gullbuy music review

Khmer Rouge


New York - London 1981-86


Hip Priest


Khmer Rouge CD coverAt the risk of backlash and attacks on my musical knowledge, I admit that this band is relatively unknown to me. I have heard the name of the band. Who could miss a band that had the audacity to name itself after the Pol Pot's Cambodian Communist regime that was responsible for killing 1.7 million people. That must be a bold statement as to how this group must slay the competition or perhaps this isn't rock 'n' roll? Maybe it is genocide. Is it just a play on the rouge make-up employed by the female lead singer, Maria Shofield, or the New Wave era in which they emerged? The band slogan, "Liberation Through Militant Rhythms" seems to lose the ironic edge of the times and make you cringe in the world of post 9/11.

The fact that this two-disc collection of the band's work is the first release of Mark E. Smith's (The Fall) Hip Priest record label bodes well for the importance and interest of Khmer Rouge. Liner notes are written in a engaging personal style. It is storytelling and reminiscing by the two members of KR who were the heart and soul of the band, bass player Barry "Scratchy" Myers (WHBI-FM DJ and past member of Rank and File) and Phil Shoenfelt (who conceived the band and played lead guitar and vocalist). From reading their fond recollections it is a typical history with a different spin. The rock cliche of a revolving cast of drummers, a wife joining the group (keyboard player Maria Schofield-left the band to play for The Fall) and the CBGB, NYC punk, noise, "junk" scene. What makes their story unique is that there was no infighting. The drugs destroyed the band but not in a seething hatred, just a drift in a fog that luckily did not kill them. These two band mates have good memories of each other and a band that had a dedication to working at making interesting music inspired by their punk/reggae roots and post-punk leanings. No where near a commercial success, despite once opening for The Clash and recording with John Leckie (The Fall producer), interest from CBS Records, opening for big name acts, limited notoriety was there claim to fame and memories of "crisp and powerful" performances and a place in rock history (circa NYC 1978-84).

The songs are gingerly re-mastered by "Scratchy" Myers from his brittle old master tapes. Surviving through the mire to present day they are now secure in the digital age archives. Paul Shoenfelt observes that there is "energy and freshness" that rivals "any non-drug taking, straight edge punk band" despite their being strung out. Listening back on the tapes Shoenfelt says that the "political content of the lyrics is not so common for a bunch of whacked out junkies". The affection for what these two gentlemen have done to make this CD a reality makes one realize that whatever the resurrection of these tapes brings to a new audience this is a labor of love and reflection. The main players are still proud of what they created while not proud of what they did. "Scratchy" and Paul's affection for these recordings draws you in to listen.

The first song, New Assassins seems familiar. Probably because I hear so many influences at work. After a brief grinding guitar Zoundz-like guitar intro the bass and drum are solid and similar to Life in the Glad House by Modern English, I hear the Philadelphia band Bunnydrums, and Joy Division. New wave-ish keyboards and out of place vocals hold the musical work back. A slight dated feeling adds nostalgia to an, undeniably, well arranged song with great rhythm and guitar work. Second from KR is Labyrinth. A tight reggae tinged, funky bright, jumpy track that is similar to the preceding, Assassins. They both are tight and have great musical moments but the vocals are not an emotional link to the lyrics and sound.

Shoot comes in amazingly. Within 10 seconds my head spins when I hear and imagine all influences I am hearing and who this song may have, in turn, influenced. Gang of Four guitar work that mixes in to sharp edged, bright guitar sounds of early Simple Minds-Reel to Reel Cacophony. The funkiness and vocal arrangement is A Certain Ratio but there is too much reverb and echo to be just like them. I hear the vocal sounds and odd arrangements of Mark Stewart. This song is so good I can overlook the vocals that are not 100% "on". The musicianship is brilliant. Fantastic, stinging, funked up guitar with a rock solid rhythm and dead on arrangements. "Scratchy" and Paul were right. The music is truly fresh sounding and experimental at age 22.

Between the next tracks you get the WNEW-FM Radio Announcement that is a great flash back to the band's beginnings. You can picture these guys making a cassette recording while hearing their band played on a late night, new artist program. The cassette recording trails off as the DJ finishes her "talk-over" the song, Hinterland. After the cassette fades out, enter the restored master tape. This is another fantastic bass and drum intro into guitar post-punk that funks itself into place. This is familiar sounding but with a unique effect to the sound that makes it edgy but dreamy. The vocals and the arrangement take wrong turn causing the song to die on the vine and contradict a dead-on intro. A sped-up Joy Division guitar and bass blend intros the next song, Africa. Again, blazing guitar soloing with great personalization through effects. Really great sound work that fizzles as it nears the end and the vocals just aren't cutting it. Joy Division is apparent another track, City Renewal. The muddy mix and echo effects helps the vocals sound more fitting than any other previous heard attempt but the song is so close to Joy Division it is a tribute.

