A Certain Ratio – The Graveyard And The Ballroom, To Each… & Force (reissues)

In the same way that there was more to ‘80s Rough Trade Records than just The Smiths, there was far more to Factory Records than the dominating narratives of The Happy Mondays, Joy Division and New Order.  Beneath the Factory umbrella also flourished a clutch of other talents who deserve greater recognition, especially as their influence becomes more pervasive in our omnivorous musical times.  So, whilst Vini Reilly’s body of work with The Durutti Column is belatedly becoming more celebrated through a variety of reissues and journalistic namechecking, it’s perhaps time that A Certain Ratio received a deeper rediscovery as part of the convoluted Factory saga.  Enter then, the first of three – chronologically-jumbled – unadorned ACR reissues via a new back catalogue home at Mute, to kick off a broader archival curation campaign.

A Certain Ratio – The Graveyard And The Ballroom

Whilst 1980’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom is very much a primordial period piece, originally released on cassette with one side of demos and one side of live tracks put down in 1979, it’s certainly essential to explaining where the band came from and where they would roam later.  With the studio side produced by mercurial Factory co-conspirator Martin Hannett, there’s no disguising that the band partially cut themselves from the same cloth as labelmates Joy Division, with Simon Topping’s dark vocal and lyrical prowl certainly mirroring onetime peer Ian Curtis, especially on the bleak likes of “Crippled Child” and “Choir”.  Yet there is something far giddier and more rhythmically convulsive at play that clearly reflects ACR’s more divergent tastes and freer lines of attack.  Hence, across the studio side there’s the imagined sound of Delta 5 duelling with Gang Of Four (“Do The Du”), a premonition of The Minutemen’s econo-jamming (“Faceless”) and fidgety This Heat-like warped grooves (“Flight”).  Amongst some reprised tracks from the first off-stage portion, the live segment also delivers gnarly Metal Box cross-references (“All Night Party”), rubbery pre-Tortoise post-jazz (“The Fox”) and mashed-up Birthday Party-meets-Throbbing Gristle avant-noise (“Genotype-Phenotype”).

A Certain Ratio – To Each…

Contrastingly, whilst 1981’s first album proper To Each… still retains Topping’s Joy Division-style vocalisations it’s a far more realised record, with the group galvanising into a self-defining sonic frame.  With the dexterous democratic interplay of Donald Johnson (drums), Martin Moscrop (trumpet/guitar), Peter Tyrell (guitar), Jeremy Kerr (bass) alongside Topping (also on trumpet duties), all stitched together with seamless yet manipulated precision by Hannett, To Each… is a tightly-wound yet hyper-flexible post-punk milestone.  Such oxymoronic open-ended focus leads us through atmospheric-to-squelching shapeshifting (“Felch”), carnivalesque voodoo (“My Spirit”), post-dub explorations (“Forced Laugh” and “Loss”), a Nico-tinged twist on the Tom Tom Club (“Back To The Start” with then-new passing-through member Martha Tilston on lead vocals) and potent pan-global percussion workouts (“Winter Hill”).  Although some of its still murky corners remain intimidating, some 36 or so years on To Each… sounds remarkably foresighted, fresh and worthy of significant reappraisal.

A Certain Ratio – Force

Confusingly skipping over 1982’s double-helping of the Sextet and I’d Like To See You Again LPs, the third in this set of reissues is 1986’s Force.  Featuring an expanded revised line-up (with Topping notably having left the group in the intervening years to be replaced at the mic by Kerr’s less leaden lead vocals), the album is undoubtedly a mid-‘80s artefact.  Being slicker and even more rubbery in its low-end layers, initially it feels too much of a product from its time.  Yet whilst there are points where Kerr comes dangerously close to out-bass-slapping Level 42, the saxophones veer towards over-tasteful noodling and the added-on programmed drum layers threaten to crowd-out Johnson’s percussive chops, it’s hard not to be somewhat guiltily drawn into the LP’s infectious songcraft and danceable moves, which in several places manage to cut through the period trappings.  Hence, the funk-pop of “Only Together” could be a likeable Little Creatures-era Talking Heads outtake; the Funkadelic-meets-New Order strutting of “Bootsy” carries a certain bouncy charm; the balmy “Fever 103°” beams out as an alluringly transcendental airy pop nugget; and “Anthem” unfurls as impressive ambient-pop-meets-skronk-jazz detour.  Such stronger pieces do indeed make Force worthy of some forgiving and tolerant listening.

As history lessons go these this trio of reissues from A Certain Ratio certainly reach into lesser-known and ear-opening past territories, worthy of some considerate re-examination.