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Stockholm Monsters

When 24 Hour Party People hits film screens this July, the tale of Factory Records' rise and fall will most certainly ignore the career of the label's perennially underappreciated Stockholm Monsters. After all, Factory had plenty of Manchester bands with marginal singers (New Order, Happy Mondays) making a much bigger splash during the mid-1980s; as such, it's taken until now for the Monsters' forgotten output to find a home beyond used-vinyl bins. Along with groups like Crispy Ambulance, Quando Quango, and Section 25, Stockholm Monsters languished in the ears of audience and press alike as another dimwitted Joy Division stepchild, forever consigned to the fringes as Factory's breadwinners enjoyed the spoils. And a certain lack of respect followed the band: New Order bassist Peter Hook, who produced Stockholm Monsters' records, wasn't even credited in the liner notes until these reissues.

Neither as streetwise as the Mondays nor as electronically transcendent as New Order, Stockholm Monsters seemed to arrive at something approximating a hit only via sheer luck. Unable to overcome the unfortunate vocals of Tony France (imagine a tone-deaf Peter Gabriel with a plum caught in his throat), the group relied on a primitive stew of punchy bass, Adam and the Ants drumming, carnival keyboards, scratchy, pencil-thin guitar, and occasional stabs of trumpet. Rounding up every last remnant from the vaults, these three reissues showcase an uneven but often fascinating look into 1980s missing-link obscurity. All at Once is a collection of long-lost 7- and 12-inch singles, including the excellent 1981 debut "Fairy Tales," a slice of crisply detailed fairground pop; a pair of freakishly good skeletal funk exercises ("How Corrupt Is Rough Trade?/Kan Kill!"); and the brilliant, OMD-esque "National Pastime" -- plus a good bit of forgettable filler. Appending even more ephemera to 1984's Alma Mater, the one and only Stockholm Monsters album, doesn't exactly render it a lost classic. Hook's gleaming production helps silken a few of the sow's ears, like the piano- and horn-led "Terror" and the prettily melancholy "To Look at Her," but all the group's melodic savvy can't counteract France's shortcomings.

Unfortunately for Stockholm Monsters, that inadequacy wasn't addressed until around 1987, after Factory had selected Happy Mondays as the drunken successor to New Order. Thus, the table scraps from the Monsters' last supper -- collected here on The Last One Back -- were shelved by the label, remaining unreleased until earlier this year. With France finally locating a less grating vocal style, a number of promising pop sketches ("Before Your Eyes," "Dear," and the faux-string-driven "Stupid") could have formed the backbone of a strong second album, but it's unlikely that anyone save new wave trainspotters, diehard Joy Division completists, or obsessive-compulsive '80s archivists would have lifted their lids to take notice. Even unearthed, Stockholm Monsters remains among the most subterranean and inscrutable footnotes of the Factory era, existing chiefly for memorabilia's sake: so '80s you can almost hear the haircuts.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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