Test Dept’s reemergence over the past few years has been something of a defiance against the odds. How can a group whose modus operandi was the intense physicality of hammering of scrap metal in rehearsal sessions that went on for days and gigs that used the decay of Britain’s industrial heritage as stages possibly hope to have the same impact under the bodily limitations of middle age? Political zeal seems to be what has carried founder members Paul Jamrozy and Graham Cunnington forward, and a sense that the battles they thought in Thatcher’s 80s are still raging today – as the latter has said, “The mess we’re in now is unbelievable… It’s disturbing in the extreme”.
Their return has thus far seen a huge archival project culminating in the excellent Total State Machine book, the DS30 installation at Dunston Staithes on the River Tyne, which remains one of the most powerful pieces of public art I’ve ever seen, and the construction of new machines with which to hammer out their cause at events alongside contemporary artists like Perc.
That inter-generational transfer of ideas and feeling is all over Disturbance, Test Dept’s first album in 20 years. “The past rules the present” snarls Graham Cunnington in defiant attack on Tory austerity culture that is opener ‘Speak Truth To Power’, a rather thrilling combination of a James Bond theme, Momentum rally, trumpet blaster and something you might rave to if the pingers cut in a bit early at a Corsica Studios rave. As well as being a fierce tirade against the current state of British politics, much of Disturbance is satisfyingly dancefloor-friendly – ‘Landlord’, for instance, will suit anyone who likes the idea of Underworld writing a track about the housing crisis, and delivering with a heavy, tactile punch. A similar vibe is all over ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ and ‘Information Scare’, both of which make much contemporary EBM sound as daft as Hercules Poirot in a pair of shiny pleather shorts.
The drums of Zel Kaute, a new member who’s joined Jamrozy and Cunnington for this album and recent live dates, are what make the shift from the literally post-industrial sonic palette into the digital age so effective. It’s probably also fair to surmise that the influence of producer and engineer Lottie Poulet, who many will know from their ability to make live performances by Factory Floor, Throbbing Gristle and Suicide threaten the built environment, has helped give the record a sonic depth that earlier Test Dept releases sometimes lacked. There’s more than just dissonance, of course – in ‘Debris’, a piano piece drifts along with reverb vocals and clatters of drums, aptly like dust settling from a demolition. Album closer ‘Two Flames Burn’ is perhaps the finest moment here, a metallic marimba rhythm rising underneath chants and intonations. A kaleidoscope of political speeches and dense electronics and clattering reminiscent of the Dunston Staithes event, ‘GBH84’ revisits Test Dept’s entirely justified fury that there’s never been a full enquiry into the actions of the police at the 1984 Battle Of Orgreave.
In this time when dank edgelords across techno and industrial music are still flogging the dead SS cavalry charger of suspect aesthetics and prissy growling, it’s refreshing to listen to a record where you’ve never a doubt that the sturm-und-drang is in aid of righteous causes. May the Test Dept cogs keep on grinding.