Million Dead - A Song To Ruin(reissue)
James McDonald 16/09/2009
My earliest memory of Million Dead resides in 2003 when I accompanied a friend to the Southampton date of Pitchshifter's farewell tour (which, coincidentally, wasn't). I remember being stormily disappointed on learning that the initial confirmed support, thisGirl, had pulled out due to an illness and had subsequently been replaced by relatively unknown local act Million Dead (a name taken from a lyric in Refused's 'The Apollo Programme Was A Hoax'). Their set was dire; loud and disorganised, abrasive against the university sound system. However, as I held little interest for the headline act, I proceeded to lurk around the merch desk to introduce myself with a garbled opening line. Unbeknown to me at the time, that meeting had a major altercation on my musical tastes, ethics and pretty much everything else that comprises my passion for instrumentation today. I still own a copy of the EP I was given, with such utopian titles as 'I Want To Be Shot At (By An Israeli Gun Squad)' and 'Everybody Needs To Read More Books', signed by all members, including vocalist Frank Turner.
Just to reiterate, despite an obvious admiration for Billy Bragg, Turner's early musical career was about as far removed from his modern nu-folk persona as chips from potatoes (see also; Kneejerk). If you are one of the 16 year-old girls who insists on shrieking relentlessly in a misguided attempt at nominating yourselves as a mother for his offspring, in doing so preventing me and all others from getting anywhere near ear-shot, let alone view, at his current live shows, you were probably unaware of his former guise. If you were aware then you would've dismissed Million Dead instantly, and for that I am truly grateful, for what the band achieved in their 4 year life-span was nothing short of revolutionary, but only to a few, the likes of which your precluded thought could nay fathom.
'A Song To Ruin' is widely regarded as their most defining work. Recorded in 2003 at Mighty Atom Studios in Swansea with original guitarist Cameron Dead (later replaced by Tom Fowler, with Dean migrating back to Australia to be wed), the album's 6 year anniversary is celebrated with a re-release after an acrimonious and exhaustive legal battle. The nostalgia this decision has evoked in me is dizzying - this album not only acts as a suitable snapshot for the band themselves, but also for a golden era of post-hardcore that has yet to be replicated. Bands like Jarcrew, Youthmovies, thisGirl, Biffy Clyro, Yourcodenameis:milo, Hell is For Heroes, Reuben and to an extent Funeral For A Friend were fueling the fires among the British underground to a near unbearable heat. There was a contagious excitement in the air, for me none more so than on listening to this release on the long train journey home from London, having travelled there to purchase a copy a few days before general release. From that day to this, the 45 minutes documented on 'A Song To Ruin' are yet to disappoint.
From the off the album refuses to hold punches; a bellowing scream from drummer Ben Dawson and Turner's bawl 'Ladies and gentlemen please take your seats...' welcomes opening track 'Pornography For Cowards', and it becomes eminently obvious that this is no place for the feint-hearted. It's raw and it's brutal; it'll stamp on your face and you'll grin and ask for more. In 122 seconds the band lay their cards on the table, and with all that follows they remain true to form. On first listen, 'Breaking The Back' is perhaps the initial indication as to the talent Frank Turner possesses as a lyricist, with a more palpable vocal delivery. He describes an all too familiar quashing of youthful dreaming by medial 9-5 binding, avowing'working the tills put hair on my chest, telesales made me a man', culminating in the confession that 'Turing couldn't possibly conceive a machine with as little personality'. Contrast this vocal diversity to the previous track and I'm immediately wrought with jealousy at the talents this man possesses.
And this learned tongue continues, no less in live favourite 'Charlie And The Propaganda Myth Machine', with lines as galvanizing as 'Willy Wonker was a capitalist confidence trickster/A poster boy for neo-liberalism' and 'Walt Disney is pushing social and sexual hierarchy/my bed-time stories are like a GMTV Gomulka' (referencing the Polish economist, simultaneously utilising Turner's degree in European History). On pressing headphones keenly against my ears, and being subject to such a barrage for the first time, at a young age I could tell something quite remarkable was unfolding here. It's a feeling that's only since been replicated in me on a handful of occasions.
Possibly as incisive over the course of the record is Cameron Dean's inimitable guitar tone, masterfully portrayed by the timeless opening riff of 'I Am The Party', as with 'Smiling At Strangers On Trains', which is simply the most perfect boy-meets-girl/girl-screws-over-boy track ever put to tape. It's the kind of gold deluded writers like myself invariably crave. I was fortunate enough to catch the band live half a dozen or so times with their original guitarist, with the most memorable performance being his laying to waste of the instrument in a series of discordant and brutal screeches during album closer 'The Rise And Fall'. On record, this 11 minute anti-solo is true history. Segregated from the brutality of the first three minutes by a maisy trill (which, having cropped, is used as my alarm in the morning), the onslaught, and subsequent fall, bursts the speakers with a booming drum/bass monotony (I always aim to achieve that level of stoned, the likes of which Julia must've harnessed in holding the rhythm for such a duration). Turner's cry 'Thus amerced in barbarous thought' allays into Dean's abolition of his SG, aided by a plethora of stomp pedals, and the cycle is complete.
As Dean left, replacement Tom Fowler had the biggest shoes to fill. Some would argue he never did, with the core of the band laying to rest in 2004. Further still, the rumours circulating the band's eventual demise frequently surrounded him as a lead character. This is by the by. On the 23rd September 2005 I admired Million Dead for the final time at their farewell show in the city where, for me at least, it had all begun. The final note of that set resounds in my heart to this day; 'A Song To Ruin' the backbone of the epoch. They were my Beatles or Happy Mondays, the Joiners Arms my Cavern or Hacienda. I wouldn't change that for the world. Here's hoping the reissue will evoke a new generation.