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The Chameleons

Some simple and highly personal album reviews. The Chameleons aren't a well known band. They never achieved anything approaching mainstream success, but then that was always part of their appeal.

Script of the Bridge

The Chameleons entered a Rochdale studio in 1983, like so many other Manchester bands before them, to record a truly remarkable debut album. Regarded by many fans as their finest work, it's one mesmerizing song after another; an hour of spine-chilling, jaw-dropping music, guaranteed to make you wonder why on Earth you've never heard this band before. The seeds of legacy that The Chameleons are "the world's best kept secret" were well and truly planted here, on this stunning debut album.

Opening with 'Don't Fall', a crescendo of guitar and vocal power, the album begins its soulful journey in earnest with the John Lennon tribute 'Here Today'. The Chameleons' signature sound is one of washings of layered guitar, powerful yet precise drums and synth effects that bathe the whole sound just enough to give it the atmospherics of timeless serenity, perfectly complemented by Mark Burgess's deep, booming vocals. Another highlight follows: 'Monkeyland', building ever so delicately and slowing before ripping apart the woofers and tweeters of an unsuspecting speaker unit to voice the refrain "It's just a trick of the light...". Interpretations of all the songs point to overwhelming sadness, but their almost anthemic power transforms them. As you wait for the album to fall away and descend into 'filler', there follows the stunning double-punch of 'Second Skin' and 'Up the Down Escalator'. Completely isolated from any other bands, music styles, genres or times, it's stand-alone genius, a high point of that high point of musical genres they call Post-punk. Particular highlights of many songs, Second Skin especially, are the brief breaks, always supplanted by the forceful drumming, always perfectly in time. Such a simple technique always seems perfectly in place, giving the listener time to mentally exhale and take stock of the song thus far, to bask in its beauty. "No wonder I'm floating on air...". 'Second Skin' is, with the 12 other tracks, a contender for strongest song. 'Up the Down Escalator' offers a brief respite from the epic territory already traversed; a lighter tone and a chorus to sing along to, but by no means is it a "pop" offering. No such labels can ever be tagged to The Chameleons. They will always remain well and truly out of this world, and probably only on the fringes of the next. By 'Less Than Human' the listener is wondering whether 'Script of the Bridge' is indeed some form of greatest hits collection. Why aren't some of the mid-album offerings weak? Why am I not reaching for my remote to skip forward or back? There's no need. At a particular place and time in the late '70s and early '80s a handful bands reached perfection, and luckily recordings were made and vinyls pressed. 'Less Than Human' starts with perhaps the saddest of all intros of any song. That guitar is the sound of tears washing down the cheeks of every listener. The tribal drumming heralds the arrival of the vocalist; such an opening line as "I must've died a thousand times" may remind you of Robert Smith. 'Pleasure and Pain' represents the mid-point. What follows is the constant winding down of this musical tour de force. 'Thursday's Child' continues to call up lyrical offerings easily on par with certain other Manchester singers, but the undoubtable highpoint of this late stage of the album is 'As High as You Can Go', giving us a perfect wistful melody with which to walk off into the sun (single file, of course) before the darker nature of 'A Person isn't Safe...', which is awesome in its intensity. Of course, the album could end here, but the it continues to run, no doubt worrying the narrow grooves of the original pressing. Will there be enough space for anymore classics? Of course. 'Paper Tigers', the final driving song, before we say goodbye to The Chameleons. 'View from a Hill' can't be described in mere words alone. You need a stereo system, a soft heart and a wash of emotions. You'll feel the final song of Script of the Bridge. Rest assured as you do, though. They didn't stop here. Thankfully.

What Does Anything Mean? Basically

The entire second album of The Chameleons, with the exception of the short opening instrumental, is available in rougher radio session form. Thus, an interesting comparison can be made between the rawer mixes of songs on the two session compilations and the versions here. Did the band employ one too many production techniques that took away from the drive and power of the songs? Was the message lost in translation? Perhaps, perhaps not. The production here is in no ways at fault. Effects are not overused. The songs remain strong and strident; beauty is made more pronounced and the songs wistful by the sprinklings of electronics: digital delays and effects pedals. Liberal use yields a gentler sound than on Script of the Bridge. It's true, it's all in a softer tone. As though the songs at heart are as strong and harsh, being constantly held back. That this album is softer, rounder and more delicate than the first is confirmed by the opening salvo. Perhaps more a gentle release than a salvo. The gates aren't broken down with force as they were with 'Don't Fall'; they are gently prized open. 'Silence, Sea and Sky' is a unique song in the band's canon. A purely syntheic offering, very short and lacking vocals. You could almost be listening to an album of instrumental ambience pieces, but as it ends the next begins, with (thankfully) no two second pause. That strumming. That guitar. And so it begins. 'Perfume Garden'. The one song that represents all that The Chameleons were about? Perhaps it is. It's beautiful. So pensively sad and full of melancholy that you can see your life flashing before your eyes. All your mistakes and lost chances, but luckily you just don't care. You can smile as you contemplate.

And all life's fears
Can invade my ears
I can handle it

Gentle is the word. What better way to record a follow up album to a perfect debut than to continue with flawless songs but package them in a different mood? 'Intrigue in Tangiers' is aptly named. This is a song that could sit on either album, a sure sign of the subtle difference production techniques can (and indeed should) make. The songs are driving, but not overly so. 'Return of the Roughnecks' begins harsh enough, but settles down, constantly held back by the mixing desk. Perhaps the drumming is too low in the mix. The session version offers a more pounding drive to the track. Washes of effects set the studio version apart, but thankfully the lyrical message is not lost in a bathing of sound. 'Singing Rule Britannia' - As the walls close in? Surely a message for the leadership of '80s Britain? I can't say I care for such overtones. 'What?' offers similar songs, and runs shorter length than 'Script'. It's the lesser album, but it's still excellent. A high point is 'On the Beach', with its wonderful break two minutes in. You'll know which bit I mean. Such feelings are evoked on this album and nowhere else. 'Looking Inwardly' may perhaps be a best track, behind 'Perfume Garden', of course. Another track that loses its percussional sting in studio treatment, it still delivers in terms of uplifting beauty. The Chameleons were beginning to go places, obviously practicing what they were preaching.

I delve into myself ceaselessly
But I rarely see
What I want to see
Embracing the future
Forgetting the past

'One Flesh' is the last of the upbeat offerings. 'Home is Where...' is wonderful, signifying the closing in of the album. The tempo is upped, lyrically and musically. Any such ending is washed away by 'P.S. Goodbye'. A perfect choice, obviously. For so many reasons it's a wonderful end to the album. Compare it with 'View from a Hill' for lessons on how to end an album whilst remaining within the sound and scope of the message you were trying to put across. And has anyone else every voiced a message so eloquently? Never. Even 'Silence, Sea and Sky' is reprised at heart as the song begins to wind down. Count yourself lucky to be one of the few informed enough to appreciate The Chameleons.

Note: the CD issue tacks on their first release to the end of the album, the In Shreds/Nostalgia single. A bold move, and ultimately a bad one. In Shreds does not sit well after the emotional journey of the album. Program your CD player accordingly.