Give Me a Wall
Dance to the Radio
ladimir Nabakov loved to rag on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or, specifically, Nabakov loved to call Dostoevsky a “writer of ideas.” It’s easy to see why that’s such a precise slap: ideas went out, like so many babies with the bathwater, in the big modernist storm. Abstraction becomes the enemy. Rock, especially cuticle-chewing spastic post-punk you can’t help but label “cerebral,” cramps up at the abstract just as quickly. Single nights out, a single, endlessly described girl, a specific place, hell, a specific brand name—these moments of absolute specificity are the germ for most rock songs. Start harmonizing about the “big” topics—God, home, happiness, the existence of evil—and you’re a harmonica away from a Dave Matthews sing-a-long.
So, how do Forward, Russia make it work? Gumption. A clear-heart, shrouded-brain delivery. A knack at keeping their abstraction just the right color of confusing. Even on the surface the album is a Rubik’s Cube: the songs are titled with non-sequential numbers (the first track is “Thirteen,” the second track is “Twelve,” etc…), the liner notes spill out like one big manifesto addressed from “Sepiata and the Plastic Surgeons” at “Homeless / Always,” the lyrics themselves are written out like prose, no line breaks nor visible, readable rhyme. This is a band consumed with both the affect and effect of presentation.
Calling themselves “surgeons” seems as apt a term as any. At their best, Forward, Russia moves like a well-orchestrated transplant team—lead singer Tom Woodhead’s talismanic howl rubbing up on drummer Katie Nicholls boilermaker clap humming alongside Rob Canning’s grounded, vulpine bass and the whole suite pivoting on Whiskas Nicholls (yup, siblings) and his streaming, almost infinitely tinkered guitar. It’s Nicholls and his guitar that anchor the band through transitions; his guitar goes from the pedal-heavy, planetarium eyes of “Nineteen” to pinprick-jumpy on “Seventeen” and the rest of the band follows along: Woodhead flipping from yawning gasps to yelps, Canning and Katie Nicholls ratcheting their respective tempos faster, surging to catch up to Whiskas.
Though the music itself never really spirals towards confusion—for all the tempo and studio touches this is still essentially torrid post-punk fated for dancing and destruction—it’s the knots in the lyrics that raise Wall from viscerally achieved to genuinely compelling. “Thirteen” opens with rhetoric, “We all can lean on figures and crutches. / It’s such an easy thing to do when you’re so unaware,” hovers there for a few beats, and descends to a libertine vs. father-state narrative (“‘Let her go!’ yelled the occupied pharaohs. ‘She’s only a lucky soul, who just so happened to break out’”) before rising back up into what might be described as agoraphobic motivation—“Until you blink at me / I’m coming and I won’t breathe at all.”
The whole album dizzies/dazzles in similar fashion. Anyone hoping to decipher the actual lyrics has to study the single liner note with pen in hand, marking off the lines where one song ends and the other begins, adding in line breaks where Woodhead stops for breath. The only concreteness comes from the music itself, their blurred, time-lapse punk slides the listener through hallways of questionable signifiers (“The failure of the Nile to distinguish black from white was enough to break your bows and arrows”), revolutionary guilt (“Walk away, you can’t escape from the guns that you praised, you can’t describe the feelings you hide”) and red guard accusations (“Lecher: Apologise, be sorry. / Apologise, for you wouldn’t want to be another lecher”).
Purposely going after those itchy, whelpish social concerns—How could you not have a band with the word “Russia” and an album title like this and not try and start some insurrection?—is a smart move. It makes their confusion engaging, ambitious at the very least, and lets their harried, momentous musical thrust cover up most of the gaps in their aesthetic. Though they don’t ground the album in a time, place, or even a persona, it’s their brain for social order, disorder and anarchy that’s the best muscle of all.
Toward the end of an album so based “ideas,” it’s Forward, Russia’s moment of dropped guard that feel the most human. When the suddenly repeated directions on “Seven” to “bring that Jolly Roger on home” dissolve into a murmuring, single-note guitar thread under a band-wide chant of “I know, I know, I know,” it feels better than an idea, it feels like catharsis.