Test Dept

A Short History

(Note: this article was originally written in 1992 and redrafted only a little since then. I've resisted the temptation to update it while making it available on the WWW in 1996).

Test Dept home page| Discography | Archives | Links

The early eighties saw something of a fascination with heavy metal. Einstürzende Neubauten were creating an apocalyptic sound poetry in Germany, a jagged allegory for (hoped for) death throes of industry. S.P.K. employed metal noise as one element amongst many noise-generators, producing a dense information overload, a primal scream response to social chaos. Earlier, Z'ev (Stefan Weiser) had tapped into the energies he found within metal objects, exploring them for both their timbral and spiritual resonance.

Test Dept's story is hard to present in quite such a verbally exaggerated way.

The group was formed in New Cross, south-east London in late 1981. All unemployed, and with listening tastes ranging from soul to classical music, they searched out whatever they could find to make music with, and for the most part this consisted of scrap metal salvaged from waste ground and derelict factories. The reason had as much to do with lack of money as it had to do with a dislike for conventional rock instruments. Originally, they used bass guitars and other conventional instruments, but these were fairly rapidly dropped as they obtained more industrial percussion, and found that these created a stronger and more consistent sound. All their earliest material is extremely noisy and fairly undisciplined. It's angry and raw, with a chaotic sense of rhythm and a tendency to opt for an all-out, frenzied burst of metal-bashing.

It didn't take them long to build up a cult reputation, mainly through their powerful live shows. Amongst the venues they have played in over the years are Waterloo Station, Cannon Street Station, St Rollox Railway Works (spot any particular theme?), a sand quarry, a concert hall, the Vancouver Expo (1986), an ice rink, on top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, in a field next to Stirling Castle [see Archives], rock venues and as part of the Kool Jazz festival in New York [see Archives]. They've toured the United States, and Eastern Europe. They've played gigs in support of the Miners' Strike, the Printworkers Dispute (1987), the Ambulance Workers Strike (1989) and the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign (1990, see Archives). Almost invariably they combine the music with the use of 16mm film projection and slides.

An early recording, The Strength of Metal in Motion, now unavailable, sounds very little like later Test Dept. Lots of found tapes, some synth, and various atmospheric noises: much more experimental than they later became, and much less interesting.

Ecstasy Under Duress, a compilation of live recordings, is one of the few early releases still available, having been recently reissued as a CD on the TOTAL label, the descendant of the original label, Pleasantly Surprised. Like Beating the Retreat (now a rarity) it collects several early Test Dept classics, such as Gdansk, Shockwork and Efficiency. The latter, released as two 45rpm 12"s in a box with cards and artwork, is a slightly cleaner production, studio recorded. Both are impressive collections, combining some of the group's more chaotic noiseworks with spartan, enraged rhythmic drives, and some atmospheric pieces.

Prior to 1984, Test Dept's music contained a strong but unfocussed political edge. Tapes from radio broadcasts were mixed in, creating a sense of paranoia, an all too recognisable echo of Orwell. Test Dept knew where they stood: against state oppression and in favour of the do-it-yourself ethic. It took the Miners' Strike of 1984, and the accompanying manipulation and brutality to really force Test Dept's hand, to make them take a concrete political stand.

Their involvement in the Miners' Strike is recorded in the now deleted 1984 LP, Shoulder to Shoulder, recorded with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, all profits from which went to support the strike. Both groups performed throughout the country to raise money and awareness, and on the record they appear both on several separate tracks, and one unexciting collaboration, Comrades. Although you'll be hard pushed to find it nowadays, it was potentially one of their most interesting albums, being the one where they linked their political anger most clearly to a real political struggle. Depending on the listener's tastes and state of mind, the Choir's contributions will either entrance or irritate tremendously. The best track is a pulsating, roaring recording of Fuel to Fight, a great example of live Test Dept: the remainder is hardly one of their classics, musically.

