BAUHAUS: MASK (1981)
1) Hair Of The Dog; 2) The Passion Of Lovers; 3) Of Lillies And Remains; 4) Dancing; 5) Hollow Hills; 6) Kick In The Eye; 7) In Fear Of Fear; 8) Muscle In Plastic; 9) The Man With X-Ray Eyes; 10) Mask.
This critically respected (for the most part) follow-up to Flat Fields is all right, but, for the most part, it does not add anything particularly unpredictable or even «useful» to the Bauhaus image. Formally, the band cannot be accused of slackery — they bring in occasional new instrumentation (keyboards, acoustic guitars, etc.), and Daniel Ash is as keen as ever to try out new guitar sounds and fuss around with studio technology. But they have a successful formula now, and they do make sure to stay well within its safe boundaries. This ensures that the album, like its predecessor, is cozily coherent, but there is really nothing that can be said about Mask in general that has not already been said about Flat Fields in general, so let's just chat about some of the individual songs instead — in terms of favorites and «why favorites?».
Especially because this time, it is fairly easy to choose a favorite — ʽHollow Hillsʼ is one of the band's best songs, and, for that matter, one of the tiny handful of bona fide «goth» songs in their catalog, a slow, creepy-crawly, atmospheric dirge, possibly inspired by an Arthur Machen story, whose mystical bass line is amusingly similar to the one used on Nirvana's ʽCome As You Areʼ (coincidence or was Bauhaus a closet love of Kurt's?). It is not any less theatrical than any other Bauhaus song, so one is not expected to shed sincere mournful tears for the abandoned magical hills even if «so sad, love lies there still» — but Ash's clever overdubs and sound effects still open the door to some sort of a different dimension. Never mind the witches and the goblins and Oberon, the sound of it all is much more meaningful than the literal sense.
The only other song on the album that lays more emphasis on the atmosphere than on the beat is the title track — but it is still a bit too distorted and industrialized for my tastes, especially when the fuzzy grind of the rhythm guitar gets coupled with all the backwards tapes prepared by Ash. Midway through it becomes something else, when the grind is suffocated and a paranoid medievalistic mandolin-imitating acoustic guitar starts playing in a ʽBattle Of Evermoreʼ fashion — yet even so, it is not enough to make a satisfactory conclusion to the album, certainly not one that would overwhelm the listener like a «grand finale» is supposed to.
The remaining eight songs are all rockers, and, to a large extent, interchangeable — with few, if any, jaw-dropping melodic discoveries, and pretty much the same message throughout: «if you really have to dance or, at least, tap your foot to pop music, might as well make it dark, cool, and enigmatic». One of the songs is even called ʽDancingʼ, and its verbal listing of all the different ways to dance brings to mind a similar enterprise once carried out by Roxy Music with ʽDo The Strandʼ — yes, back when the odd pioneers of a new musical style were slyly taking the old pre-war genre of «let-me-introduce-you-to-a-new-dance» and adapting it to a whole new world of values. But in 1981, that world was already established, and here Bauhaus just sound like a bunch of not particularly convincing also-rans.
As for the songs chosen for single release, those were ʽKick In The Eyeʼ and ʽThe Passion Of Loversʼ, the former sounding like Young Americans-era funkified David Bowie with an extra touch of bass darkness laid on from the Berlin era and the latter being yet another clone of early Joy Division style; the lyrics are fairly well «gothic» ("the passion of lovers is for death" goes the refrain, after all), but the atmosphere does not even reach the creepiness level of ʽHollow Hillsʼ, let alone Joy Division themselves — Ash plays interesting guitar lines that have nothing to do with death or decay, and Murphy delivers the lyrics more like a beginning Elizabethan actor than like a person who'd really want you to consider the imminent link between love and death.
As you can probably already tell from the review, I am not too fond of this record. Where Flat Fields added something to the already well-formed world of «bleak post-punk», Mask actually allows to see better what that something was — a mask indeed, and a fairly sticky one. The heroes of Flat Fields revelled in their roles of sophisticated evil clowns, and their excitement at being let out on the stage was contagious, but already on the second album it looks like they are simply doing their job now, content with their wages and quietly sweating and stagnating under the makeup. If not for Ash and his bag of studio tricks, Mask would be gruesomely boring; as it is, it is still eminently listenable, just underwhelming. Brain-wise, the songs seem sufficiently fleshed out to deserve a minor thumbs up, but the heart finds no pleasure in most of this. (And just to make matters clear, yes, the album «rocks», but what sort of New Wave album with a warped, screechy guitar tone did not rock in 1981?).
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