To remedy the vocal problem, which surely is becoming apparent to the band the song starts with Maria Schofield on vocals and going into Paul's vocals. Maria backs him up and it really helps. City Primeval is a decent track that seems to want to have commercial success. The Strangler's punk-pop guitar and whirling tremolo organ mixes well in, Age of Iron. Dual vocals are throughout with a third vocal added for more depth. The production and vocals work together but the song seems to have lost the nasty edge. This is an intricate song that is bigger but missing the funk, punk, reggae influence. I like this newer sound as a cohesive piece but the soul is different than prior material. It seems more approachable. There was something sneering and pissy about The StranglerUs organ sound Khmer Rouge's is more upbeat and happy.

Attempts at sampling are being infused into the sound now. Sharpshooter's start has the movie Frankenstein on the TV with guitar feedback for a bed and samples throughout. The vocals are more treated and effected and less present than ever before. The guitar is pure fuzz. There are smatterings a funky little guitar like prior post-punk sounds. This is basically an instrumental and the new, bigger sound is melding really well on this arrangement. When it gets to a longer vocal arrangement the music gets back to a hint of reggae influences as great guitar plays off the always solid drum and bass. What I also realize is that the keyboards are gone and -I like it. The sampling that was once so cutting edge dates the track but doesn't make it chintzy or campy. This is a well done

I referenced Modern English earlier and KR's Ghosts of Love is very similar to I'll Stop The World. Modern English were really good in their musical infancy and moved to that pop classic as there signature sound, like it or not. Perhaps this is the attempt of Khmer Rouge to be a commercial success. It is a well made song and the vocals were never more suitable. It is my least favorite song on the CD of studio material.

The live bonus CD is 12 tracks. Half of the 12 songs don't appear on CD 1. The live tracks are well recorded for such old recordings and primitive recording equipment. The music is solid and Tunnel Vision started off great but the vocals stand out too much on the live cuts. The music is well performed but the production moves the vocals up front and the music is muddled in the back. It is not detracting. When you hear the music you realize what was said in the liner notes. These guys are pretty tight for a "bunch of junkies". Shoenfelt is an amazing guitarist but not a great singer. "Scratchy" sings on the song, Parasites. The sound is not saved from the plague of band vocals and the cut is much too keyboard driven while retaining that great bass and guitar interplay. Labyrinth and Shoot's second appearance as live tracks have such great guitar work and funky appeal. In between the detracting vocals are incredible sounds. Most of the live material has stretched-out, long, soaring instrumental jams. I wish I was at one of these shows. CBGB's 1983-84, sounds great and you get to experience it. It's almost like you are there.

Khmer Rouge actually turn out to something completely different than I expected. The liner notes made me think they were punk. Their slogan made me think they were punk. The name made me think of mass slayings. I never heard punk in the music outside of an influence. No wonder, I was confused. Did I remember this band at all? This is not hardcore punk nor genocide. This is something better. My disdain for the vocals is apparent but the music is really well done. The souring vocals also had me completely ignoring the lyrics being sung. The time period this band started, 1981, and the amount of fresh sounding material coming out in Khmer Rouge's era makes it hard to delineate the line between who came up with the sound first and who did it second. All these bands were taking from the old and each other and smelting each alloy into a new sound. The KR sound is so big it is hard to imagine what you are hearing is essentially a trio with keyboards added. The live material only adds to that amazement. There is obvious Khmer Rouge influence in the music of the bands, !!!, The Rapture and Radio 4 who mine the late 70's and mid-80's NYC sound and post-punk English sound. This is vital music. It is not perfect music. I think the vocal sound was what held them back from major recognition. Khmer Rouge was a band that was destined to influence the future but never be in the forefront. I think that suits them well. They all cleaned up and have moved back to England and Europe. All have moved on to other careers and look back with pride on the music they created. Their music endures and I am sure with the release of this CD new bands will mine the nuggets in Khmer Rouge's music.

---James Kraus, August 30, 2005