By Jamie Sherry
“Over and over again, Loop take us to the empty, agoraphobic expanses abandoned by the Sixties, leading us through its charred, flattened landscape, the legacy of that hopeless, murderous flash-fire, the Summer Of Love.”
The Stud Brothers’ review of Loop’s Fade Out album
(Melody Maker, January 21st, 1989)
Loop – Heaven’s End (Remastered Album, 2008)
Loop – The World in Your Eyes (Remastered Album, 2009)
Loop – Fade Out (Remastered Album, 2008)
Loop – A Gilded Eternity (Remastered Album, 2009)
Loop were formed in London in 1986 by Robert Hampson (vocals/guitars), and included an assortment of band members, before settling into the core and seminal line-up of Hampson, John Wills (drums), Neil MacKay (bass), and latterly Scott Dowson (guitar). In the late 80s Loop were responsible for pushing back the boundaries of what contemporary music could be at a time when independent guitar rock was nostalgically drawing upon some of the least interesting indulgences of 70s stadium rock. For reasons of journalist ethics I am compelled to announce a considerable degree of partiality when it comes to discussing or reviewing Loop. The band were a significant influence on my younger teenage years mainly due to their heady blend of musical styles including the psychedelia of 60’s psych and pop such as the Velvet Underground, The Sonics and 13th Floor Elevators, the excesses of 70’s Krautrock, and in particular Neu!, Can and Faust, the relentless power of early Filth-era Swans and No-Wave, the noisy indie leanings of their contemporaries My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3 and The Telescopes, and the more avant-garde experimentations and droning soundscapes of AMM and Thomas Köner. Furthermore, Loop’s ‘Black Sun’ 12” was the first record I ever bought for myself, and their final album A Gilded Eternity is the first and only album I have ever bunked-off school to buy on the day of release. I was even a dedicated member of the Loop fan-club ‘Soundheads’ (the only ‘fan club’ I have ever joined), and they were the first band I ever saw live at a gig—in my case a secret gig with Godflesh and World Domination Enterprises in 1989. Despite this, it has been many years since I have actively sat down to listen to their back catalogue due to a lack of record player, and the scarcity of Loop material on CD. So it was with a considerable amount of delight that I was able to listen to Reactor and Revolver Distribution’s re-release of a series of long out-of-print Loop albums, remastered from original analogue tapes, and including a slew of extras, outtakes, Peel Sessions, and live tracks. These re-releases of the albums Heaven’s End (1987), The World in Your Eyes (1987) Fade Out (1988), and A Gilded Eternity (1990) are lovingly packaged in the original vinyl artwork that complements the dedication involved in compiling such a wealth of extra material by this almost forgotten band of the 1980s.
The 1987 release of the Heaven’s End was the band’s first full-length album and it is apt that the first track on the album ‘Soundhead’ should eventually become the name of the band’s devoted fan-club, and the moniker by which Loop die-hards described themselves. The name evokes the aural pleasures of music, mixed with allusions to drug-taking, inner universes, soundscapes, and the more exotic aspects of the 60s music that the band were drawing on. ‘Soundhead’ kicks off with a droning hum and back-masked cymbals, before a fuzz-drenched guitar clears the fog, joined almost immediately with the heavy drumming, wah-wah wailing guitar, rhythmic bass and the almost whispered delay-echoed vocals that became the signature sound of Loop during this early period. Noticeably, ‘Soundhead’ has an almost jaunty, poppy edge that would later become replaced with denser, Krautrock influences. The second song on the album, ‘Straight to Your Heart’, introduces MacKay’s deep and twangy bass playing as almost the chief harmony for many Loop songs. Later covered by Godflesh on the split 7” on Clawfist records (the b-side features Loop’s cover of Godflesh’s song ‘Like Rats’) ‘Straight to Your Heart’ is a foreshadowing of the band’s sound that would be expanded on the later Fade Out album, with a sparse chorus punctuated with squealing wah-wah guitar. The song closes into a false ending, before kicking in again—a feature that saw it became one of the band’s live favourites. The eponymous title track ‘Heaven’s End’ illustrates Loop’s fondness for back-masked sampling of their own music played beneath hard drumming, shimmering tremolo-delay guitars and the repetitious sample of Hal 9000’s plaintive cry of “My mind is going.” The album continues with the slow, ethereal ‘Forever’ that mixes deep bass and jangly guitar in a way that underlines the significant benefits of remastering; the more melodic ‘Too Real to Feel’ with its allusions to drug-taking that saw them mistakenly bracketed as ‘stoner rock’ blends into the sweeping, laid-back rhythms of ‘Fix to Fall’ via an extended delay-guitar noise bed. ‘Head On’ is a faster version of same song featured on their 16 Dreams 12” and seems rather more melodic and rock influenced than the rest of the album. The closing song ‘Carry Me’ is a plaintive, wah-driven song that is drenched in the delay-guitar fuzz that was so emblematic of Loop throughout all of their subsequent album releases. The album sends us off on Hal 9000’s cry for help, once again reminding the listener that Loop’s 60s influences transcended music, and included much of the cinematic and hallucinogenic qualities of that decade. The extra disc on this remastered double-album includes alternative mixes of their remarkably faithful Suicide cover ‘Rocket USA’, ‘Soundhead’ and a heavily fuzzed out version of their ‘Head On’ which may be of interest to fans only. Happily for this Loop completist, the extra disc also contains a cleaned-up remastering of Loop’s August 1987 Peel Session, including speedier and typically rawer, stripped-down versions of ‘Soundhead’, ‘Straight to Your Heart’ and ‘Rocket USA’. The mixing on these songs is also noticeably less slathered in fuzz and other accoutrements of post-production (with vocals much higher in the mix), and therefore they offer a sound much closer to the live experience of the band at this time.
