THE BATS: FEAR OF GOD (1991)
1) Boogey Man; 2) The Black And The Blue; 3) Dancing As The Boat Goes Down; 4) The Old Ones; 5) Hold All The Butter; 6) Fear Of God; 7) It's A Lie; 8) Straight Image; 9) Watch The Walls; 10) You Know We Shouldn't; 11) Jetsam; 12) The Looming Past.
On a strictly song-by-song basis, Fear Of God just might be The Bats' greatest album, narrowly beating out Daddy's Highway. The life-giving formula remains intact, but the overall impression is that they gave it their best by tightening the screws with all remaining strength — as a result, the riffs are sometimes sharper, the choruses occasionally memorable on-the-spot, and the sound, without losing any of its jangle foundation, is toughened and more «rock-bound». Some of the songs are, in fact, closer to that very early «jangle-punk» style captured on ʽMade Up In Blueʼ, and this gives the record a mildly darker tinge. And dark is good, as we know.
Above all, my own personal favorite Bats song is here: ʽDancing As The Boat Goes Downʼ is as «doom-laden» as this band ever got. The alarming guitar ring, the ominous viola dance (provided by guest star Alan Starrett, replacing Alastair Galbraith in the status of «our regular guest guy to do the bowing»), and the perfectly phrased deterministic chorus — what is this, Robert Scott preaching about the imminence of the end? And being fairly convincing, too, without having to resort to dark basslines and dreary gravel-voiced intonations? This is by no means «happy» music, but it is not «obnoxiously depressing» music, either. Very good stuff.
The only other tune on the album to share the worried grimness of ʽDancingʼ is the title track — a deeply paranoid love song, rather than having anything to do with stances on religion; this one does have a dark bassline, and a fuzzier rhythm guitar as well, but is not as effective as ʽDancingʼ because the chorus is not nearly as catchy. We couldn't really rave about a generally «serious» or «mature» tone of the album as a whole just because it happens to have the words ʽfearʼ and ʽGodʼ rather than ʽDaddyʼ in its title. Yet on the other hand, even the «lighter» songs also frequently give the impression of being more «mature», if by «mature» we mean «accomplished» or «requiring a little bit more time to bring them up to quality level».
Thus, the single ʽBoogey Manʼ opens with their purest-sounding set of twin guitar chords so far, spun in a pretty revolving loop together with the vocal verse melody, with the chorus providing, as its «counterpoint», yet another such loop in a different tonality — everything perfectly coordinated, if not altogether deeply emotional. The accordeon and organ flourishes on ʽThe Old Onesʼ nicely shadow the caressing vocal harmonies. On ʽStraight Imageʼ, the rhythm guitar is put in banjo mode, creating a particularly «busy» melody for the verses that contrasts with the melodic folk-pop line of the bridge — two entirely different voices co-inhabiting the same song without imposing on each other. ʽYou Know We Shouldn'tʼ does a great job of amplifying its hook by having the chorus doubled by an equally loud lead guitar line; together with the power chords that triumphantly conclude each verse, this makes it into one of the band's most efficient embodiments of the stereotypical «power pop» ideology.
As before, though, the band's weak point — though others might think it their strong point — remains the lack of a distinct frontman personality. ʽThe Looming Pastʼ, with its title and lyrics about the nighttime plight of the protagonist who's lost the capacity of being in love, demands to be taken seriously, but neither the music nor Scott's monotonous vocal delivery really live up to the drama. The delivery is tolerable, and the music, with its zydeco-ish accordeon echoes, is pretty, and that's it: not a whiff of drama. Ian Curtis, Morrissey, or Michael Stipe would probably have had a thing or two to say about it. But on the other hand, you might say that The Bats are just playing it safe — for every single admirer of Curtis, Morrissey, and Stipe, there is also a hater, whereas «hating Robert Scott» would be a totally absurd activity.
Then again, «personality bluffing» is a part of this game, too: there must be a reason why Joy Division, The Smiths, and R.E.M. are all immensely popular, while The Bats have, for the most part, remained a New Zealand phenomenon, and it doesn't exclusively have to do with the fact that the average person in the Northern hemisphere is usually unsure whether New Zealand is a part of Australia, a country in its own right, or a name for a particularly wicked cocktail. As good as Fear Of God is, it is also smooth, even, and not very inspirational. But it also works every time you are not necessarily in the mood for inspiration — and that's just the time to catch it, enjoy it, and give it a thumbs up before that old «yearning for something grander» starts to set in.
Check "Fear Of God" (MP3) on Amazon