1979 with Paul Trynka, who would later become editor of Uncut Magazine, the band covers various styles like New Order’s dance music and moody rock. The reissue includes the original “Fate” single from 1982 and the 1985 The Architect EP. The Wake, The Names and The Lines could also have been good candidates for this list, but Nyam Nyam is the band I’d never actually heard of until this past month.

So will these bands forever remain unknown to a larger audience? Will post-punk continue to be seen as only intermittently fashionable that hipsters pay mind to one year per decade, or will it grow into a more supportive, successful subculture like doom metal? Doom takes a singular approach in distilling just one of many of Sabbath’s aspects of plod and despair, but not always the hooks. Similarly, so-called second-tier post-punk bands focus on dark moods and guitar atmospherics. Its longevity and success depends partly on the enthusiasm of writers, bloggers, and concert promoters who would have the energy to put together festivals of like-minded bands like they do for doom. Here’s hoping Post-Punk magazine finds a way to get published, Lowlife’s Eternity Road movie gets made, the reissues keep rolling out, and the bands keep touring.

Update: Hours before this posted, I got an email update on the Post-Punk Kickstarter campaign.

We were unable to secure the marketing needed to make this project successful in time-however we do have that marketing available now. So we will be relaunching immediately….With more time we will reach our goal, and this wonderful magazine will be in your hands soon.

Their new campaign is at Indiegogo with a more modest goal of raising $25,000 by Feb. 27.

Post-Punk Magazine Sample

Top Post-Punk/Dark Wave Albums Since 2000

  1. Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights (Matador, 2002)
  2. The Fire Show – Saint The Fire Show (Perishable, 2002)
  3. The Chameleons – Why Call It Anything? (Cleopatra, 2001)
  4. Merchandise – Children Of Desire (Jagjaguwar, 2012)
  5. The Fire Show – The Fire Show (Perishable, 2000)
  6. And Also The Trees – Hunter Not The Hunted (Resurrection, 2012)
  7. Killing Joke – MMXII (Spinefarm, 2012)
  8. Editors – The Back Room (Kitchenware UK, 2005)
  9. The Rapture – Echoes (DFA/Universal, 2003)
  10. Wire – Send (Pink Flag, 2003)
  11. For Against – Never Been (Words On Music, 2009)
  12. For Against – Shade Side Sunny Side (Words on Music, 2008)
  13. For Against – Coalesced (Words On Music, 2002)
  14. Breathless – Green To Blue (Tenor Vossa, 2012)
  15. Killing Joke – Absolute Dissent (Spinefarm, 2010)
  16. And Also The Trees – When The Rains Come (And Also The Trees, 2009)
  17. Crispy Ambulance – Scissorgun (Darla, 2002)
  18. The Soft Moon – The Soft Moon (Captured Tracks, 2010)
  19. Blue States – The Soundings (Memphis Industries UK, 2004)
  20. Editors – An End Has A Start (Kitchenware UK, 2007)
  21. Interpol – Antics (Matador, 2004)
  22. Killing Joke – Killing Joke (Pilot, 2003)
  23. Section 25 – Part-Primitiv (LTM, 2007)
  24. Crispy Ambulance – Powder Blind Dream (Darla, 2004)
  25. And Also The Trees – Further From The Truth (And Also The Trees, 2003)
  26. Opposition – Blinder (Mrs. Jones, 2003)
  27. Breathless – Behind The Light (Tenor Vossa, 2003)
  28. Sad Lovers and Giants – Melting in the Fullness of Time (Voight-Kampff, 2002)
  29. And Also The Trees – (Listen For) The Rag And Bone Man (And Also The Trees, 2007)
  30. The Chameleons – This Never Ending Now (Paradiso, 2003)
  31. Wire – Red Barked Tree (Pink Flag, 2011)
  32. Editors – In This Light On This Evening (Columbia, 2009)
  33. Magazine – No Thyself (Wire-Sound/Redeye, 2011)
  34. Section 25 – Nature + Degree (LTM, 2009)
  35. Bauhaus – Go Away White (Bauhaus, 2008)
  36. The Fire Show – Above The Volcano Of Flowers (Perishable, 2001)
  37. Interpol – Our Love to Admine (Interscope, 2007)
  38. Sort Sol – Snakecharmer (Columbia, 2001)
  39. Interpol – Interpol (Matador, 2010)

To see my full post-punk and/or dark wave lists, go to the List Search page and select the genre.

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