The World in Your Eyes is essentially the compilation album (plus extra tracks) first released in September 1988, but expanded into three discs that also include a number of other extras and EP releases of their work prior to Heaven’s End , and right up until the band split in 1992. The opening three tracks are taken from the 16 Dreams 12” which is Loop’s first release in 1987, the title song representing an explicitly Stooges influenced sound, something that is jarring in the context of their almost immediate move into the more blissed-out, effects-laden and studio-reliant music. ‘Spinning (Parts 1 & 2)’ conflate the two songs from their 1987 Spinning 7” and are Loop in more tuneful mood, before the song descends into a not altogether satisfying guitar noodling session. The additional tracks include the laid-back and woozy ‘Brittle Head Girl’ and ‘Deep End’, plus the psychedelic punch of ‘I’ll Take You There’ that pre-dates The Black Angels by at least a couple of decades, and rawer and less complex demos for ‘Brittle Head Girl’ and ‘Burning World’. Disc Two of this expanded album includes the Collision and Black Sun 12”s released in 1988 after Heaven’s End, but prior to the breakthrough album Fade Out. Both 12”s mark a distinct advancement and progression in the Loop sound and, rather like My Bloody Valentine’s move from C86 and JAMC jangle, to blistering pop-noise experimentation on their You Made Me Realise EP, these songs evidence a sharp maturing in the Loop sound. ‘Collision’ and ‘Crawling Heart’ display Loop’s growing preoccupation with the power of repetition to hammer the listener into submission, ‘Thief of Fire’ is a reworking of The Pop Group song, and demonstrates a more confident appropriation of original material than their cover of ‘Rocket USA’, as well as being arguably the high-point of their Collision 12” alongside ‘Thief (Motherfucker)’. The album continues with songs from the Black Sun 12” marking a distinct shift from pop and rock melodies, towards experimentation, soundscapes and the unusual time signatures that characterise the second-half of the band’s existence. ‘Black Sun’ is a raw, repetitious assault that builds itself around discrete pounding beats, deep gutteral bass, and most noticeably the shimmering, smashing glass sound of Hampson’s effects-heavy guitar. In itself ‘Black Sun’ is a more stripped-back song than anything on their previous records, the minor bass chords complementing Wills’ steady, reliable drumming. Yet it is probably the other two tracks on the 12” that tell us more about the direction Loop were taking, and how ultimately the Fade Out album acts as a bridge from the psychedelic sounds of their earlier work, to the larger, orchestrated, soundtrack influenced experimentations of their final album, A Gilded Eternity. The inclusion of the unsettling and ambient ‘Circle Grave’ acts as the first real taste of what Hampson would try to achieve with the minimalist sound experiments of his Main project immediately after Loop disbanded. The decision to cover Can’s ‘Mother Sky’ on the Black Sun 12” is an explicit nod to the increasingly repetitious, Krautrock indebted rhythms of their sound, and the remastered version is a startlingly crystalline presentation of the Loop sound unburdened by the murkiness of the original mix. This extra disc closes with two rare cover songs that provide an extra texture to the Loop sound, in particular the acoustic guitar on their cover of Nick Drave’s ‘Pink Moon’ is highly atypical, whilst the JAMC influenced raucousness of their version of Neil Young’ ‘Cinnamon Girl’ display the less arch and mannered interests of the band. The third disc is an embarrassment of Loop riches, featuring a handful of rare songs that the Loop completist will salivate over. The initial tracks constitute the 1991 Arc-Lite 12”, featuring three remixes of Arc-Lite (including ‘Arc-Lite (Radar)’ remixed by Daniel ‘Mute’ Miller) that emphasise the band’s preoccupation with the relentlessness of rhythmic repetition that either force you to get lost in the miasma of replication, or make you start to suspect the CD has become stuck. As well as the title’s allusion to an early scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the video for this track was filmed on the ‘Vietnam’ set recreated in the Docklands of London for Full Metal Jacket—continuing Loop’s obsession with cinematic references and their more soundtrack influenced songs, such as ‘Sunburst’. The disc continues with three very rare and high-quality live songs (‘Afterglow’, ‘Got to Get it Over’ and ‘Burning World’) that demonstrate that, despite the considered experimentations of their late period, Loop were ultimately a rock band with a direct, assaulting live sound. This disc closes with the band’s reciprocal cover of Godflesh’s ‘Like Rats’ and whilst it features some distinctively shimmering guitar, once again it does feel that the band perhaps tries to retain too much fidelity to the original song (including Justin Broadrick-like gutteral vocals) rather than fully making it their own.
