Just a few years ago, Manchester was best known in British music as the home of the Smiths, the cult cross-over band that somehow managed to work fresh variations on the rhythm guitar-based pop song. Second in the Manchester pop hierarchy, though, was New Order, a band that grounded post-punk despair with a neo-disco backbeat. Currently, New Order is both in the mainstream and on sabbatical -- the band's last act before hiatus was releasing "World in Motion," the official song of the English World Cup soccer team -- but its strategies can be heard in a new generation of neo-psychedelic Mancunian dance-punk bands: Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and, especially, Happy Mondays. These bands, along with even more synthetic "acid house" acts such as 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald, have made Manchester the heart, if not of Brit-pop, at least of Brit-pop hype.
Revenge: 'One True Passion' While New Order singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner pursued bland pop-disco with his temporary supergroup Electronic (which also included ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr), bassist Peter Hook announced his intention to form Revenge, a band that would be livelier -- and liver -- than the largely preprogrammed New Order. Hook has kept his promise to tour extensively -- the band will appear at the 9:30 club Aug. 11 -- but there is very little else about Revenge's "One True Passion" (Factory/Capitol) that doesn't recall the New Order model. The opening synth figures and throbbing electropulse of the album's opening track and first single, "Pineapple Face," are vintage N.O. dour-dance tactics. "Pineapple Face" quickly became an American dance-club hit, and why not? It's a better New Order song than the incongruously chipper "World in Motion."
If anything, Revenge is a revolt against the tidy art-school instincts of New Order mentor Tony Wilson, who named his Factory label after Andy Warhol's old studio and his Hacienda nightclub -- now the epicenter of acid house -- after Lettrist International member Ivan Chtcheglov's imperative that "the hacienda must be built." Where the Order packages its music in sleeves of glossy minimalism, "One True Passion" is outfitted with photos of semi-nude fashion models clad in leather and chain mail. Where the Order cloaks its fangs behind such presentable titles as "The Perfect Kiss" (which turns out to be "the kiss of death"), "Passion" features such attention-getting titles as "Kiss the Chrome," "Slave," "Surf Nazi" and "Fag Hag."
Despite the lurid display, however, Revenge ultimately seems a tribute to Sumner. Hook and his associates, guitarist-keyboardist Dave Hicks and keyboardist Chris Jones, are heavily indebted to the Sumner hook-book, and both the bassist's affectless singing and bleak lyrics, which mix sour-romance blues and existential nausea in roughly equal parts, will be familiar to Order followers. "Passion" gives Hook a stint in the driver's seat, but it's clearly a busman's holiday.
Luxuria: 'Beast Box' Howard Devoto was a member of Manchester's most influential punk band, the Buzzcocks, but he left after their first EP to stride a more rarefied path, notably with one of the first art-punk outfits, Magazine. After several years of silence, Devoto returned in 1988 with Luxuria, a duo whose other member is multi-instrumentalist Noko. Its second album, "Beast Box" (Beggar's Banquet/RCA), was co-produced by ex-Magazine keyboardist Dave Formula, but it follows the footsteps of the first, "Unanswerable Lust" -- though at least this time Devoto doesn't croon in French.
The beat of "Beast" is synthetic, but it seldom has dance music's propulsiveness. Devoto's style is more along the lines of post-punk cabaret, and Noko -- a poetaster enabler if ever there was one -- does little more than decorate the sonic backdrop as Devoto utters stuff like "my very stupid blood/ once lit the slow dynamite of habit/ for the genius of love" or "you can have my Picasso/ please lie down/ your funerary nakedness remains/ under your successful dress and gown." After 12 tracks of this, Devoto pulls out a synth-pop version of Frankie Laine's "Jezebel" to close the album. It's not great, but it's a relief.
808 State: 'Utd. State 90' Far better realized, if not necessarily more appealing, is the work of 808 State, a Mancunian band that crafts what some have called "ambient house": synth beats married to dreamy, atmospheric doodlings, for a sort of dadaist dentist's-office disco. "Utd. State 90" (ZTT/Tommy Boy) is both throbbing and diffuse, like a jackhammer and a burbling brook ("Pacific 202" opens with sounds of chirping birds) given equal status in the mix of everyday background clatter.
This is basically dance music, which has never passed for profound, but still its studious emptiness is a marvel. Such names as "Ancodia" or "Donkey Doctor" have no apparent relationship to the tracks they title, which employ haute-modernist fragmentary techniques in the service of an impulse hardly more revolutionary than that of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Yet these content-free compositions are pragmatically internationalist and clearly post-Gutenberg, electronic blather for an age in which constant meaningless sensory stimulation is expected. Like most music of the future, "Utd. State 90" can sound a little dated, but its blankness is chillingly up-to-date.