(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
The Seaside (1984), 5.5/10
A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988), 6/10
On Land And In The Sea (1989), 6.5/10
Heaven Born and Ever Bright (1992), 5/10
Sing to God (1996), 7.5/10
Guns (1999), 5/10

The prolific Cardiacs, fronted by Tim Smith, debuted with the cassettes The Obvious Identity (1980), when they were still called Cardiac Arrest, Toy World (1981) and The Seaside (1984) that contained early versions of Is This the Life?, A Little Man and a House and R.E.S. and featured the sextet with percussionist Tim Quy, keyboardist William Drake and saxophonist Sarah Smith. Big Ship (1986), perhaps the peak of their symphonic Frank Zappa-esque power-pop, Tarred and Feathered (1986) and There's Too Many Irons In The Fire (1987), that appeared on EPs and singles, cemented their status as pop innovators.

Three songs from Seaside were reprised for the first major album, A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988), and Is This the Life became their signature song, an ode permeated by the existential spleen of Roxy Music and Ultravox. But songs such as In a City Lining and The Breakfast Line stage a delirious and hilarious, if immature, rehashing of Frank Zappa, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Queen, always littered with demented choral singalongs. The best one (Victory Egg) borrows even from military bands (enhanced with a Penny Lane-esque trumpet). Punk spirit leaks out of Dive (a` la Madness), both more ferocious and more folkish, with a rhythm that sounds like a collaboration between Von Lmo and Michael Nyman. The foundations were laid for an unorthodox prog-punk-pop fusion. (The CD release adds five mediocre bonus tracks).

On Land And In The Sea (1989) was the last album with percussionist Tim Quy, keyboardist William Drake (who had composed some of their best material) and saxophonist Sarah Smith. The album opens with a double punch, the wildly arranged folk-pop ditty Two Bites of Cherry and the even more propulsive and no less anthemic Baby Heart Dirt. Songs such as The Leader of the Starry Skies mutate over and over again, one invention after the other, but they retain their identity. Each song is like two or three Lennon-McCartney songs in one, wrapped in multi-layered arrangements (Phil Spector to the square) and catapulted into pop heaven by punk energy. Not surprisingly they enter the territory of cartoon music with The Duck and Roger the Horse, and they flirt with the parodistic musichall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in Mare's Nest (another standout). When they focus, they can craft jewels like the grotesque singalong Arnald, somewhere between the Kinks and the Fall. Unfortunately, what doesn't work is the longer pieces, the frenzied Dada vaudeville of the seven-minute Buds and Spawn and the unusually serious eight-minute melodrama of The Everso Closely Guarded Line. Nonetheless, Mare's Nest and Baby Heart Dirt blow away the entire dumb Brit-pop of the era. Nobody before them had crafted such madcap catchy progressive punk-pop.

Songs For Ships And Irons (1991) is an anthology of singles, EPs and rarities.

Downsized to a quartet with a new guitarist, the Cardiacs recorded Heaven Born and Ever Bright (1992), a half-baked album with only a few gems. The album opens with a slow triumphal melody sung by a symphonic choir, The Alphabet Business Concern. The real thing is the hysterical punk-rockabilly assault of Anything I Can't Eat (perhaps their most violent ever), followed closely by the anthemic and catchy polka Goodbye Grace, also shot at bullet-train speed. As it is often the case with the Cardiacs, the longer (eight-minute) Snakes-a-Sleeping tries a bit too hard to sound anthemic and hard-rocking.

A new stage in their career began with the double-disc album Sing to God (1996), that featured guitarist Jon Poole. The whole album is pure adrenaline, but a melodramatic kind of adrenaline, and doped with overdoses of strings and keyboards as if Jim Steinman, Frank Zappa and Phil Spector collaborated on a remix of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Who's Quadrophenia. It feels exhilarating like a rock opera, emphatic like a Broadway musical, and, last but not least, funny like a vaudeville show. The listener is stunned by an overwhelming pyrotechnics of soaring refrains, killer riffs, tempo shifts and demented arrangements. Dog-Like Sparky (one of their masterpieces) is a spiraling musichall skit with a choral singalong and a divinely catchy refrain. Eat It Up Worms Hero is Queen-ish operatic rock updated to punk-rock. Then the avalanche tears down all musical walls: the explosive merry-go-round of Fiery Gun Hand, the thundering and hard-rocking Bellyeye, the Kinks-ian parody of Manhoo, the manic punk-rock eruption of Bell Clinks, etc. The lengthier songs may not pack the same creative fury but are nonetheless unorthodox. An apocalyptic guitar riff opens the nine-minute plaintive elegy Dirty Boy, with an ultra-dense coda stretching out towards infinite. The ten-minute Nurses Whispering Verses unleashes one last insane gallop aboard the band's alien spaceship. The closer, Foundling, finally slows down the tempo to intone a pathetic David Bowie-esque singalong but punctuated with magniloquent mellotron. If Wagner had orchestrated a Marx Brothers film maybe it would sound like this. Tim Smith joins Pete Townshend as one of the great (and grand) opera-rock composers of all times.

The vastly inferior Guns (1999) substitutes emphasis for imagination. The arrangements are far less sophisticated and the melodies far more trivial: banging senselessly on the drums and shouting out of one's throat is not always a sign of good (artistic) health. Residues of their unstoppable swashbuckling fervor surface in There's Good Cud and partially in the rowdy garage-rock of Come Back Clammy Lammy. Their musichall adds only one memorable skit, Wind And Rains Is Cold, that turns into a nursery rhyme for child's voice and gospel-y church organ. As usual, the longer (seven-minute) Jitterbug disappoints. The poppy Ain't He Messy Though sounds positively like Penny Lane. Maybe Tim Smith had exhausted his genius in Sing to God.

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