Light Asylum Light Asylum(Mexican Summer) Buy it from Insound
It's hard to think of the last time a (really quite enjoyable) pop record worked so hard at making a bad first impression. If Light Asylum's non-sensical name wasn't bad enough, their eponymous debut has also been lumbered with some pretty off-putting artwork: initially the cover of Joy Division's Closer... IN SPACE!, now a so-gloomy-it's-practically-monochrome photograph apparently catching frontwoman Shannon Funchess in a recreation of Jenny Saville's Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face). (Although the music alluded to with those artistic references does give some idea of the duo's generally gloomy disposition). And then there's opening track, Hour Fortress, which is just a mess right from the title downwards. Sure, the pummelling, yet slightly tinny, beat that opens it is fine, if slightly obnoxious, but the rest? Ugh. Funchess comes in completely off-key and stays that way. With Light Asylum unashamedly aiming for the 80's synth pop revival tag there is a chance that they were attempting to recreate music in the manner in which many of us listened to it in that decade: in that flat moan created by a walkman with rapidly dying batteries, but such arguments would be a bit of stretch.
Fortunately, once that's over with, the rest of the album proves to be far more entertaining, in a very melodramatic sort of way. Much has been made of Funchess' supposed similarity to Grace Jones (although, it turns out, more in energy and attitude than voice) but it's almost as if there's a similar amount of another, it must be said slightly unhinged, icon of Black womanhood in her. As if following the advice of Tyra Banks, she's learned to channel her inner "fierceness", and it's something she does it a lot, as when she's not snarling her words she's outright bellowing them, thus lending something of an urgency to proceedings, even if it's not actually clear what she's actually getting at. Some bits are about religion; whether bad, such as the as-musically-brilliant-as-it-is-horribly-titled Pope Will Roll (a tenner says it'll be used in an advert for Barclaycard's contactless payment system before the year is out, what with its strategically placed "Charge me like a credit card, charge me" chorus); or good, as in the form of A Certain Someone, recycled here from their first EP, which, with its praise the heavens style exclamation "To know him, is to love him" is surely about Jesus (what's less clear is why there's a horse running around in the background, but that does make for an interesting quirk at least).
Otherwise: no idea, but whatever she's getting at it, it sounds important. Although this might have something to do with the early New Order/Depeche Mode style brutalist structures that her partner in crime Bruno Coviello devises to underpin her proclamations (not that that's all he does: Angel Tongue sees him make a so convincing it might actually be stealing attempt at Kraftwerk's territory). It used to be the case that cultural credibility meant conveying issues of deathly importance, but in a flippant I-can't-actually-remember-if-I'm-being-sarcastic-anymore manner, but Light Asylum might be subscribing to a more recent trend: the Interpol-pioneered incomprehensible nonsense delivered as stony-faced as possible movement.
Not that it really matters though as, truthfully, Light Asylum works best if approached as a work of fantastic campness; after all, this would explain the whip-cracking sound effects on IPC. And this is no bad thing, as the sense of the ludicrously tragic was sadly rather at odds with Gen X/Y irony and so has been sadly missing from mainstream culture for decades now. As a result, there will no doubt be many who find the album excruciatingly tasteless (or to be kinder, tragically ludicrous), but, even so, Light Asylum does make for an excellent argument that Shannon Funchess should be crowned as this generation's very own larger-than-life, slightly scary, disco diva. Long may her reign continue.3 May, 2012 - 10:16 — Mark Davison