Loop’s penultimate album Fade Out is considered by many to be the apex of Loop’s career, and the distillation of the band’s influences alongside the idiosyncratic conflation of diverse musical styles. Fade Out is clearly a watershed moment for the band. The groovy rhythms and 60s inflections are replaced by an altogether more punishing and darker sound. That is not to say that Fade Out is a transitional artefact only—on the contrary, it is perhaps critically regarded as Loop’s most complete and satisfying record, with songs unified around a discernible production style that best reflected their sound. This remastered album is a highly sympathetic restoration as Wills’ thumping drums complement MacKay’s complex bassline riffs, both acting as an assured bed to Hampson’s whispered/barking vocals and wah-drenched, hypnotic guitar washes. The powerful rhythms and the looped guitar riffs become so repetitive that they start to attain a confrontational, hypnotic quality – a feature far more similar to No Wave, post-punk, and minimalist avant-garde compositions, than to the laid-back warm fuzz of 60s psych. The album retains the characteristically Krautrock influenced approach of the Black Sun 12” that preceded it, and indeed the opening track commences with a long whirring drone before ‘Black Sun’ itself kicks in with a deep bass hook—introducing the listener to 40mins of unyielding, primal rock experimentation. The accusations of ‘sameness’ that this album sometimes receives is understandable, however this new remastering separates out each aspect of the song, pushing into stark relief the distinctive qualities of each band member. ‘This is Where You End’ is a stand-out track with a tribal rhythm, Hampson’s angry, growled vocals and a structure that sees the song devolve into complex, screeching guitar riffs that are so emblematic of the band. ‘Fever Knife’, ‘Torched’, ‘Fade Out’ and ‘Pulse’ are dense, drawn-out compositions that eschew most of the 60s pop trappings of the band’s early sound, and build towards the full-scale experimental anti-rock of the band prior to their implosion. In particular, ‘A Vision Stain’ is an unrelenting and punishing song that employs the instruments of contemporary rock music, only to confront and question the very notion of what that means. The second disc on this remastered album includes another array of mouth-watering morsels of Loop’s outtakes and paratextual sounds that may please only devotees of the band. ‘Black Sun (feedback)’ is a little pointless given its similarity to the album version, whilst original mixes of ‘Torched’ and ‘Got to Get it Over’ may have a passing interest only to the truly dedicated. However, it is the demo version of ‘This is Where You End’, and a June 1988 Peel Session featuring tracks from Fade Out that demonstrate Loop’s raw appeal when their songs are produced with limited time and with the least amount of floridity, prosaic denseness and multi-tracked guitar sections. I would argue that this is Loop at their best. Stripped-back, immediate, and fusing their unashamed rock influences, alongside hypnotic and psychedelic tribal rhythms underneath crashing, strangled guitar experimentations. This disc closes with five guitar loops from the Fade Out sessions that also foreshadow the ambient drones of Loop’s final album, and the future direction of Hampson’s solo music. These loops round-off what is possibly the most satisfying of all the extra discs added to the core Loop albums in these remastered albums. Evoking Edward Artemiev’s soundtrack for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, these startlingly immersive loops demonstrate an aspect of the band that was always hiding within their sound, but were (regrettably) never presented as stand-alone songs in their own right.
