In 1977, Martin Bramah packed up his guitar and joined the punk legions as a founding member of the Fall. But after a while, he must have felt like he joined the wrong regiment, one where the commander is Erwin Rommel with a bad speed habit who has also somehow convinced himself that he is H. P. Lovecraft in Reformation times. No wonder Bramah's next band, the Blue Orchids, sounded so exuberant: In 1979, he knew that he could just as well be back on the other side of Manchester, desecrating the corpses of dead guitars on Dragnet or some other unspeakable universe in Mark E. Smith's head. The same chaotic exuberance that Bramah and keyboardist Una Baines contributed to the Fall's earliest recordings fuels The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain), a reissue that compiles the Blue Orchids' 1982 LP of the same name, two 7-inches, and their remarkable four-song EP, Agents of Change. But free of Mark Smith's yoke, Bramah and Baines developed a kind of ragged romanticism that an album like the Fall's Grotesque flirted with but ultimately smothered with one-dimensional (if inspired) nihilism.
The Fall eventually found a muse, at least in the classical sense, in Brix Smith. The Blue Orchids found theirs during their bizarre stint as the backing band for Nico--by then a sepulchral, drug-mangled mannequin. After a harrowing series of tours, the Orchids returned to the studio, and, with trembling hands, made the greatest mini-album in the history of the world.
The title track of Agents of Change opens with a shaky sense of hope, chugging guitars that try to wish into existence the possibility of "a beautiful thing moving in"--inasmuch as guitars are able to do anything. Or at least until "Conscience" bleeds into the frame with the scary opioid calm of purple orchids blooming up a syringe shaft. A prodding violin line becomes a door swinging on a rusty hinge, bad conscience and doubt blow dream-gusts through a haunted house--not the worst you've ever dreamt, just the most believable. But then the wind becomes sweet, and the fake resolve in the beginning becomes a real agent of change. Bramah lowers the chorus like a shroud, repeated, with a naked serenity: "Just touch the flesh of the breeze, and feel release." And you feel it, because the last song ("The Long Night Out") can only be taken as postscript, post-everything. Drums explode silently like mortars in a slow-motion war-movie battle scene, ringing guitars swallow everything, and Bramah disappears with a question: "Where do you go?" It's the best thing a band can possibly ask, and not something you could expect even the best band in the world to answer.
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