[Reviewed by Peter Marks]
“A change of speed, a change of style” – Ian Curtis.
Now this could not have summed up Attrition in 1988 any better. Moving out of their proven sound and into the bigger world of rock-based composition, they found me at age 15 completely unprepared. I grew up in a home run by parents for whom The Who, The Beatles and the Stones were all that mattered in music and to say they did not understand what Martin and Co. were about is an understatement. They liked it so much they confiscated my record. God bless the dubbed copy I’d made on tape, otherwise, I’d never have had the time to soak it in. Even amongst my friends at the time for whom Depeche Mode, New Order and the Smiths (notice a pattern here?) were the bands everyone else emulated, “At the Fiftieth Gate” proved to be too much.
This album was the actual beginning of what they’d perfect in the 90s through albums such as “A Tricky Business”, “The Hidden Agenda”, “3 Arms and a Dead Cert” and “The Jeopardy Maze”. Gone were the operatic vocals of Julia Waller and banished were the symphonic overtures which even somehow crept on to “Smiling, at the Hypogonder Club”. In their place were steady, sturdy beats and much more prominent guitar. Bowes alone did the vocalizing on here and despite people around me turning a deaf ear to the proceedings, I zeroed in on songs like ‘Milano’ and ‘My Friend is Golden’ with a vengeance.
They have never done an album like this again and while shades of it appear from time to time in their later works they do not linger in the bitter, acrid waters this record emerged from. Don’t believe me? Set aside some time and play this one end to end. You can approach it however you like, either through the original eleven songs on the vinyl or by gorging yourself with one of the many CD re-issues this album has gone through. The precision which would define them in years to come gets out of the gate (hah hah) spoiling for a fight here. I always got the sense that “At the Fiftieth Gate” could well have been it for them. There is a desperation which floats up out of these songs which cannot be denied, this was them at their leanest and also their most frenzied. Just listen closely, you’ll pick up on it not far beneath the clever melodies and ingenious word-play.
You couldn’t refute this as you played through what they had done on here. Even the single ‘Hayden (Or Mine)’ found them being swallowed up by the machinery they employed which they didn’t seem to mind or care much about. To achieve the mindset they did and still knock out classic songs along the lines of ‘Death Truck’ or ‘Two Miles Up’ was a remarkable feat.
There were no questions after a while from those doubting friends of mine about why I was so into this bunch of men I’d discovered who came from a place none of us had ever heard of. I’d play this in between the pop and pap of the day and the room cleared. ‘Oh he’s at it again with that gloomy group who make us uncomfortable so let’s go’ they’d say which suited me just fine. I have never been one to enjoy crowds or large groups of “like-minded” morons who are just looking to appease their egos, and so I’d go through this one again… and again… and again. I got to know these songs so well I could recite them verbatim while asleep.
Oh there were many other tracks issued by the band around this time also which did not make the album; and these, I have to tell you, are among some of my favorites from them. Titles such as ‘Lady Look Now’, ‘To The Devil’ or ‘Shotgun Dream’ easily are Attrition at their roughest within the confines of traditional song structure. Bowes isn’t the only one singing on these, which also set the stage for the approach those 90s albums would fulfill thoroughly. I play these ones often, I play them loud and even now for the most part:
I play them alone.
One thing which always eluded me about this period was information on how it was done. Yes, there were the terse interviews and the rushed one-dimensional reviews but the curiosity directed at these near invisible days of drum machines and dirges has never gone away. So it was that for this take on “At the Fiftieth Gate” I approached the man himself who was at the center of that particularly stormy era, Mr Martin Bowes. I’ll let him wrap it up.
“ATTRITION – At the Fiftieth gate… album… 1988
Recorded in Brussels with Ludo Camberlin at the Anything But studios..(underneath the Play it again Sam offices….) I have a strange relationship with this album… after the first couple of releases the band dynamic changed… i got together with a long time friend and then ATTRITION live synth player, Garry Cox to make this album and it was very different from the albums we’d made before… Garry brought in a more traditional guitar rock sound making this in some ways our “Goth” album… and no female vocalist at the time meant i was stretching myself more than i ever had before (Julia had left to join the Legendary Pink Dots for a while…) and i miss that essential part of ATTRITION….i have been tempted more than once to add female vocals to these finished recordings!…. but its a different album …there’s still the experimental roots shining through in tracks like “Interlude” & “My Friend is Golden” … i learned a lot from these recordings… At the fiftieth Gate, as the title actually means, was very much a step towards a self realisation…. at the very least a self realisation of how i could write my own music without relying on a band….
To this day i love and hate this record…”
Martin Bowes. Coventry, England. 2013
Attrition – At The Fiftieth Gate
Antler Records, Antler 078