Finally, with From The Mouth Of The Cave, we find out who Gaggle really are. Since the twenty or so-strong all-female choir appeared in mid-2009 they’ve been treated almost as the intersection between choral group and performance art piece. The elaboratedly multi-coloured robe attire and banners reading ‘THIS IS MERELY A DISTRACTION FROM THE INEVITABLE’, not to mention carefully vocally-choreographed half-shouting in unison about sex, sexual inequality and heavy drinking, didn’t fit in anywhere without requiring several levels of comparative expostulation first, usually involving some combination of the Slits, the Mediaeval Baebes, riot grrrl and hen nights. Their full length debut is the point at which it’s decided whether the band are mere quasi-novelty or serious contenders for warped cult status.
Well, the first can be discounted pretty much straight away – nobody puts this much attention into what goes around the central vocal unless they’re committed to the project. Writers and creators Deborah Coughlin and Simon Dempsey, both formerly of excitabe electro-disco-post-punks 586, have created a set of soundscapes that, while never content to stop entirely in one place, are built around certain tropes not too far from the Animal Collective enclosure – buzzing and wheezing bass synths and electronics, off-beat percussion – that act alongside, sometimes against, rather than merely backing the chorus, ensuring it’s as much about creating atmosphere as letting a spirited, visceral gang loose in a vocal recording booth.
That’s especially true of the first three tracks, at stages in which the multi-handed approach, while never exactly able to be put aside, isn’t the ultimate point. The opening title track is built on ambient hums, synths impersonating wind whistling through undergrowth, uncomfortable squelching noises and what may be bits of looped percussion that sound like someone in a suit of armour wading through heavy mud. Coupled with threatening low harmonies of “Come with me….” it’s less post-Raincoats wall of sound than Dario Argento soundtrack. Even when the lyrics start evolving they’re joined halfway through the track by slowed-down tribal percussion and horror keys, before breaking into something of a groove for the last of its five minutes. That leads into the album’s two most approachable tracks – the attitudional single ‘Army Of Birds’ and the self-explanatory ‘Power Of Money’ are essentially what a modern pop song sounds like in Gaggle’s collective mind. The former takes references from post-Diplo playful hip-hop amid its buzzing synth and handclap rhythms, pledging all-together feminist power and strength in numbers; the latter’s loping reggae tint sounds like it could have been a Belle Stars or Amazulu offcut.
After that start the consistency level heads wayward. Gaggle aren’t short of ideas – the marked emotional switch of ‘Lullaby’, backed largely only by music box tinkles, is all the more pronounced for being done in bulk – but especially over an album based on mass vocals and electronic attack that’s not the same as making everything work well together. ‘Gaslight’ feels like an attempt to throw everything – intelligent drum and bass, freak folk nutsiness, criss-crossing attack mode vocals, soul vocal line voluntaries – at something that it can’t be caught up with; ‘Bang On The Drum’ works as either a Liars-like menacingly dark electronic stomp or a threatening call to arms but not as both together. Conversely, despite the “eighty years of misery” references ‘Hello Spider’ seems too normal and grandiose, almost heroic, to truly (if contradictorily) sound like themselves, foregrounding an epic string arrangement like a musical theatre closer. In such mixed company longtime live favourite ‘Liar’ works for its stripped-back nature, circling round its menacing call and response roundel coven backed only by strident, pounding but notably minimal drums. It’s also the most directly pro-feminist, rather than pro-woman, lyric here starting “How can I tell if my man’s a liar? before unveiling the details of broken promises, imagined response (“Tie his fists together, throw him in the river”) and stridency (“What if I find out that my worst fears are true?/Then he didn’t deserve you”) while closing in on its prey before a triumphant final “And now he’s dead!”
So no: Gaggle are clearly not just the curio designed to rough up the bottom end of festival bills that their initial exposure threatened to make them resemble. There’s a definite singular drive about From The Mouth Of The Cave, with more ideas then they really know how to assemble into a cohesive whole and then balance a mass choir atop. All the same, it’s hugely inventive in its willingness to go with such unique juxtapositions just to see what happens, and whether that leads to stumbling into curious pop territory or pitting electronics against each other, so be it. There’s definitely something in there for those willing to pick through the wreckage.
Listen to From The Mouth Of The Cave