ILL – WE ARE ILL (Box Records, May 2018)
Review by Kris Smith
The internet reminds me that I first saw ILL live in Manchester in 2013. Their apparent frontwoman (Rosanne, since departed but credited here as writer) played a series of objects into the mic throughout the gig, including a handsaw and some kind of electronic gizmo that issued forth evil waves of industrial noise. In the background were vocals, drums, bass, guitar and songs including their just-released Pussy Riot-supporting single ‘Kremlin’, but it was clear that ART was centre stage – which is unsurprising when you learn that the band was one of several musical offshoots from Manc queercore artists collective Womb.
Seeing ILL again at their London album launch this week was to see a band making an equally huge, enticing, genre-defying racket and having genuine fun doing so. They write songs which are both silly and serious, and they attack them (as well as each other) playfully. You can make a case for pretension in art, but there’s none with ILL; like so many of the best bands they seem like a gang you’d love to join, but ILL go one better and make you feel like you’d be welcome: friendly if not quite family-friendly (unless the family in question is more Addams than Partridge, perhaps). Songs are introduced self-deprecatingly by Harri, anchored on Whitney’s gnarly bass, driven by Fiona’s death-disco drums, embellished with Tamsin’s guitar and shredded by Sadie (who inherited the aforementioned sonic screwdriver, and plays more guitar) while it seems like everyone sings; Harri’s keyboards add a carnival-from-hell/B-movie soundtrack vibe to the beautiful chaos.
ILL have cited influences from punk rock through Britpop, but there’s all sorts of post/avant/prog ingredients in their unique musical brew, too. You can hear some of that early-Slits defiance of trad song structure, but to me the band’s wall of sound evokes no-one so much as hardcore pioneers Flipper, alongside some slightly-more-overt Fall references, with perhaps Lou and Alice from Chumbawamba’s vocals on top [check Manchester-to-Leeds distance – Ed.] No doubt such touchstones could be way off the mark – they often are – but they serve to stress that there is MORE THAN ONE THING GOING ON here, not to say something for everyone. As with the live set, so too with the album.
‘ILL SONG’ is the introduction: a (mental) health crisis in musical form: “You’re putting stress/On the NHS/Sort yourself out, mate!” (Did I mention that this band is sardonically but unmistakably political?) ‘SPACE DICK’ is next, the anthem you didn’t know you needed about objectification in zero gravity: “I’m here for the science, check out my appliance!” (Did I mention that this band is *funny*? Check out the song’s brilliant DIY youtube vid.) The album returns to terra firma/firmer terror with the dance-y, indicatively-entitled ‘STUCK ON A LOOP’ and the superlative, intense-yet-melodic groove of ‘BEARS’. I’ll be honest here, I’ve missed exactly who or what the latter song is about, but its intriguing chorus of “I’ll feed you to my bears!” is the album in a nutshell: a perfect storm of enigma, whimsy and controlled violence. And oh! The sound effects you’ll hear!
‘BUS SHELTER’ is a landscape of the lost souls you can meet in any city centre at night and a powerful portrait of homeless youth, interpolated with a litany of the impoverished northern towns whence they came. They chorus “where are you going to?” as the buses depart: it’s the album’s most moving moment. ‘I AM THE MEAT’ swerves the album back into left-field, keeping matters unsettled, before 9 minute epic ‘SLITHERING LIZARDS’ crawls into view: “I’m so busy/My life is not pretty/I wake in my dreams/As my teeth are all crumbling down”; if this song isn’t an allegory of Brexit Britain, its carcass picked clean by Tory austerity, I’ll eat my deluxe-edition Stooges albums. It climaxes with a chant of “Shut them down/Lock them out/Give them guns/Kill their sons!” a Lou Reed-esque verse that also recalls the ambiguously-targeted vitriol of early Clash lyrics, an influence evidenced by Whitney’s stencilled bass guitar.
‘POWER’ follows, another unsettling, witchily-hypnotic groove, the band demonstrating by now a solid gift for channelling pure noise that makes me want to segue this record into something/everything by Crime or Pere Ubu or Faust. After 40 minutes of pummeling, righteous vitality, the album peaks with the furious ‘HYSTERIA’, an almost Crass-style rant linking patriarchal history to the contemporary reality that church and state still seek control of women’s bodies, globally, from the US to Russia to Eire to China.
ILL are an all-female group, a fact that’s both irrelevant and inescapable given the fiercely feminist politics of this material. You could connect the band via fellow Womb member Debbie Sharp (also of earlier riot grrrl band Valerie) to a barely-sketched history of the UK underground, or trace their defiantly-uncommercial style through an alternate postpunk canon: LiLiPUT, Androids of Mu, Hagar the Womb, Witchknot, Gertrude, Slum Of Legs. ILL sound too focused to care about anything of the sort, but in my view? As special as it can undoubtedly feel to be in on a secret, perhaps the time has come for this music to go overground. It’s time to get ILL.
In 1968, German activists SPK pathologised alienated society as the source and essence of poor health; they vowed to “turn illness into a weapon!” Fifty years on, with this album, ILL have done just that.
‘WE ARE ILL’ is out now on Box Records.