No screams disturbed the silence. A few survivors shuffled through the debris, quietly begging for water. People, houses, factories – reduced to ash. Those who lived saw ghastly images: A shuffling man holding his eyeballs in his hands; a naked woman, the pattern of her shirt’s fabric burnt into her skin; the torched, burnt remains of people. In the evening, some survivors climbed a mountain and watched the firestorm roam through what was left of Hiroshima. In Nagasaki, the bodies of the dead would line the streets for weeks – there was nobody to bury them: the soil was toxic. Many of those who survived the blasts and following nuclear fallout would continue to tell the story of the atomic bombs for decades, followed by a stern warning: this must never happen again!
Thirty-five years later, at the dawn of a new decade, the foreign relations between America and Russia had soured considerably. The New Cold War led to a newly antagonistic rhetoric on both sides and whispers of the atom bomb became a palpable threat, both for governments and the public. The zeitgeist had become a bleak, pessimistic claustrophobia. And so, This Heat, the London-based trio of Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams, aided by a variety of previously-composed material, fashioned something to fit these uncertain times: a concept album about the end of our world and the birth of a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.
How can art depict unimaginable suffering? How to capture cosmic horror? As Charles Hayward put it in the liner notes to Deceit‘s reissue: “I still think of this record as a dream within a dream.” And he’s not far off: much of the album feels like a nightmare. There’s the iconic cover: Williams’ screaming face, reminiscent of a Bacon painting, drenched in an abstract collage of a mushroom cloud, the American flag, fire and blood, frozen in a moment of absolute agony. With its horrific lack of eyes and striped tongue, it’s almost beautiful, like a lost and misremembered Warhol work of the mid 70s. A cold war Medusa’s head. But then, what lies within is even more uncannily morbid.
Where This Heat’s debut album was a collection of abstract ambiences that flow into each other like paint, Deceit concentrated on lyrics and the dismantling of traditional song structures, manipulating tapes to the point where the music was meant to replicate the record player bursting. Most of Deceit follows the narrative of a world which, after a nuclear holocaust, sees its survivors develop into a new breed of monstrous society.
The individual songs thus become like a roadmap of archaic, Lovecraftian possibilities. But there’s also the odd outliers, such as the twin tracks “Sleep” and “Shrinkwrap”, whose cultish drumming and unsettling chants recall voodoo rituals, while the lyrics (mostly collected from TV commercials) dismantle consumerist fetishes as deluded escapism. There’s also “Triumph”, with its abstract lyrics seemingly describing the imagery of Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon”, only to have its last line reference fascist iconography. Aesthetically, they still fit the concept, with “Triumph” opening with what sounds like radio signals intruding the recording, then evolving into an homage to Cantonese Opera. The appropriation of what Western ears associate with foreign influences, weird religions and broken signals immediately introduces a sonic equivalent to the deterioration of the very societal structures punk wanted to undermine. In this, the record perfectly fits with the post-punk strategy of characterizing modern living as anxiety.
Yet, in contrast to Gang of Four’s Entertainment or Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight, Deceit’s nuclear holocaust has reshaped life considerably. “Paper Hats” – the only This Heat song with lyrics by Williams – asks what society expects from itself (“Paper hats? / Or maybe even roses? / The sounds of explosions?”), before evolving into noisy jazz. “S.P.Q.R.” presents us with a new breed of living, where humanity is united under the identity of Roman dialectic. “We are all Romans / Unconscious Ccllective / We are all Romans / We live to regret it,” announces the collective choir, “And we know all about straight roads.”
Suggestively hinting at the Roman Empire’s demise, the trio accuses authoritarianism and perceived high-cultural developments as hubris and, ultimately, as inhumane cruelty, as the logic of hierarchical structures ultimately leads to fratricide: “We organise via property as power / Slavehood and freedom, imperial purple… Suckled by a she-wolf / we turn against our brother.” The latin “Bella” (beauty) is conjugated until it fits the plural and direct forms of “War”. Pax Romana – the peaceful 200-year period prior to the fall of Rome – is directly adapted onto the Cold War, as the following track, “Cenotaph” eerily predicts “History repeats itself.” A little less veiled than “S.P.Q.R.”, the lyrics directly address Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister serving during the outbreak of World War I, who, watching streetlamps getting lit, observed: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” This Heat take it a step further, assessing that not only will the lights go back on, but they will always be followed by the next war. It’s a bleak, asymmetrical punk song, whose brief detour into more hopeful imagery and melodies is interrupted by the sound of metal sheets rustling and the image of disfigured war veterans returning. After all, the native fields are full of poppies – lined with corpses like the streets of Nagasaki.
The B-side of Deceit delves deeper into uncanniness, with “Shrinkwrap”’s disorienting false start and “Radio Prague”’s distorted radio recording of a Czechoslovakian flood warning and ominous beat. “Makeshift Swahili” attacks the deterioration of language with Hayward barking out lines about the tower of Babel and the colonization of native Americans through settlers. The track is a collage of various recordings and features startling shifts in tone, melody and even audio quality. In the wasteland – like in the song – words will have become meaningless, undistinguishable noises, agonized yelps met with frustration. “Independence” observes the same themes via the opening statements of the Declaration of Independence to the sonic backdrop of faux-Chinese folk music, contrasting and questioning the veracity within the basis of a society that all-too-often argued that not all men are equal. The hidden in-joke here is that the vocal melody is that of the debut album’s “The Fall of Saigon”, backwards.
The acidic “A New Kind of Water” features Bullen’s only lyrical contribution for the band, with Hayward writing the introductory lines and changing the perspective of Bullen’s “you” to the recorded “we” (something the two still argue about, as Hayward quips in the liner notes). Bullen, the punk in the band, graciously attacks the status quo of Conservativism and promises of Neo-liberalism alike, accusing governments as well as the society that buys into their empty narratives. “Who can watch as the Earth burns, shatters, and dies? / Fail-safe, foolproof, we’ve heard that before / Good sense is needed / Let’s hope we’ve got men on the job…” With its pummelling drums and sharp guitars, it’s the most British-sounding track on the album. Bookending Deceit, the apocalyptic industrial wasteland of “Hi Baku Shyo (Suffer Bomb Disease)” translates the imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into anguished mutant gasps – as Hayward comments, “time cracks and folds back on itself.”
Deceit was released to great feedback from the band’s dedicated followers, but the trio broke up when Williams departed for India to follow his interests a year later. This Heat regrouped tentatively in 2001, but rehearsals ended with Williams’ untimely death. Finally, they regrouped as THIS IS NOT THIS HEAT, performing with a variety of guest musicians – including, among others, Thurston Moore and Chris Cutler – between 2016 and 2019. During these sets, the claustrophobic songs off Deceit seemed eerily current. Nearly four decades later and the Lovecraftian collage of nuclear pestilence, East Asian folklore, Maya Deren’s hallucinatory imagery, consumerist excess, nuclear warfare and populist death drive captured the zeitgeist again. When we turn on the news to hear about nuclear re-armament, when we enter a packed bar as the only one wearing a mask, when we observe the brutal actions of policemen, we’re back on the hill, gazing down at the firestorm. History did repeat itself, and staring into Williams’ screaming face offers no solace. Every straight road leads home – home to Rome.