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I haven't written any reviews in awhile, but I had the urge to do so again last night, and thought I'd roll with Siouxsie and the Banshees, who have arguably been my greatest "discovery" of the past five years.
Siouxsie and the Banshees- Kaleidoscope
Sometimes, adversity can bring out the best in an artist. Surely, the events of September 1979 would have been enough to send any band into a tailspin, as the unexpected departure of drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist John McKay cut the number of active Banshees in half, leaving Sioux and bassist Steve Severin to pick up the pieces, in the midst of a tour, no less. The lineup had cemented their status as punk legends with Bromley credibility and a fervent fanbase who lapped up their acclaimed debut The Scream and its more difficult follow-up Join Hands. Nevertheless, the end of an era drew near, as the fitfully tense late 70s opened up to the forward-looking and culturally sprawling early 80s. In essence, the band used the literal makeover to make an artistic one, and after enlisting the services of former-Slits drummer Budgie and ex-Magazine guitar whiz John McGeogh, Siouxsie and the Banshees would emerge as one of the most potent and diverse bands of the 80s, beginning with the seminal Kaleidoscope.
As its name suggests, Kalediscope offers a wide variety of flavors, yet still sounds coherent. Immediately preceding the album were two singles that revealed that the band was onto something quite special and had suddenly found an ear for catchy melodies. "Happy House" bopped along to a decidedly post-punk bass line and McGeogh's inimitable, razor-sharp guitar piercings in March of 1980 and celebrates the lunacy that had come to define the band. For her part, Sioux showcases a newfound confidence in her vocals, oohing her way eerily through the intro and outro before unabashedly whistling. The single would prove to be among the band's most successful, peaking inside the top 20. Two months later, the success carried over into the subsequent single "Christine", whose interplay between the bass and guitar paced by Budgie's expert cadence unleashes a series of mixed emotions perfectly suited for a song about a woman suffering from dissociative personality disorder. Nevertheless, Siouxsie manages to make these intermingling characters such as the "Strawberry Girl" and "Banana Split Lady" fun, before repeatedly singing "Christine" with increasing vehemence, as if the person had become lost in the midst of her 22 faces. It makes for an absolutely cracking pop song, filled with hooks for instant impact yet weighty enough for lasting appeal.
The success of these singles paved the way for the adventures of the album to reach a wide audience. And what adventures they were! The menacing bass of "Tenants" snakes its way through Sioux's syncopated alliterations about their tendency for tenacity, before "Trophy" churns out an empassioned warning about the futility of relying on past accomplishments. Siouxsie takes aim at aristocratic artifice in the closing two songs, as "Paradise Place" skewers Hollywood's growing plastic surgery craze, while "Skin" scathingly lampoons those who justify their penchant for animal furs by a desire for population control.
Perhaps even more surprising is the flirtation with electro that is evident in a few songs. The dream-inspired "Lunar Camel" matches its abstract subject matter with an experimental synth nightmare over a cheap drum machine, Severin's foreboding bass stabs and some whimsical chimes. "Red Light" takes things a step further into electro-sleaze, with a sauntering sequence of four synth notes setting the stage for Sioux's most impressive vocal of her career up to that point. The way she slinks around the word "falls" in the opening line "She falls into frame with a professional pout" elicits a real tease indeed. This song marks the arrival of Siouxsie as a truly captivating, powerful whirlwind of a singer- not just someone who can entertain, but rather an artist capable of completely commanding an audience with her presence.
As impressive as these songs are, they still offer little preparation for the next great step in the band's journey- the Banshee ballad. First up is the unassailable glory of "Hybrid", which starts with some out-of-tune guitars that gradually come into tune quite poignantly as Steve Severin soars through a beautifully melodic bass line and Budgie pours his heart out in his drumming, paving the way for Siouxsie to paint this truly touching portrait of love- an epic love hyperballad that could have very well inspired "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs decades later. The nearly atonal nature of her voice present on the first two albums shrieks with a new-found depth at the end, proving to be a real show-stopper, before caving in to the emotional exhaustion on a final muted, perfect chorus. Amazing as this is, it is topped by "Desert Kisses", because sometimes the memory of a love lost is more powerful than love itself. Drenched in lonely yearning, this song finds John McGeogh at the very peak of his guitar prowess and Steve Severin sweeping along the upper register of the bass to set the stage for a melody to end all melodies that Sioux sings with complete conviction- the realization that her lover is no longer with her giving way to some truly amazing lyrics: "Thrashed and spat back at the ocean, But there was nothing, no commotion. Just my lonely stupid notions, Trapped again in still life motion." I know that I have gushed with superlatives already, but incandescent ballads like "Desert Kisses" are the reason why ballads exist- they capture the grandeur and power of human emotion better than any other.
As easy as it would have been for Siouxsie and Steve to round up some other musicians to churn out some more jagged punk, or even to call it quits, it is with Kaleidoscope that the Banshees emerged as a band capable of anything. The fruits of this new lineup would yield more great results: 1980 also saw the arrival of "Israel", an orphaned single adopted for the Kaleidoscope remaster that is so surreal, addictive and alien that it warrants a multi-paragraph review in its own right, while Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse would complete a sort of trilogy that would see the band continue to evolve, tackling many styles and incorporating a diverse range of instruments with remarkable ability. In fact, these albums would trump their predecessors by forging what would become the Banshees' signature sound. As such, it is on Kaleidoscope that we get to witness the rare feat of a good band transforming into an unbelievable band.