Unspun Heroes – The Sound, ‘From The Lions Mouth’

Jonathan Garrett takes the helm for the latest in our Unspun Heroes series, taking a look at The Sound’s underrated 1981 album ‘From The Lions Mouth’

Some burn out. Others fade away. Then there are those, like The Sound, who never get the chance to do either. Fronted by the mercurial Adrian Borland, the south London post-punk outfit eluded the attention of almost everyone in their day while peers like Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen (with whom they shared a label – Korova) were elevated to the status of gods among men. Yet the band still somehow managed, against all cruel indifference, to soldier on for nearly a decade and release five studio albums, none stronger than the one that turns 30 this year, ‘From The Lions Mouth’.

Despite its age, The Sound’s sophomore record still stands as a ferocious, vital document. Coming off the broad political sloganeering of their 1980 debut ‘Jeopardy’, ‘…Lions Mouth”s probing introspection can be a jarring, discomfiting listen at first. The lyrics, cut from the same cloth as Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ or the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’, are both unsparing and unrelentingly bleak, in case song titles like “Skeletons” and “New Dark Age” didn’t provide the tipoff. But unlike many of his peers and as Andy Gill astutely pointed out in the original ’81 NME review, Borland was careful to avoid “pessimistic wallowing.” Indeed, the triumphant urgency of tracks like ‘Sense of Purpose’ [below] and ‘Contact the Fact’ belie their lyrical despondence, with Borland’s searing fretwork and Max Mayers’ sharp synth lines acting as shots of adrenaline throughout.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QASCZy0E9L8

And it’s this tension—between Borland’s dark worldview and his undeniable gift for melody—that makes ‘…Lions Mouth’ such a compelling, wrenching listen: The Sound walk the tightrope for over 40 minutes without managing to fall to either side. Of course, knowing what came after, it’s hard to resist the urge to read into Borland’s lyrics. Borland would suffer a well-documented, prolonged bout with mental illness, ending when he threw himself in front of a train in 1999. Drummer Michael Dudley claims that the signs weren’t apparent and the band didn’t become “worried until around about ’85 or ’86,” but lines like “You can take what you want from me / Because I know you hate it when I’m crazy” (‘Contact the Fact’) and “When you reach the end of your tether / it’s because it wasn’t strong enough” (‘Winning’) leave little doubt that Borland was already wrestling demons of some description during the album’s writing sessions.

Some will certainly be drawn to the album in the hopes for some window into Borland’s troubled mental state, but ‘From The Lions Mouth’ isn’t designed to reward morbid curiosity. What’s so striking in listening all these years later – even during the record’s darkest moments – is how alive it sounds. Borland may be long gone, but ‘From The Lions Mouth’ is nothing short of bracingly immediate.

Sadly, The Sound and their finest release have remained largely undiscovered, relegated to a mere historical footnote. While the band’s entire Korova catalogue was issued for the first time on CD in 2002 by Renascent, the albums are no longer available for direct purchase. iTunes does not carry the digital downloads, and the vinyl records appear on eBay sporadically at best. On its 30th anniversary, ‘From The Lions Mouth’ – and indeed The Sound – deserves a better fate.

Unspun Heroes is a blog series on NME.COM. Previous posts include:
Mclusky, ‘Mclusky Do Dallas’

Brian Eno and David Byrne, ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’

Artery, ‘Oceans’