The Compulsion 12" experimented with synthesisers, fairly unsuccessfully, and foreshadowed several later attempts to do the same. The Faces of Freedom 12" remixes material from the similarly titled album, in what Test Dept supposedly imagined was a more dance-oriented style. As an experimental proto-hardbeat it's interesting, but it's far from danceable. More recently, two 12"s came out bearing very little relationship to other Test Dept music, setting synthetic dance beats next to Test Dept vocals and politically-orientated samples, with only sparse glimpses of the usual metal percussion. Designed purely as fund-raisers, both exploited the events of the Gulf War as their source material. Like Faces of Freedom, the band didn't learn the knack of creating dance music, and both singles, although fairly enjoyable, were never going to be mass market stuff. Their inability to create a 12" which will go down well in the clubs is ironic given that their usual live show, musically uncompromising, is extremely danceable stuff. 1993's attempt, Bang On It, is even less interesting than the above, but sadly seems typical of the group's new populist agenda.

The Unacceptable Face of Freedom is a surprisingly synthetic sounding record, given the band's usual acoustic live sets, but it's one where the technology is firmly under control. It contains classic stomping percussion and furious shouting vocals in pieces like Fist, 51st State of America and Fuckhead; bizarre atmospheric tracks; and Statement, a harrowing and enraged testament read by miner Alan Sutcliffe, describing his experiences during the strike when set upon by a van full of police. The anger and aggression on this record make it easily one of the band's most memorable. It also formed the basis of their performance at B.R.'s Bishopsbridge Maintenance Depot in 1986, commissioned by the G.L.C.

Throughout their history the band have collaborated with others extensively. The likes of Steve Martland and Sarah Jane Morris have joined forces with them. They have been involved in dance events with the Rotterdam Dance Group and Lindsay John. In 1989 they performed the music for the play Elijah, written by Martin Buber, and presented in Wroclav, Poland. For their performance piece The Second Coming, a critique of the heritage industry performed in a disused railway works in Glasgow in 1990, they drafted journalist Neal Ascherson (of The Independent) to write the narrative [see Archives]. A Good Night Out is the recorded version of a stage show scripted with radical playwright Jonathan Moore. Like The Unacceptable Face of Freedom, this is one of their angriest statements, and best. Musical highlights come in the form of Victory and Cha Till Sinn Tuille, mixing bagpipes in with the rhythmic drumming to produce particularly uplifting results. The two really strong tracks, however, are spoken pieces. Generous Terms is another text by Alan Sutcliffe, now looking back at the miners' struggle, and if anything even more frustrated and savage. Voice of Reason is a text by Jonathan Moore:

" ... A government that closes hospitals and opens nuclear air bases, that conspicuously favours its wealthy, its corrupt, its immoral citizens, while denying basic human rights to the majority. Extreme conditions demand extreme responses."
As ever with Test Dept, the concepts are simplistic and the analysis almost non-existent. But the anger they bring to what they do more than makes up for this criticism. I first drafted this article approximately two months before the 1992 General Election was held, and everything I read in the newspapers indicated another election which, like the last one, was to be fought almost entirely on a "pound in your pocket" basis. Polls showed consistently strong Conservative support despite the effects of deep recession. Had these people forgotten everything that had happened over the last decade? Why was nobody angry any more?

Terra Firma, released during the band's brief flirtation with classy Belgian label Sub Rosa, could be thought of as Test Dept's "green" concept album. Tracks like Siege and Terra Firma are both musical considerations of human environmental exploitation and destruction. As well as an even wider array of instrumentation than usual (piano, accordion, cello, bagpipes and double bass all get a look in), the album uses some decidedly uncharacteristic singing, including some female vocals, a particular rarity given Test Dept's usual particularly masculine feel. It's a variable album, although certainly a welcome contrast to previous releases.

Gododdin was a collaboration with kindred spirits in the form of Welsh avant-garde theatre company Brith Gof [see Archives]. Performed in Wales, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Scotland, this was a dramatisation of the annihilation of a small Celtic army by the invading Angles at Catraeth in 600 A.D. Like many of Test Dept's more recent performances, it produced a critically acclaimed spectacular using a huge performance space, a large cast, and lots of "props": when premiered in Cardiff, an abandoned car factory as transformed using 600 tons of sand, 50 trees, 30 wrecked cars and a set that flooded as the performance progressed. Brith Gof provided some music, and their dramatic and physical style of dancing, while Test Dept provided their usual blend of percussion and bagpipes.

Since their move to Jungle Records in 1990, the band has released two singles (already mentioned), and three albums. The first of these was Materia Prima, originally released in a frustratingly hard to find limited edition mainly to raise money, but later receiving a wider release. This consists of recordings from the live show Materia Prima, performed in Holland, Italy, Finland and Denmark, as well as some earlier material. It's more ambient and atmospheric than the band's usual releases, including lots of tape loops and very little percussion. Funeral relies on trumpet, strings and piano, whilst the self-descriptive Pipes and Didgeridoo is quite beautiful.

