Music Reviews
Angel Guts: Red Classroom

Xiu Xiu Angel Guts: Red Classroom

(Bella Union) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

For twelve years now Jamie Stewart, as well as his frequently changing band of cohorts, have plugged away at the lo-fi coalface, releasing record after record of intriguing, tricky, dark and very rough around the edges experimental synthpop. While admirable, and rightfully earning them a cult audience, this work, in truth, can be something of a draining experience to listen to given how much of it sounds a lot like Suicide’s Frankie Teardop, a song whose tremulous theatrics were exhausting over ten minutes, let alone more than a decade’s worth of albums.

Perhaps Stewart’s now feeling that way too, what with him recently expressing doubts about the future of Xiu Xiu. Minds eagerly looking to decode his words, which somehow manage to be both veiled and searingly honest, might point to Angel Guts: Red Classroom’s taking its title from Asian cinema, where Xiu Xiu themselves got their name, suggesting something of a return to the band’s origins and announcing it as a culmination of their work to date (and their unlikely, yet apparently forthcoming, Best Of record doesn’t bode particularly well for the band’s future either).

The first impression of Angel Guts: Red Classroom is that it could be their most polished work, relatively speaking of course. The slightly tedious, deliberate provocation of the likes of I Luv Abortion is mostly limited to the titular instrumentals that bookend the record, not to mention the Black Dick video (seriously, do not mention it). As for the second impression (and the third, and so on)? Well, it’s pretty much the same thing – the traditional thing to be said about “difficult” music is that “it’s an acquired taste”, yet Xiu Xiu are so upfront that there’s perhaps a danger of their work being discounted as just surface and noise. 

Not that that’s particularly surprising, given Stewart’s apparent love of drama, indeed, much of the ‘fun’ in Angel Guts: Red Classroom is hearing how big, show-stopping moments have been created out of limited resources – a couple of tracks are built around Casio Bossa nova rhythms, and despite its waves of feedback, the diva-like delivery Stupid in the Dark could, somewhat appropriately, work well in a club setting (well, a certain type of club, at least). Mostly though, it’s through the words that Stewart yelps that uncannily never quite seem to scan. He’s a man who can make trying more exotic foods seem like a life-threateningly terrifying experience, as he does on El Naco (and kudos to him for being perhaps the first person to ever sing about the horror that is kimchi). Unsurprisingly for a record named after an erotic film though, sex is very much the topic of conversation. There’s something almost carnivalesque in its topsy-turviness; the frightened intonations of Black Dick’s narration make you wonder if Stewart’s ever actually seen a penis before, while Adult Friends layers its slightly distant narrative with the sound of pigs to create a sense of disgust (or disgusting honesty) at base, animal instincts. In turn, Cinthya’s Unisex flips this and, with its repeated stabbing yells of “no no no no no no no!” and “yes yes yes yes yes!”, makes its violence seem almost seductive, or its seduction seem almost violent.

At its best, the album recalls the wave of queer (and queer friendly) artists in the 80s and early 90s who used the possibilities of electronic music to express anger and isolation, or to gleefully celebrate their differences, which is something that we’ve been sorely lacking in recent years. In particular, the funereal march of Archie’s Fades could be the closest thing we’ll ever get to a new Coil record, and there’s something a bit Diamanda Galas about the mixture of pounding, irregular percussion, minimal to the point of brutalist takes on melody and uncomfortable vocal ranges of the likes of The Silver Platter

However, there are points when it feels like Xiu Xiu overplay this aspect too much, and that they’re aiming for shock value using something that’s not that shocking anymore; A Knife in the Sun’s listing of “cops, transsexuals, taxi drivers, homosexuals, drug dealers, mariachis, pick pockets” make it seem as dated as Walk on the Wild Side - a song that’s 42 years its senior.

A side effect of Stewart’s boundless creativity is that things can get messy, and (un)fortunately Angel Guts: Red Classroom is no real exception to this. You could argue that it's free-wheeling expression of raw emotion, but it would be equally true to say that there can be something a bit frustrating about having to listen to it. If Xiu Xiu weren’t so nervily impulsive there could be a chance of a real, genuinely arresting statement in their work, but instead we’re presented with great shards of material molded out of fear and anger (and a fair dose of playful provocation), and expected to make sense of it all, which is a big ask. So with this latest (and perhaps last) album, it’s still true to say that Xiu Xiu haven’t delivered a wholly complete work, but then it probably wouldn’t be a Xiu Xiu record if it was.