Northern Irish rock legends, Therapy?, have a career to look back on with pride. At the forefront of techno, industrial and noise-rock in the early 1990s, they achieved commercial and critical acclaim with 1994’s Troublegum and proved that the UK could also produce a record to stand toe-to-toe with Nevermind. 1999’s Suicide Pact – You First is one of many examples of the band battling with the music industry and subverting their pop music with dark content matter and filthy sonics. Indeed, 2003’s High Anxiety and 2015’s Disquiet made the Terrorizer album of the year lists. Free from sales targets and commercial expectations since the early 2000s, Therapy? do what they want and care little for chart accolades. This makes the simple pop structures and sludgy guitars of album number sixteen an intriguing proposition.
The two founder members of Therapy? are veterans of the alternative rock and metal scenes in Britain. Like Melvins, Andy Cairns (vocals/guitars) and Michael McKeegan (bass) change their sound on each album while retaining their core identity as a heavy guitar band. Hard Cold Fire is a clear attempt to replicate the pop sensibilities of 1998’s Semi-Detached (a Top 40 album in its day) but with a nod to the ugly guitar approach of Suicide Pact – You First. Opener, ‘They Shoot the Terrible Master’, is the definition of pop perversion. Sludgy riffs coated in bass fuzz run through the two minutes and forty-seven seconds like advanced bacteria as Cairns separates his rhythms with trademark syncopation and positions his voice for a chorus that lands somewhere between The Police and Husker Dü.
You can follow the outlines of every song here as if sitting through an introductory course to song writing. It’s more pocket science than rocket science, but the subtle metallic fills and abundant palm-muted riffs in ‘Woe’ and ‘To Disappear’ remind you how much Therapy? enjoy the heavier stuff. When they do it right, they do it in the spirit of the best American bands that lit up the alternative scene of the 1990s. ‘Bewildered Herd’ and ‘Two Wounded Animals’ are two such examples. The former inserts a crazy off-kilter marching beat into the main hook; the latter is the definition of pop genius in the way it employs a sinister thrash riff in clean mode and then works towards a memorable vocal in the distorted chorus.
Of course, with such a simple approach comes the risk of being too obvious. Andy Cairns needs more aggression in his voice in the heavier songs. The dissonant guitar accents and prowling bass of ‘Joy’ are not enough to save it from the aftereffects of a mediocre chorus. ‘Mongrel’ borders on disaster, unless your idea of fun is a follow up to their abysmal 1998 hit single, ‘Lonely, Cryin’, Only’, which, in retrospect, sounds like a misguided attempt to engage with Britpop.
Therapy? have always been proud imposters in the pop scene, and they make it clear that Hard Cold Fire is their vision of a musical form that subverts from within. ‘Ugly’ is a strange three minutes of stoner rock with a punk snarl, yet it thrives on a catchy chorus. Closing track, ‘Days Kollaps’, is the type of song that a major label would release back in the day as the third single to extend an album’s shelf life. Semi-discordant guitar arpeggios give Cairns a brooding platform to leave the grinning agent provocateur behind in favour of a soul-baring honesty. It’s a strong way to end the LP.
Cairns and McKeegan will already know how album number seventeen should sound. You can guarantee it will depart from the filth pop of this record, yet Hard Cold Fire has enough to warrant a sordid smile.
Release Date: 05/05/2023
Record Label: Marshall Records
Standout tracks: They Shoot the Terrible Master, Bewildered Herd, Two Wounded Animals
Suggested Further Listening: Venomous Concept – The Good Ship Lollipop (2023), Puppy – Pure Evil (2022), Before the Sirens – Desolate Seas and Darkened Skies EP (2023)