For Against – Echelons

For Against
Echelons

Echelons originally came out on the Independent Project label in 1986, and its impact was both immediate and lasting. For Against – from Lincoln, Nebraska – had put together an amazing album that challenged the supremacy of Britain’s engagingly gloomy early-to-mid-80s outfits (the Cure, Joy Division, the Chameleons).

Words on Music has performed a great service by re-issuing this album, if only for the fans who until now had to resort to making MP3s from their cassettes that they made from the Echelons vinyl. In a perfect world, this re-issue would reach a whole new audience of curious listeners.

The album’s moodiness comes primarily from the rhythm section of Greg Hill (drums) and Jeffrey Runnings (bass). These two produce a turbulent, stormy background over which Harry Dingman III lays down minor-key chords and melodies. There are occasional keyboards (remember: 1986), but they’re used sparingly and only to fill out the atmosphere.

It’s the guitar you notice first when you start playing the album. Dingman has a rich tone and a real knack for melancholy in his phrasing; a few years later the Verve’s Nick McCabe played in a similar way, only did so at much more mannered tempos. The tempos here are not relaxed. In fact, Echelons brings an intensity uncommon to this style of music, much to the credit of drummer Hill. But in song after song, it’s the guitar playing that adds the real color to the canvas.

In the opening track alone, Dingman goes from single-note announcements to REM-style picking to choppy chording to McCabe-style expansiveness. All the while, the rhythm section keeps things varied and propulsive. Across the album, the production sharpens the contrasts between the instruments, allowing each player his own space in the sound. The vocals are plaintive but not whiny or gothy (like other bands of the time).

Over the last 18 years of listening to this album, I’ve gone through phases where this song or that song on Echelons was my favorite. But what I’ve noticed about the CD release is that the title track, “Echelons,” strikes me as the most fully realized track on the album. It’s a pattern that they repeated on the band’s follow-up album, December, where the title track also falls mid-album and brings together the best elements of the songwriting found elsewhere on the recording.

The song “Echelons” begins by brooding. The bass carries the melody (all three notes or so) while the guitar churns slowly in the background. Here, it is the drums that break out of the mix instead of the odd guitar note. The rimshots and high-hat accents are brought high in the mix, as is the occasional tambourine-hit as the track progresses. The tempo quickens halfway through, and the ominous sound deepens as the drums and guitar pick up speed. It ends with the repeated refrain of “Someone somewhere waits for me,” chanted over repeated (offbeat) chords and tom rolls. It feels like a song about loss, but never resignation.

There’s so much more to say about the album, but the best way to experience it is of course to pay the good folks at Word on Music for a copy of your very own. By the way, the artwork and packaging of the initial pressing of Echelons was nominated for a Grammy when the album was released in 1986. So, Words on Music, how soon can we expect you to release other vinyl-only gems? If I could make a couple of suggestions, maybe you could pick up D is for Dumptruck by Dumptruck, or 86’s Minutes in a Day? In the meantime, thank you, thank you, thank you.