British avant-garde post-punk label 4AD has been steadily mining their extensive back catalog to find those gems worthy of a second glance, which for most will end up to be an introduction to a vital aspect of influential music. Most casual music listeners will be familiar with some 4AD bands, namely Bauhaus, the Pixies, Lush and the Cocteau Twins. But how many can say they’re familiar with the Wolfgang Press? The name itself is a window into the music they create: arty, literary and inventive. That is, if you interpret the name to be a combination of Mozart’s given first name and a method of publication versus, say the Austrian National Basketball team’s defensive strategy or a new backwoods method of dry cleaning. The Wolfgang Press started life as the very first 4AD band, Rema-Rema, which featured Marco Peronni on guitar (who soon joined Adam & the Ants). After Marco’s departure, Rema-Rema begat Mass (not to be confused with the Boston hair metal band of the same name) and releases by both are also getting the re-release treatment. Finally, guitarist Andrew Gray rounded out the original pair of Michael Allen and Mark Cox to become what no one refers to as the `WP.’
The sound of the Wolfgang Press, at least in their initial album release from 1983, is dark, moody and slightly bohemian. The Burden of Mules straddles the line between the morbidity of Suicide, the gothic stylings of labelmates This Mortal Coil, the post-punk turned pop of Depeche Mode and the angular strains of Joy Division. Despite these similarities, or perhaps because of them, The Burden of Mules was not well received, and is still fighting a pigeonhole label of mediocrity. I say `because of’ due to the fact that most of these acts were underappreciated at their inceptions, their early work usually considered `challenging,’ although it is those albums that end up having the most influence on later acts.
The opening two tracks couldn’t sound more different from each other, with lead off “Lisa (The Passion)” consisting of only an organ imitating strings, Gray providing a wispy guitar, and loads of layered percussion. The bass heavy “Prostitute I” then provides the first vocal track, with Michael Allen sounding as detached as Alan Vega and Ian Curtis as he sings about prostitutes being the `spice of life.’ This is all before we hear the title track, which sounds like it could be a long lost Pixies demo, Allen trading the detachment for post-punky Black Francis yelps. Those `spice of life’ prostitutes make a return appearance in the aptly titled “Prostitute II.” The song and its predecessor are somewhat more of art performance pieces than songs with monotonous bass and percussion lines over which Allen intones lines like “If you don’t like the taste, light another cigarette” after which we hear the sound of a matchlight. “Give it Back” is another spoken word entry with lyrics that resonate even today, 23 years later:
Too many soldiers fight an unknown cause
Into the valley of death rode the 600
Into the valley of death rode 600 blindmen.
The Wolfgang Press went on to become the longest tenured 4AD act, starting at its inception and continuing until 1995. As the times changed, so did their sound, but The Burden of Mules still stands as not only the beginnings of a great band, but as a definition of a specific time and place in music history. They trod the dark side of post-punk with a gloom and doom shared by many of their contemporaries, but it is their penchant for theatrics that makes this album stand out.
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