You sure don’t hear many people talking about A Certain Ratio these days, and it’s a shame. The Manchester six-piece was one of the first bands signed to the legendary Factory label, contemporaries to Joy Division/New Order, the Pop Group and more. They were a pioneering force in the post-punk dance movement, perhaps more so than any other band commonly associated with it. They toured with Talking Heads, who conveniently started to show some of the same influences shortly thereafter. And of course there’s the fact that they made some really excellent records.
Sextet is one of these. It’s a masterpiece, in fact—a mesmerizing blend of ethnic rhythms and ghostly production that really sounds like nothing else. Picture Chic covering Unknown Pleasures for a simplified starting point. But that doesn’t quite capture how alien sounding it actually is—it isn’t quite funk, but it is funky, full of slap bass, slashing guitar riffs and loads of percussion. It’s almost like looking at third-generation Xerox copy of funk—you can certainly recognize the original artifact in there, but the toner has made it all gray, detached and distorted, leaving you with an entirely new piece of art in its stead.
Propulsive opener “Lucinda” features the vocal talents of Martha Tilson (as does much of the rest of the album), and you can practically smell the pasty Britishness coming out of the speakers. She is quite possibly the polar opposite of the token soulful female vocalist, like Martha Wash kept in a dark basement for 40 days and 40 nights. It doesn’t stop her from trying, and in my view, succeeding in putting across the soul of the music. In fact, her voice is almost a perfect reflection of the music. You can see the soul in it, albeit through a fun house mirror. When she duets at various points throughout the album with the doom-voiced Simon Topping, the dourness is almost overpowering, and yet they seem to complement each other perfectly. Hey, peanut butter and chocolate probably sounded weird once upon a time as well. For his part, Martin Moscrop’s trumpet owes far more to Jon Hassell or 70s Miles than to any Motown or Philly horn charts.
As the record moves forward, the grooves become more and more otherworldly. “Knife Slits Water” features Tilson’s already-hollow voice run through treatments and all manner of echo effects for a truly individual construction that has a charm all its own. The fact that it was the single released from the album speaks volumes for where ACR were coming from. Elsewhere, the group take on (and suitably, wonderfully mangle and make their own) Latin, African, Brazilian, and Jamaican sounds and techniques for a propulsive mix that still manages to leave the listener off-balance, if not downright baffled. And through it all, impossibly, your feet will not stop moving. The bonus tracks (“Kether Hot Knives” and “Funuzekea”) take the grooves even further into leftfield, if you can imagine that.
ACR take the funk blueprint and add (or subtract) “something” to arrive at a totally fucked-up version of the original formula, and one gets the impression that they had no idea that it wasn’t right the whole time. Like they carved a square wheel, but somehow got it to roll and just went with it. To me, however, it’s that “something” that gets lost in the translation that makes Sextet so compelling. It’s fascinating in the way that one of those tiny “superdeformed” Japanese figures of Godzilla is. It looks like Godzilla, possesses all of the key attributes and physical characteristics, but you would never think that it was going to destroy Tokyo. You just hold it in the palm of your hand and marvel at the craft and ingenuity of it; the distortion is the key. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.
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