That the first Fall album in a near endless stream would not only not sound very punk at all but would be a downright pleasant listen (thanks to Yvonne Pawlett's electric piano on "Frightened") seems perfectly in keeping with Mark E. Smith's endlessly contrary mind. His inimitable drawl/moan and general vision of the universe (idiots are everywhere and idiotic things are rampant) similarly sprawl all over the music -- there's no question who this is or whose band it is, either. That said, most of Live at the Witch Trials is co-written with Martin Bramah, whose guitar work here is noticeably much more inclined to chime and ring instead of brutally scratch away like Craig Scanlon's awesome work would soon do. Bramah's not just here to sound tuneful, though, and the killer Marc Riley/Karl Burns rhythm section both keeps up the energy and provides surprising grooves. On chugging tracks like "Two Steps Back," it's not hard to tell that Smith's Krautrock fandom is coming into play. With Pawlett's keyboards providing a pretty garage kick on top of it all, the result is an all-around treat. Brilliantly scabrous tracks are everywhere, one of the most memorable being "Rebellious Jukebox," simultaneously one of the most tuneful and aggressive songs from the early lineup, Smith pouring it on along with the band. The driving funk of "Music Scene," meanwhile, redefines misanthropy (and more) with a particularly central Smith target in mind. "No Xmas for John Quays," meanwhile, almost establishes the Fall formula on its own: Smith chanting and yelling over a quick, semi-rockabilly shamble and attack punctuated by unexpected stops and starts.
Live at the Witch Trials Review
by Ned Raggett