Loop’s final album A Gilded Eternity in 1990 is in many ways a confused record— marked by a tension between the heavy rock leanings of Fade Out and the bubbling desire for the band to move into more avant-garde and non-traditional song arrangements. Joined by Scott Dowson in order to supplement the studio and live guitar sound, this album also benefits hugely from the opening-up of individual aspects of its complex and multilayered production provided by remastering. Despite the movement into experimental soundscapes, the album is paradoxically more punctuated by Wills’ power-house drums and MacKay’s deep, distorted basslines than anything previously recorded. ‘Vapour’, ‘Afterglow’ and ‘The Nail Will Burn’ (and its mind-bending bass-line) are bold opening songs that demonstrate the extent to which Loop were prepared to distance themselves from the more C86 jangle and 80s indie associations the band endured whilst Fade Out was being fêted by both the underground and mainstream music press. However, it is the take-no-prisoners anti-melodies in ‘Blood’ that indicate how far the band were willing to go to alienate their new indie-rock audience with other-wordly and dislocated music. The plaintive vocals on the more melodious ‘Breathe into Me’ and the circular rhythms of ‘From Centre to Wave’ act as precursors to what could be considered Loop’s swan-song in the form of the epic ‘Be Here Now’. Running to nine-and-a-half minutes, the song is in many ways the culmination of everything the band had produced, mixing a gentle, 60s melody with an assured Krautrock rhythm section, and the psychedelic punctuations of lengthy wah-wah guitar riffs. The tension on the album between the ‘old’ Loop sound, and the new direction Hampson (in particular) wanted to take the band was illustrated by a review at the time by Simon Reynolds in the Melody Maker who argued that “they should have transcended the riff, transcended rhythm, and disappeared into a nebula of originless sound” (20th January, 1990). Whilst history would see Hampson’s ambient Main project (initially alongside Dowson on the 1991 Hydra and Calm 12”s) as the natural fulfillment of Reynold’s wishes above, the second disc on this album demonstrates that the band were actually moving into new directions and passionately eschewing the trappings of indie rock music, both mainstream and experimental. As with the Fade Out extras, the demo versions of A Gilded Eternity tracks will have an interest for Loop completists, but it is the January 1990 Peel session that really sees the band going out with a bang (‘Afterglow’, in particular, is transcendent). But it is the song ‘Shot with a Diamond’, originally released on the rare double-album as a solo track on an extra 7”, that is the true final hurrah for the band. Mixing a hypnotic scrape, with a pulsing note, a syncopated guitar sample, and Marlon Brando’s Kurtz eerily jumping from left to right speakers as we hear him intone to Martin Sheen’s Willard in Loop’s final declaration of love for Coppola’s film.
Whilst it would be prosaic and inaccurate to suggest that A Gilded Eternity was ahead of its time, there is a definite sense that it is conversely both Loop’s least unified, and also most brave album. It stands as a confused and tense culmination of their forays and experimentations, aggressive and rhythmic, minimalist and poppy, the production values high, and each member of the band clearly audible as individual artists simultaneously creating a wholly cohesive sound. It is difficult to imagine what Loop would have done next had they not disbanded in 1991. Hampson and Dowson’s work in Main suggests a desire from half the band to move into soundscapes and experimentation, and noticeably away from one of Loop’s most distinctive and strongest element – the rhythm section. Indeed, Wills and McKay’s Hair and Skin Trading Company project possibly indicates that both members had their own ideas about the future direction of Loop, towards a tuneful atmospheric sound, underpinned by an aggressive and startlingly accurate rhythm section. Loop were often criticised alongside many other bands at the time for being derivative and over-nostalgic in their aping of 60s pop and psych music. However, the subsequent years of increasingly hoary and reductionist grunge, and the queasy laddishness of the Madchester bands as the prologue to mind-numbingly bland Brit-Pop, underscore Loop’s forays into experimentation and sonic dissonance as both courageous and progressive. Indeed, the explosion of contemporary psychedelic bands mixing 60s melodies and production values with confrontational noise ethics (as showcased in Austin’s increasingly popular Psychfest music festival) indicate that Loop were ahead of their time, looking forwards rather than backwards. These albums document a highly idiosyncratic period of music in which the plumbing of styles and influences could lead to increasing experimentation and creative risk, in opposition to many bands of the contemporary era that slowly devolve into the safer zones of music. These Loop albums surprise with the quality of their remastering, and the powerful force of the band’s complex studio arrangements. However, it is the more immediate and less mannered, stripped-back versions of known songs through archived Peel Sessions, and the experimental guitar loops and avant-garde drones of studio outtakes that make these new albums so exciting and vital.