The second, and an album which Test Dept had been planning for a few years, was Pax Britannica, recorded with The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and The Schola Cantorum, an Edinburgh-based choir. All the orchestral material was arranged with John Eacott (also involved in some previous projects and recordings). It's an uneasy blend: Test Dept's percussive contribution is buried for most of the recording, mainly because of the difficulties they had in playing in time with the orchestra, and vice versa. It contains versions of several pieces that have formed part of the band's recent live set, such as God King and Law, Agincourt, Territory and From the Land. As a concept work, encompassing and satirising a number of themes from the British Empire and Churchill through to the achievements of the Iron Lady and her less-than-illustrious successor, it's quite successful. The central concept is of the slow internalisation of a fading Empire. Musically, it very definitely has its moments, but I much prefer the rawness of live performance. Despite these misgivings it's an essential album for anyone with any interest in the band.

Proven in Action, recordings of live material from recent Canadian performances is in some ways a complimentary release, as it contains some of the same material, minus orchestra. It's also the only officially released document of recent live performance.

I've already mentioned quite a few of the band's live performances. Their more recent rock venue gigs have aimed deliberately to create more of a "party" atmosphere than the larger-scale outings could ever possess. The rhythms, as hard-edged as ever, are infectious, groovy and thoroughly danceable. The noise is overwhelming, the sounds tribal-cum-military, metallic clatterings thrown in while huge bass drums, snare drum, and various steel relics are beaten with savage and unexpectedly precise intensity. The teamwork is spectacular: the various rhythms interlock perfectly and the beat holds your attention with ease. If you haven't experienced them live then you haven't really experienced Test Dept. They're awesome.

I've only seen one of their spectaculars: The Second Coming in 1991 (named after a poem by W. B. Yeats) [see Archives]. This exemplified what they're now capable of when they put their mind to it. A huge performance area was used, while the audience remained within a small seated area - a reversal of the usual rock stadium gig arrangement. This gave the performance a dimension lacked by any stage show, an interesting use of perspective. Rail machinery was moved about; three narrators told the story in various voices; a brass band and small choir joined with a large number of percussionists, a piper, and the band themselves to provide the music; dancers danced and walked around; in the far distance, welders welded; films were projected onto distant screens. As spectacle, it was pretty impressive. As a critique of the heritage industry its only failing was that the narration was occasionally obscured, and the audience's attention was continually distracted from it by the multitude of other things going on.

They've received lavish praise and harsh criticism from various quarters. As a response to the conformity of the 80s, their anger has been a much needed kick up the arse. As an unashamedly politicised music and art, they're a refreshing change from all the avant-garde musicians pursuing narrow and isolated, socially irrelevant aesthetic experiments. As producers of fantastic rhythm and noise, they're particularly competent. They're also unique: nobody else sounds the same, least of all other metalbashers like Einstürzende Neubauten who are frequently mentioned alongside them. They've found a sound and style that's distinctly their own whilst continuing to develop musically, artistically and politically. What more could you want?

They've frequently been accused of romanticising hard labour, affecting an industrial 'chic'. This is sometimes true: their art occasionally (but far from always) emphasises machinery, work and toil in a rather shallow aestheticism.

More pointedly, they suffer from a rather vague political inspiration. They're socialist, yes. But they don't have any particular political programme, and they're far from adept when questioned on political or philosophical points. Sure they're angry, and they're right to be, but they rarely go any further, to suggest or support solutions to the problems they identify. Test Dept can also be seen as reactive, in that their statements are all against something, always negative, always rebelling against the "establishment", never putting forward anything of their own. They don't attempt to fill the void produced by their wilful destruction of the accepted point of view.

In their favour, works like The Second Coming are more ambiguous, open to a variety of interpretations, possibly due to the influence of Neal Ascherson, or possibly due to their inability to invoke a single conclusion from all the material that went into the performance.

"I love Test Dept because they still won't acquiesce to that little backsliding whimper in us - 'let us decide, tell us what to decide' - and the fact that that may not be a conscious move makes it all the more potent." Mark Sinker, The Catalogue, January 1991.
(C) Brian Duguid 1996