Durutti Column — the historical name comes from the Spanish Civil War — is essentially guitarist Manchester Vini Reilly (who began his career as a punk, in the late-'70s Ed Banger & the Nosebleeds), although he has used other musicians in the studio and tours with other players. In the late '80s, Reilly branched out, backing Morrissey (another Nosebleeds alumnus, as it happens) on his first solo record and working on an assortment of projects.
Producer Martin Hannett deserves equal credit on The Return of the Durutti Column, a perversely titled debut of evocative guitar instrumentals, many multi-tracked and accented with environmental, synthetic and studio-created percussive effects. Occasionally reminiscent of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and some of the Frippertronics recordings, Reilly pretty much creates his own style — a gentle, uncluttered amalgam of acoustic and electric guitar textures.
Hannett is absent from the self-produced LC, Bruce Mitchell plays drums in spots and Reilly, regrettably, "sings" on a couple of the tracks, all of which makes it the lesser of Reilly's first two works, although the instrumentals still provide pleasant listening.
Continuing to experiment with various approaches, Reilly incorporated a cor anglais (English horn) player on Another Setting. The first of the two side-long pieces that comprise Without Mercy is like modern chamber music, an ambitious and shifting mixture of piano, horns, strings and electronic percussion. The second, which favors guitar, employs an entire studio group, including Blaine Reininger of Tuxedomoon.
While hardly raucous, Reilly moved further away from his ambient roots on Say What You Mean: deep, heavy electronic (or treated) percussion is annoyingly high in the mix on most of the six tracks. The record's highlight, "Silence," starts out sparsely, with electronic piano and marimba, and builds nicely with the addition of drums, trumpet, slide guitar and Reilly's much-improved voice. Although his vinyl output is perhaps more prolific than his creativity, Reilly is capable of producing rewarding music.
The airy and alluring 70-minute-long Domo Arigato CD, recorded live at a 1985 Tokyo concert appearance by Reilly (singing and playing a bit of piano), drummer Mitchell (doubling on xylophone), John Metcalfe (viola) and Tim Kellett (trumpet), draws its material from all of DC's prior releases and has beautifully clear sound. Offering an equally comprehensive review of the studio albums, the smartly compiled Valuable Passages adds a previously unreleased item and assorted rarities (from singles, etc.), making it the perfect introduction to Reilly's soothing atmospherics. For the complete review of the Durutti Column's early work, The First Four Albums is a four-CD repackage (in one jewelbox) of The Return, LC, Another Setting, Without Mercy and Say What You Mean.
Circuses and Bread finds Reilly again constructing layers of repetitive guitar figures with varying mixtures of other ingredients — drums, viola, piano, vocals, horns, sound effects — to help differentiate the tracks. In two groundbreaking tracks, "Hilary" is the loudest, most aggressive thing he has ever recorded, while "Royal Infirmary," a somber mood piece played on piano and punctuated by the sound of automatic rifle fire, has no guitar at all.
Backed by Mitchell and Metcalfe, Reilly plays piano and treated guitar on the live-in-New York cassette, a career-spanning program (with little overlap of Domo Arigato's song selection) of tasteful instrumentals that suffers from an inordinate amount of tape hiss.
Some of the new material presented at that late-'86 show wound up being recorded for The Guitar and Other Machines, which also relies on Mitchell and Metcalfe (plus others to a lesser degree) for studio support. The eleven pieces (three with guest vocals) are as sonically adventurous as anything Reilly has ever attempted. While remaining inside the group's traditional parameters, this ambitious record increases his emotional reach.
Using three guest vocalists, Vini Reilly (also available on DAT) is Reilly's most accomplished effort yet, but it also reveals his creative dilemma (or options, depending on one's point of view). While the strong infrastructure of "Love No More" shows real compositional development, "Pol in G" is just another meandering doodle with no backbone. But then there's the suave theatricality of "Opera I," the bass-driven funk of "People's Pleasure Park" and the Stonesy chord work of "Red Square." Each approach (echoed on other tracks) is valid and intriguing in its way, but such haphazard variety leaves the album — and, by extension, the artist — without any clear direction or focus.