by Nich Sullivan
They seemed to have shattered themselves into existence at the end of the millennium’s first decade: a crew of ne’er-do-wells and scofflaws who revelled in murdering their lyric sheets and leaving them a pack of bloody corpses that sported fading smiles in the moonlight. A machine made of equal parts loftiness and aggression, they were a band that one might be forgiven for thinking was taking the piss out of an entire generation. But after a couple of dedicated listens, their sheer force-of-nature candor made that interpretation fall apart.
WU LYF (World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation) lasted from – about – the summer of 2008 until about the winter of 2012, though tracking the actual dissolution of the band’s willingness to work together makes the end date a bit nebulous from the outside. Regardless, four years is basically no time when trying to build an artistic presence from the ground up, but WU LYF used that brief amount of time to create a document that would last the ages – or at least last as long as the kids out there needed something with which to scream, or something through which to find a modern facsimile for hope.
To revisit Go Tell Fire to the Mountain feels like gasping fresh air through a bloody towel: an unfiltered rawness of perspective mixed with the staleness of what is all but dead. They could have been the band that launched a million pilgrims and acolytes, or the band that beat every dead horse they stumbled across – each listener had to make that call on their own.
Even those that followed the music news fairy tale of Manchester’s ‘heavy pop’ specialists in real time weren’t ready for Go Tell Fire To The Mountain. In a brief review for The Guardian, Dave Simpson tells us that the album ‘…never loses a thrilling feeling that it could all go anywhere at any moment.’ While that phrasing is vague at best, it has some merit for a record that features Ellery Roberts’ uncannily gnarly ability to bring volume from the absolute pit of his stomach, and rake it through a larynx that sounds as though it’s sprayed nightly with acid. Roberts’ vocal stylings are only a part of the story; throughout the LP are unexpected turns of sublimity, shambolic gang vocals, deft guitar and organ work, and a rhythm section that proves as good at giving wings to melodies as it is at stomping them into the floor with no remorse.
Lyrically, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain has a lot to say. The challenge comes in decoding the words into a message or a worldview. It’s fair to point out that this is mostly due to a penchant for poetry and symbolism but when listening through and only catching about twenty percent of the actual words is par for the course, the challenge tends to become that much more overstated.
One way to parse the lyrics is to consider the images that keep appearing. Roberts remarked around the album’s release that tracks were written ‘in a narrative sense and [approached] as a complete work rather than a bunch of songs thrown together.’ This modus operandi (i.e. focusing on narrative tropes) becomes all the more reason to repeat ideas in different contexts as would happen in most pieces of medium-to long-form prose.
Crowns are referenced several times on the LP: they are held and replaced, one is used to glorify a murder, and fourteen of them create the numerical underpinning for the album’s penultimate song. Children ‘run blind and free’, they symbolically bleed in front of their parents, babies are ‘trying, dying…lying’ – the kids are not all right, it seems. Other repetitions involve blood, authority (in several forms), mortality, money, sadness, freedom. We could hang our hat on these or any amount of other repeated imagery here, but the real question is ‘What is it all about?’
The genius in what seems like a stream-of-consciousness diatribe here is that each listener brings their own meaning into what they hear. From only what is noted above, one could extrapolate the following story arc: 1) the kids are in trouble, 2) they don’t know the true risk of the lives they’re about to embark on, 3) their authority figures wish to placate them (read: keep them unprepared), 4) they are coaxed into spending a lifetime ‘spitting blood’ (metaphorically) to make money, and 5) the ‘crowns’ that society puts on its leaders may as well be made of garbage for all that they’re truly worth. Faced with a situation – nay, a world – like that, a young person’s only response should be to rage indiscriminately against all oppression and dishonesty.
Listeners use their own experience of the world to bring an id-feeding interpretation into these hazy stories of greed, conflict, and ultimate victory. The musical accompaniment to each is already a clarion call for rowdy energy, so the dual sparks of righteousness and action serve to simply accelerate the kerosene of philosophy that can then burn wildly in whomever has the cerebral kindling.
Perhaps the best part of the whole escapade is that it feels as though WU LYF never really intended there to be a point to all this. Of course, it’s art, and of course, any artist wants to communicate a message, but not all messages are created equal – nor are their delivery systems. To be clear, WU LYF certainly cared about their music and themes in a global and overarching way – this comes through loudly and clearly even when the words are unintelligible and the instruments cacophonous. But for a band that arguably saw themselves as being ‘born into plastic fame,’ they seemed to walk a fine line between authenticity in their intent and a knowingly blasé attitude toward the public and the press.
Even so, it seems paradoxically possible that the band cared too much. When everything beyond just their one recorded LP is taken into account, the tableau portrays a group of musicians with unbridled energy and thousands of ideas between them about changing the world. We see them adopt disaffection as part disguise and (perhaps) part marketing ploy in order to reach the desired demographics (up to and including shirking interviews routinely due to their steely distrust of the music press). We see them create a document of emotion and updated morality that blazes into the ideological ether and transfixes a subset of young (and young-ish) people. We see them get the slings-and-arrows treatment spurred by having a manager who had prior associations with a corporate marketing entity, which causes the loss of some public goodwill. Then, in a tragic turn, we see them part ways the following year.
WU LYF arguably cared so much about their music, message, and aesthetic that they blew out the other side of caring, and became genuinely disaffected in the work of being a ‘band’. However, their ideas couldn’t help but resonate within a generation of young people whose ears were buzzing with new anxieties. The kids needed the ugliness of the world spelled out for them, so that they could act against it, and Go Tell Fire to the Mountain made it easy for them to give names to their own grievances and correctives by employing words that could be used to paint by number.
What really mattered though was the hum of pure dark-matter energy that seemed to follow the LYF-ers in everything they did. However much they cared about the precision of Go Tell Fire To The Mountain’s message as one piece of work, it is undeniable that they cared about its presentation. In a different world, one where they had continued as a band, it’s impossible to imagine that level of energy and excitement would not have carried on. WU LYF’s message, such as it may have been, was wholly inextricable from its delivery, and it showed a hungry listenership that both message and delivery can be toothless without force and commitment. The ‘what’s’ and ‘how’s’ of the particular message pale in comparison to the fact that its delivery was made so tangible.
At the end of the day, all that matters is that they screamed at the mountain.
They gave us fire.
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