Fans of the Fall are a forgiving lot. How better to explain how willing they’ve been over the years to shrug off the band and its mercurial frontman Mark E. Smith’s checkered reputation as a live act? Or the wildly varying quality of the many official live albums released during the band’s 40-plus year existence?
In 1997, for example, Smith’s label Cog Sinister brought out a CD reissue of Fall in a Hole, a live recording of a Fall gig in New Zealand. All the imprint had to work with, though, was a dodgy vinyl copy of the original release, so he left the skips and crackles of the LP in the mix. It’s a decision that befits Smith’s indifference toward perfection in art but it also makes the arrival of Another Set of Ten a vexing prospect.
The box loudly announces in a sizable font that it carries 10 “previously unreleased live recordings” (11 if you get the limited version that adds pieces of a 2012 set captured in Cork), which is really to say that these recordings have never been given an official release. Most, if not all, of these recordings have circulated as bootlegs among the Fall faithful. And as they are the work of some stalwart souls sneaking a tape recorder or digital device into the gig, the sound quality is pretty rough all around. Stereo channels will occasionally disappear from the mix. Audience chatter is audible. The bootleggers move from one spot in the room to another.
Knowing that going into the set makes it much easier to concentrate on what the discs capture in terms of the Fall’s evolution as a band. If you aren’t already a fan, you should know that up until around 2007, the lineup of the group changed constantly—the result of Smith’s temperamental and often abusive personality. With each shift, the Fall’s sound changed either slightly or dramatically.
The oldest recording on here, from 1984 in Hannover, Germany, finds the group at one such pivotal point. The year before, Smith’s wife Brix had joined the fold, and her songwriting work actually brought out a poppy element of the group. This live set is a snapshot of that transition, with catchier singles like “C.R.E.E.P.” and “Draygo’s Guilt” rubbing against the noisier, unkempt early material. The whole set is a wobbly one with the entire ensemble falling in and out of step with one another subtly or grandly. But even through the tinny haze of the recording, the tightly wound energy of the band is evident.
The next two discs, chronologically, represent even more interesting points of Fall history. One is from a 1994 gig in New York; a point when Brix was coaxed back on board after divorcing Mark in ’89 and working on solo projects. While she helps elevate their performances of “L.A.” and “Big New Prinz” (both recorded during her first go-round), it’s keyboardist Dave Bush who was the mainspring of the Fall sound at that. Elements of electronic dance music came alive at this time, heard most in tracks like their cover of Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music” and their original “M5.”
Brix left the band for good in 1996, not long after the performance at Motherwell Concert Hall that is part of the set. Things were getting so bad for her in the band that she isn’t even on this recording. After a dust-up during soundcheck with Mark, Brix left the venue, leaving the band to carry on without a guitar player. And for good portions of the set, Mark E. Smith didn’t even bother to get on stage. It does put a cloud over the whole performance as there’s a note of tension that ripples through each song, especially on the closing version of “Big New Prinz” that stretches on and on with Mark adding in noise from a guitar—an instrument, it should be said, that he didn’t know how to play. But there’s something undeniably fascinating about the set, too; a minimalist Fall sound that still has the snap and angular jolt of the band at full power.
Outside of a recording of the Fall circa 2001, the majority of the set is taken up by the final version of the group that included Mark E. Smith’s then-wife Elena Poulou and a bunch of young rockers recorded at various points from 2009 through 2013. It was the most consistent stretch of the band’s existence, and, by and large, all the sets are energetic and taut. So much so that it allowed Smith to really fuck with how he performed. Instead of a straight reading of many of his songs, he growls and fumes blank verse poetry through a cloud of garage rock—rhythm and melody be damned.
Even with Smith’s unhinged glory, the last six discs of Set of Ten are best taken one at a time rather than a full day binge. The setlists tend to be very similar, and the stability of the playing is nice to hear, but it all starts to bleed together into a smear of riffs and a singer wrestling audibly with his dentures. Much like this entire collection: Great for the Fall fanatic; a slog for the casual listener.