I was going to do a review of the Pop Group’s debut album Y when it was reissued by Rhino a couple of months ago. Through most of the 28 years since it was issued, it has been out of print. It didn’t get its first CD outing until 1996, and that only remained available for a few years, so it’s good that Rhino have put it out again. Nearly a generation on, the album sounds as out there as ever. It’s not an easy thing to get to grips with at first, but it pays to persevere. The band fused dub reggae, free jazz, funk and punk to create something utterly their own. They are often lumped in with contemporaries like the Gang Of Four and the Fall as one of the prime post-punk outfits, but they were never really a rock band at all. Their most famous song, the sublime “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”, has far more in common with Chic than it does with Joy Division. Mark Stewart’s wailing vocals are an acquired taste – he seems to be permanently treading the line between despair and insanity, with a generous side order of paranoia. They wouldn’t work in a conventional rock setting, but with the skittish dub-jazz provided by the band, seem almost like just another instrument. For much of Y, the players seem to have their own agenda, with a guitar riff here and a blast of sax there. The bass acts as the glue, but the music has a fluidity and freedom rarely encountered in rock where the rhythmic structures are quite rigid.
“Savage Sea” isn’t an obvious highlight. “Thief Of Fire” or “We Are Time” show the Pop Group at their most savage and funky. “Savage Sea” is almost pastoral by comparison. The track is built round some lovely classical piano, with Stewart’s vocal hushed and anguished. There are some discordant slashes of violin, and what sounds like throat-singing to disturb the mood, but the track wouldn’t sound massively out of place on a contemporary album by a pianist such as Max Richter. It is a little unsettling heard in isolation, but in the context of the album seems an oasis of beatific calm.