BATTLESICK – The Mark of Cain (Feelpresents)
THE UNCLAIMED PRIZE – The Mark of Cain (Feelpresents)
The Mark of Cain can trace their origins back to a time of plenty in the Adelaide music scene. Venues like Le Rox, the (New) Century Hotel, The Austral and the legendary Old Queens Arms regularly hosted events, packed to the brim with brutal rock’n’roll.
Former Dago Doug Thomas’ Greasy Pop label was the focus of much of the city’s vibrant music scene, putting out great records by the Exploding White Mice, The Philisteins, Screaming Believers, Lizard Train, Twenty Second Sect and The Spikes. Much of the Greasy Pop stable was based on the Detroit-via-Birdman thing – it’s interesting that while Adelaide continues to share a cultural affinity closer to Melbourne than Sydney, its musical influences arguably owe more to the Sydney and the Birdman sound than the art-school aesthetic of Melbourne.
Formed in the mid 1980s by brothers John (guitar and vocals) and Kim Scott (bass), TMOC were part of those halcyon days of Adelaide music, but separate to the Greasy Pop world. John Scott’s interests went more to the brooding, heavy bass sound typified by Joy Division than the fast paced automotive style of the Mice, or the hard psychedelia rock of the Lizard Train. TMOC celebrated the loner persona (derived from John Scott’s interest in a Herman Hesse novel) and wrote songs with an obvious masculine bent. TMOC were (and still are) notorious for their intensity – it’s rumoured that John Scott once smiled during a show in the early 1990s, but no evidence exists to confirm this – and it’s likely that this intensity contributed to the band’s infamous record of changing drummers (around 14, including a brief spell with a drum machine).
Commercial success came briefly in the mid-1990s with the superb “Ill At Ease” album (produced by Henry Rollins) and the Triple J crowd belatedly discovered the band in the wake of its cover of X’s “Degenerate Boy” off the “Idiot Box” soundtrack. Tim Pittman’s label has now released TMOC albums “Battlesick” and “The Unclaimed Prize” on CD for the first time.
John Scott has always celebrated discipline, and chastised human weakness. This has led TMOC to the opposite end of the spectrum to the Summer of Love “peace, love and harmony” rhetoric. In TMOC’s world there’s the individual who faces daily challenges. Margaret Thatcher claimed once (without a hint of irony, or a brutal hard rock soundtrack) that there was no such thing as society, merely individuals – and while TMOC is not the musical incarnation of dry Chicago School economics, it does suggest that any community is only as strong as its weakest link.
“Battlesick”, released originally in 1989, is dominated by the band’s Joy Division streak. On “You Are Alone” John Scott intones in his best Ian Curtis manner while Kim Scott’s bass pounds with the relentless precision of artillery session captured on loop. The band’s (in)famous ability to find and lose drummers is illustrated first on “Battlesick”, with the album including three drummers (Cambell Robinson, Neil Guiver and John Rickert). “Attrition” pummels like a mad fuck, and the lyrics are almost biblical in style. The Biblical theme morphs into straight out Armageddon on “The Last Judgement” yet the music is less confronting than you’d expect. John Scott’s guitar wanders into territory that could be mistaken for melodic; yet you still can’t find daylight between the bass lines.
“Battlesick” remains a crowd favourite at any TMOC show, arguably the perfect illustration of John Scott’s loner literary theme:
Welcome home hero
With your head in your hands
Could be no-one understands.
(The irony of these words could be that they were written before the first Gulf War, an event which became catalyst for TMOC reforming, and something that made the sense of despair described in the song becoming real for many returning servicemen.)
“The Hammer” is the Sisters of Mercy after a year in boot camp, while “Wake Up” would probably cause your front lobes to explode if it was played loudly after a night on the turps. “Visions of Love” might almost pass for a love song, Mark of Cain style, yet you have to really dig deep to find unbridled passion.
The final two tracks (“Can You See Now?” and “The Lords of Summer”) on the CD are taken from a single released in 1988. The former has a guitar lick with a hint of garage about it and a drum attack that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and extracts every piece of gathered intelligence from your frightened mind; the latter starts off as a 1980s dance track before going on to paraphrase Herman Hesse. Each of these tracks – not always featured live – are profoundly different from the other music on the CD (and subsequent releases) and remain my favourite TMOC tracks.
“The Unclaimed Prize” opens with the pummelling beat of “Fire in Her Heart”, complete with John Scott’s semi-demented ranting. It’s a style the band built on – and arguably perfected – on its “Ill At Ease” album released in 1995 (there are distinct parallels between “Fire In Her Heart” and “Interloper” from “Ill At Ease”). The lyrics suggest a love song of sorts, yet this is no sappy Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Judy Blue Eyes” folkie-lust. It’s as if the warmth and tenderness of the opposite sex merely serves to break down the narrator’s sense of self and internal emotional structure:
Locked in a blaze of memories
Myself in a prison of hate
Mutilated beyond disbelief
All of her passion makes me weak.
“Drive On” in contrast, is probably the closest example of blind hedonism that TMOC have ever achieved, yet it’s not so much hedonism as introverted denial. It’s a journey in a car through a battlefield of human weakness and failure – not to mention death (metaphorical and real). “Wait for Me” is a model of consistency and yet more inner turmoil, “Long Haul” is a tale of coming back from the brink of despair – the imagery is military, yet the reality underpinning the metaphor could be any event in daily life. The tone of “R&R” borders on threatening, exhibiting a subtlety not always associated with TMOC.
The liner notes to The Unclaimed Prize explain that “Cripple” and “Shadow” (recorded with Steve Albini, and included on this release as bonus material) were recorded when the band was “between drummers”, a piece of euphemistic doublespeak that the Scott brothers’ former colleagues in the Department of Defence would be proud of. It’s interesting to hear the this material backed straight up against the songs with a “real” drummer – while both songs remain quality pieces, you realise just how important a brutal – and live – drum track is to the Mark of Cain sound.
“Tell Me” and “Viet Vet” were recorded in 1993 with Aaron Hewson on drums (the latter being a cover of the Suicide song; the topic being something that illustrates the Scotts’ interest in battlefield dramas). “Tell Me” has the tell-tale machine gun introduction and lyrics that openly challenge anyone to understand the narrator’s true intentions and feelings. “Viet Vet” sways like strange fruit hung in the tree of the jungle, vaguely reminiscent of the Lizard Train’s more intoning material.
The Mark of Cain tour earlier this year showed the band has lost none of its discipline and desire to succeed. TMOC’s style has been interpreted as misogynist, arrogant, aloof and even just too bloody loud, but its potency has never been questioned, nor the Scott brothers’ commitment to duty. If ever there was a musical metaphor for human endurance, its TMOC. This music doesn’t date, especially not in the current security-constructed climate.
– Patrick Emery
1/4 - The Unclaimed Prize
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