Remember live music? It’s been a while. Come mid-March it’ll be a year since my last gig, and slightly longer since my most recent visit to cherished Lancashire arts venue The Continental in Preston, where at one stage it seemed it wasn’t a show unless Vukovar were opening or appearing further up the bill.
My first sighting was in December 2016 at Tuff Life Boogie’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party, headlined by The Membranes and also featuring Folk Devils and a stripped-down version of The Wolfhounds, all four outfits making an impression.
Vukovar were a three-piece then, self-styled ‘idealists, voyeurs and totalitarians’ of the North’s ‘Brutalist wastelands’. They’d clearly warmed up by the time I arrived – singer Dan Shea stripped to the waist, Iggy Pop style, and guitarist Rick Clarke, back to the audience, in Stu Sutcliffe mode, the pair swapping lines with Libertines-like energy amid a chaotic climax.
Four weeks later they were back, supporting cult Scottish indie artist Rose McDowall, ex-Strawberry Switchblade, filling in late doors for Yorkshire’s Drahla, technical woes complementing the rock’n’roll demeanour. From the first beat (with my review here), Buddy on drums held the interest, while Dan’s vocal and synth touches and chemistry with bass-man Rick was somewhat mesmeric.
Again, there were elements of Iggy as well as Jim Morrison, Julian Cope, and maybe even The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Family Cat. I described the concept as ‘extreme indie art-rock’, the band digging in after Rick jettisoned his malfunctioning bass and stormed off. We pondered whether it was part of the act. You never forget a Vukovar performance.
Incidentally, I understand that Rose actually joined the band for a while in 2017, although Rick told me it ‘ended in totally burned bridges and chaos, as you’d imagine’.
My most recent sighting of the band was in early February 2019, when they were supporting North-East punk legends Penetration, and it seemed that you never saw the same Vukovar twice, this ‘an outfit seemingly in a state of flux right now, between incarnations’, as I remarked.
That time it was harder to get a handle, bass player Rick joined by female guitar and keyboard players plus crouching, determined poet Simon Morris, of Blackpool-based DIY avant-punk collective Ceramic Hobs – another outfit with a fluid line-up, comprising nearly 30 members over their three decades together.
Vukovar still utilised ‘thrashing guitars, malfunctioning synths and dramatic stage exits’, but seemed to have found fresh direction, Simon on hand, reading aloud from a notebook. They’d reached the next chapter in their somewhat outlandish art-house journey, perhaps.
They’ve now released an eighth album. Yes, eight – some going. But there’s something else, this latest long player is dedicated to the afore-mentioned Simon Morris, who died aged 51 in late 2019, having been reported missing, subsequently found in the River Wyre five days before Christmas.
Simon last met and played with Vukovar in mid-November, supporting Fall founding member Martin Bramah’s post-punk outfit Blue Orchids at The Mill, Todmorden. He’d not long returned from – and was buzzing about – a book reading in Los Angeles, and was set to head off for a live engagement in New York with another band he guested with. He never made it.
A published author, influential indie provocateur Simon also championed mental health awareness and was associated with late ‘90s movement Mad Pride, aimed at destigmatising mental illness at a time when, in his words, ‘we all felt like the scum at the bottom of society’, the tie-in London gigs played to ‘crowds of enthusiastic and friendly crazy people’.
He’s not been forgotten, Dan and Rick recently putting together a personal, impassioned tribute to the man they called their ‘anti-father’ for author Dennis Cooper’s DC’s website. And Simon’s experimental spirit is somehow captured on Vukovar’s latest offering, ‘engineered and produced by The Brutalist House and the Ghosts in their Machine, mastered by Phil Reynolds’.
A statement issued ahead of the LP read, ‘Following the death of one of theirselves, various failures and ever-deepening reliances, Vukovar have finally emerged once more. With the disintegration of the old group, a new, stable line-up – the NeuPopAct – have collided and colluded to here present The Colossalist, part one of the Eternity Ends Here triptych; the most ambitious thing attempted by the group and the most wrapped in turmoil.’
According to their own myth, ‘Vukovar formed in a crumbling place-filler of a town in 2014. They were always dying and reorganised after cease to exist in 2019. Effete artists pretending to be northern hardcases pretending to be uniform fetishists in iconoclast drag’. And the rider? ‘Do not trust us; we are fragile stars’.
Their underground, defiantly esoteric nature rules out standard interviews, but that doesn’t mean the band named after the Croatian city but linked to Blackpool, Todmorden and Warrington – with past links to Wigan and St Helens – wish to remain obscure.
As to how the band came about, Rick told me he met Dan while ‘putting shows on at a shitty pub in a shitty part of town, and there ended up being a brawl’. Ani Loftus arrived more recently, via a link with Simon, while Jason Walters and Rory Johnson were with a group supporting Vukovar who Rick subsequently got to know when he moved to the Yorkshire borders, a bond later forged at The Mill in the show which turned out to be Simon’s last.
“Me and Dan were drinking with Rory before the show and asked him to play drums. We had about 10 minutes’ practise, Simon only just back from LA. The next day I met Jason, an excellent drummer and Rory’s cousin, in the pub and asked him to join.”
It was meant to be, it seems.
Like Ceramic Hobs, Vukovar challenge writers looking to describe their output. When the new record landed, Louder Than War’s Paul Scott-Bates described them as ‘darkwave churchcore’. Labels, eh.
I’m not sure if the band’s own description of their music as NeuPop refers to influential early ‘70s German electronic rock outfit Neu! There are certainly Krautrock elements. As for the pop part, the first single off the new release, ‘Here Are Lions’ (with a promo video here) is arguably their most commercial to date, and there are occasional nods to more pop-like directions within. But Dua Lipa need not lose sleep yet.
It’s their most accessible record so far though, the highlights for me including the near self-titled ‘Vukovar (The Double Cross)’ and ‘Silent Envoy’, both bringing to mind the later, darker pop of Depeche Mode (and not just because of the leather trousers) and early, less chart-bothering OMD. Then there’s ‘In a Year of 13 Moons’, for these ears hinting at the indie roots of Simple Minds and ‘Primitive Painters’-era Felt.
As for closing track ‘Hearing Voices’, that’s a reimagined Galaxie 500 song fittingly containing sound clips of Simon Morris’ voice from various interviews and archive material.
Paul Scott-Bates concluded that The Colossalist is ‘Vukovar’s best to date without a doubt. Any imperfections are perfect, any moments off-key are perfectly in tune, any mistakes are intended. The band continue to release essential listening.’ And while he drew comparisons with the likes of Coil, OMD, New Order and Soft Cell, the Rats on the Run website reckoned, ‘Vukovar know their way around a pop song, they just serve them in strips wrapped in dirt. One-part industrial, one-part post-punk synthplay, equal parts turmoil and fear.’
I wouldn’t disagree with either assessment, but wonder if beyond the completion of the Eternity Ends Here triptych – including contributions from Jane Appleby (Ceramic Hobs) and Gea Philes, with Phil Reynolds again mixing and mastering – the Vukovar LP after that might see them attempt to lure in a wider audience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting a departure to stadium rock, although that in itself could be interesting. Either way, as long as they still put in occasional chaotic reappearances at the Conti …
The Colossalist is available on CD and in digital format on Other Voices Records, the first in a planned series of releases in collaboration with artist Andrzej Klimowski. For more detail, head to Vukovar’s Bandcamp page or this record label link.