thu 19/09/2019

Test Dept, Studio 9294 review - still furious after all these years | reviews, news & interviews

Test Dept, Studio 9294 review - still furious after all these years

Test Dept, Studio 9294 review - still furious after all these years

Eighties militant radicals are back live with their first album in 20 years

Test Dept: a Russian Futurist poster come to lifeTerry Tyldesley

Back in the early Eighties, Test Dept were the most radical musical force in London. Their live sound, never truly captured in its intensity on a series of early cassette recordings, built out of tape cut-ups and pulverising rhythms on salvaged metal objects, could be awe-inspiring. Long before illegal rave culture, their performances felt subversive in a way that attracted surveillance. One early gig in an arch in Waterloo was raided by police, who began making random arrests.

Certainly, their music was political: songs such as “Gdansk” displayed an uncompromising socialist agenda, but others such as “Drum and Body” revealed an artistic one. It was no accident that on stage the band looked like a Russian Futurist poster come to life. Their multimedia backdrops were way ahead of their time.

Bracketed with other “metal” bands, such as Einstürzende Neubauten, their musical influence seemed to have been partly absorbed into the underground industrial music scene, partly to have burrowed its way into the charts via SPK’s “Metal Dance” and Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” – roughly the same process by which the principles of “Riot Girl” became more closely associated with the Spice Girls than Bikini Kill.

What are they furious about these days? Pretty much everything

Their own recordings, such as the 1986 album The Unacceptable Face of Freedom, became more sophisticated as they introduced electronic elements into their sound, but opening track “Fuckhead” was about as far from chart fodder as it was possible to get. Politically, Test Dept’s strident militancy led to them embarking on a tour to support the striking miners. But some of the energy dissipated as the UK settled into a long unchallenged period of Thatcherism. Now, with the release of Disturbance, their first album in 20 years, Test Dept are back. The muscular torsos that accompanied those early years of thumping metal night after night are gone, but their radicalism remains.

At Studio 9294, a superb warehouse venue on the canal in Hackney Wick in east London, and supported by the brilliant Shelley Parker, they played a set that showed just how musically subtle their sonic warfare can be, on tracks such as “Two Flames Burn” and “Information Scare”. The deafening horn blasts of “Full Spectrum Dominance” which announced their arrival were a signal that their political concerns haven’t changed, but that the machinery of the surveillance society has only grown more powerful in their absence. Their striking video projections were not purely didactic, though – the spinning, sculptural, crouching male figure that merged with a running hyena, for instance – but Donald Trump inevitably made an appearance.

Whenever they embraced the dancefloor, on songs such as “Landlord”, Test Dept worked up a startling head of steam with the audience. Some of their music can be complex and difficult, and the vocals can seem like someone bellowing slogans in your ear. When I told an old friend I was on my way to see Test Dept, he texted back: “What are they furious about these days?”

The answer, on songs such as “Speak Truth to Power”, seems to be pretty much everything. Yet its gathering storm of rhythms can still smash its way through to your heart. Test Dept don’t sound completely unlike anything else any more, but it’s good to have them back.

Whenever they embraced the dancefloor Test Dept worked up a startling head of steam

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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