Two weeks ago, Wire released Red Barked Tree, once again proving their viability as a contemporary band, 30 years after their prime. Gang of Four, who came up in the same scene and strove for a similar brand of smart, prickly post-punk, has a little harder time with the transition to modernity on Content, a weirdly anachronistic album that retains some of the band’s signature qualities while landing on a strange new sound.
Then again, Wire has been sporadically putting out material throughout the last three decades; this is Gang of Four’s first effort in 16 years, and only their third in the last 28. This might partially explain why their newest work, issued as a 10-track, 35-minute outburst, sounds like it belongs somewhere in the late ‘90s. Full of big drums, clunky electronic flourishes, and chugga-chugga guitar breaks, it’s heavier than the band’s ‘80s output and also far clumsier. Yet a little time reveals an album that, if not insistently wry and cool, still has a strong melodic backbone and a similarly intelligent lyrical focus.
In fact, it’s often stunning how uncool Content sounds. It opens with “She Said,” where cheesy guitar atmospherics create a tone that aims for cold aloofness, but ends up sounding like warmed-over industrial rock. “A Fruitfly in the Beehive” fares much better with a more restrained approach, but still seems weirdly stodgy. These, however, are not signs that the band has lost it, only indicators of a kind of newfound fogeyeness, which at least doesn’t involve depressing retreads or trips into dreary genre exploitation.
Further to Gang of Four’s credit, the album feels like a true expression of something, not wedged in the band’s glory days or of the moment, but the exact product they intended to make. There’s a definite coherence to the progression of the songs, which at times sound like variations on Nine Inch Nails or late-era Smashing Pumpkins, still remaining deliciously abstract in their sardonic lyrical bent. Content may not be current or especially brilliant, but it’s a relatively strong product from a group clearly devoted to making music on their own terms.