Five years ago, Prinzhorn Dance School, the musical project of U.K. artists Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn, released its eponymous debut to a rather divided reception—to such a cognitively dissonant extent that, in one review, the album was awarded both 1 and 4 stars. Most negativity stemmed from the band’s inaccessibility: Prinzhorn traffics in a challenging strain of post-punk, characterized by spastic rhythms, imagistic sing shouting and a darkly minimal approach to the guitars. Comparisons to late ’70s/early ’80s U.K. acts like Wire, Gang Of Four and Young Marble Giants are unavoidable. This bitter brew seemed odd percolating from DFA, a label known more for sweat-slicked dance tracks than existential art-rock.
It’s apparent from their latest effort, Clay Class, that the artists were unfazed by their critics’ polarized responses. Here they have mostly kept with the same formula that made their first record at once daring and refined. As soon as one gains an ear for their meticulous abrasiveness (perhaps already acquired by fans of the Fall), it’s hard to quit listening. Like its predecessors, Prinzhorn can be funky as hell, in an austere, English sort of way: bouncing bass, scattered commenting of electric guitar, insistent syncopation from the drum kit. The production is sparse and spacious, recalling Martin Hannett’s work with Joy Division, with instruments often sounding isolated from one another, making the brief moments where melodies coalesce more powerful. Even individual toms on the kit are split across the stereo channel, mirroring the sense of alienation expressed by Prinz’s terse lyrical interjections. For a Prinzhorn guitar solo, think less bombastic soliloquy and more wailing in a corner.
In general, the tracks on Clay Class feel more like well-honed songs than those on the first album, without sacrificing their wry raggedness. Images of a cold, meaningless universe (“Skies are granite grey, granite grey/We’re getting older, older”) are paired with ironically cheery and domestic ones (“We’re riding our bicycles in Copenhagen/And in France”). Without these bits of humor, the album could sound hopelessly heavy-handed. However, with Prinzhorn’s successful balancing of the mundane and the abstract, it never does. The band even tries a little tenderness with a slightly tongue-in-cheek love song, “I Want You,” sporting some beautifully delicate boy/girl harmonies.
The world created by Prinzhorn Dance School is perhaps not the most appealing one. It is an endless land stripped of color, one of naked trees, tired hotel bars and supermarket queues. But perhaps it is not too unlike our own. Clay Class is firmly rooted in the past but is not nostalgic in the way so much recent music has been. Nostalgia implies a naïve, rosy-hued transformation of memory. Here, we see a past model of expression applied to the present: What’s going on now is what’s at stake. In an increasingly bleak post-recession climate, jagged and somber post-punk seems a rather fitting lens, and Prinzhorn Dance School has mastered its execution. And I don’t think the band precludes a little body movin’ either.