How the hell are you meant to review a record like Sing to God[? To say it’s highly regarded amongst Cardiacs fans everywhere would be the understatement of the century. But then, as you’ll know if you have even a passing degree of knowledge about the band, to take that as a recommendation to the general populous would be completely ludicrous.
Led by the insanely talented eccentric Tim Smith, who is sadly still recovering from a crippling stroke and heart attack suffered in 2008, Cardiacs had already gained quite a reputation for their highly individual fusion of prog, punk, pop and general absurdity by the time they unleashed Sing to God, their first double album, in 1996. Somewhat approximate to the notion of Cardiacs squared, Sing to God essentially takes everything Cardiacs had always been and ramps it up to maximum.
It’s pretty safe to say, therefore, that if you have heard and hated other Cardiacs albums before then you will almost certainly hate this record considerably more more. It might not be wholly accurate to say that Cardiacs had no understanding of subtlety, but they certainly weren’t afraid of being brash. This is a record drenched in deranged pomposity, from the massive riffs to the expansive keyboards and theatrical vocals. That’s without even mentioning the bits that sound something like Sgt Pepper being performed by a Frank Zappa conducted London Symphony Orchestra on speed.
It’s perfectly understandable why one would detest Cardiacs for their outrageousness, but such negative feeling must be discouraged, given the joys contained within their kaleidoscopic world. I’ll admit that, when I first listened to the band, I genuinely struggled (and I’m still a relative beginner). If it wasn’t for the fact that it was Oceansize frontman Mike Vennart, a man who held near unparalleled hero status the teenage me, who had recommended them then I would never have given them another chance.
Relistening to Sing to God - which is getting a nice double gatefold vinyl reissue - now I still find moments I can’t quite get on with, but I’ve come to recognise that the Marmite-esque qualities of the band were always highly significant to their sound. Cardiacs wouldn’t work if they weren’t provocative, and it’s not hard to understand why they spent late 1984 being booed and heckled whilst opening for Marillion, or why they were hilariously banned from the NME (reason enough on its own to give them a chance surely?) for several years. If you can listen to a Cardiacs record for the first time and not encounter numerous moments where you just want to give up and throw the record out of the window then you’re a hardier listener than I.
Obviously, being a double album, Sing to God contains approximately twice as many of those moments as your average Cardiacs record, but it also contains easily twice as many moments of jaw dropping brilliance. Whether it’s the singalong craziness of ‘Dog-Like Sparky’, the colossal‘Dirty Boy’, the epic scope of ‘Nurses Whispering Verses’ or the subdued beauty of ‘Foundling’, there’s more than enough greatness to sustain the album’s near ninety minute running time. Yes, Cardiacs can be a damned tricky band to get into, but that’s only because they were always so ruthlessly individual. When the rest of the British music scene was becoming increasingly divided by scene and genre affiliations, Cardiacs were busy crossing the boundaries and breaking the rules, something that very much culminates in Sing to God, a record that is scarcely comparable to anything else by anyone else.
That may not mean that Cardiacs are the greatest band there has ever been, but it does put them amongst a very rare group (perhaps also including the rather disparate likes of Coil, The Fall and Henry Cow) who belong in a field completely of their own, which should render them at the very least worthy of serious and prolonged investigation. More importantly in the context of this review is the fact that Sing to God is the sort of record that might very well change your life for the better if you let it, and albums with that kind of power are few and far between.
P.S. Cardiacs records are now available again, after many years, from cardiacs.net - Tim is still recovering from illness and buying a few records will help him in his extensive continuing treatment!
9Benjamin Bland's Score