A Certain Ratio

Formed in 1978 with a core line-up of Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnson, A Certain Ratio emerged from the hallowed grounds of the late 70s punk scene, and from that day on they’ve moved forwards with gleeful disregard for the boundaries of style and genre, their eye fixed firmly on constant progression. It’s an ethos that’s open-minded over all else, and that’s seen the band take everything from experimental electronica to vintage funk, and filter it through their own Mancunian lens.

Shortly after forming in 1978, Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton – having seen A Certain Ratio on one of their many live shows – put them in touch with Tony Wilson, a well-known local TV personality who was then in the process of setting up a record label. A Certain Ratio were one of the first to record for the fledgling Factory Records, debuting with their 7″ single, ‘All Night Party’/’The Thin Boys’.

Photo by Debbie Ellis

On December 10, 2023, A Certain Ratio contorted Manchester’s Band on the Wall venue with their deep funk grooves and scabrous post-punk stabs of guitar, the band standing astride the venue where they started their career 45 years ago. It, like them, is one of the few remaining elements of the Manchester music scene’s heyday that seems stronger now than ever. 

ACR were celebrating the 45th anniversary of their time playing live together as a band, but make no mistake, this was no syrupy, nostalgia-ridden greatest hits tour. After all, earlier in the year, A Certain Ratio had released 1982, one of their career-best works. That album captured the blend of wiry funk bass, Afrobeat-flavoured drums and post-disco indie dance arrangements that placed ACR at the vanguard of the no wave, no nonsense underground music community of the early 1980s, and has kept them there ever since. And yet, in the handful of months since 1982 had been released, the band had long since moved on from it. 

The mentality that defines A Certain Ratio – this dogged, relentless demand to evolve, re-assess and reinvent with every new release – can appear exhausting to a mortal outsider, but it is what has always set them apart. The confident, sprawling, pan-genre strut of 1982 could have been seen as the apotheosis of the sound they had been working towards for 45 years, but that would be to accept that their journey is nearly complete. The band’s perspective is very different.  

It should come as no surprise, then, that less than a year later comes, once again, a record from completely out of leftfield. It All Comes Down to This, for now at least, is the sound of the current incarnation of A Certain Ratio. Indeed, in many senses, it is the purest distillation of their essential sound ever committed to tape. Their thirteenth studio album, it is the first time ever they have recorded strictly as the core trio of principle band members – multi-instrumentalists Jez Kerr, Martin Moscrop and Donald Johnson. 

“It’s the Ratio removing the safety net,” Kerr says, explaining the decision to strip away the excess and return to the band’s base ingredients. “Every element of everything we’ve done on this album has been a change.” 

“It wasn’t a matter of rubbing everyone else out, it was, ‘let’s find the thing that makes us work’,” adds Johnson. “And we know that’s just the three of us being as basic as possible – no frills, no major overdubs. Just visceral and happening in the moment.” 

From the moment the rattling, call-to-arms drumroll intro of opener ‘All Comes Down to This’ gives in to a wall of slithering, watery guitar squawks and bounding, rubbery bass notes, it is obvious that A Certain Ratio have once again been able to tap into a new artery of life. The record’s ten tracks present ten distinct moods, from the urgent, muscular, foreboding groove of ‘Keep It Real’ to the open, breezy, melodic synth of ‘God Knows’, every bursting moment of It All Comes Down to This is defiantly, resiliently alive. 

The other essential difference between It All Comes Down to This and its immediate predecessors is that for this recording process, the band turned to the doyen of contemporary underground rock producers, Dan Carey (Black Midi, Kae Tempest, Black Country New Road). No stranger to working alongside maverick producers – the band’s catalogue boasts some of the earliest work of Factory supremo Martin Hannett, after all – A Certain Ratio knew instinctively that they saw a natural bedfellow in Carey when they asked him to contribute a remix to their 2021 compilation Loco Remezclada and received the madcap, twitching ‘Down & Dirty (Mr. Dan Remix)’. 

After meeting at the 2021 Wide Awake Festival in London, they found that Carey was even more eager to realise a full-length collaboration than they were, and the dates were quickly set. Known for his rejection of sonic clutter and his uncompromising focus on the central tenets of the bands and artists he produces, Carey’s instincts closely aligned with ACR’s desire to return to the basics. What the band might not have been ready for, however, was quite the speed that Carey intended to work at. 

“We put down ten backing tracks in twelve hours,” says Moscrop. “The majority of the album was recorded in twelve hours.” 

ACR were the last band to record with Dan’s classic desk, just before he changed the studio set up, and are thrilled to have the album tagged with that piece of history. By honing in on the band’s essential building blocks, Carey has teased out a brittle, inner darkness that has always been latent in ACR, but not always at the surface. For Kerr, he feels it is a return to the indie roots of their classic 1980 debut album The Graveyard and the Ballroom, while Moscrop considers it to be akin to “Brian Eno meeting Herbie Hancock meeting Television meeting Jimi Hendrix meeting Chic and The Velvet Underground in a dark alley”.  

If there is a residual darkness in the album’s sonic aesthetic, then it pervades the subject matter, too.  

As a snapshot of where A Certain Ratio stand in 2024, It All Comes Down to This is a towering testament to their staying power. For a band whose path has intersected with the lives of Joy Division, The Fall, Talking Heads, Madonna and Grace Jones, to now be immersed in their most creative and prolific period since the early 1980s, after 45 years together, puts the great majority of their contemporaries to shame. But then again, when you have always been preoccupied with laying the groundwork for your next steps, you’re unlikely ever to derive much satisfaction from standing still.  

“We make a conscious effort not to be a tribute act,” says Moscrop. “Too many bands of our age do that.” 

“They’ve become a karaoke version of themselves, and that frightens the bejesus out of me,” adds Johnson. “We celebrate our past, absolutely, but we don’t dwell on it. Our great strength is our unpredictability. No-one knows what is coming next. It’s just who we are and what we believe in.” 

Photo by Debbie Ellis

It All Comes Down to This (2024) follows the release of 1982 (2023), EP:ACR (2022), Loco Remezclada (2021), ACR Loco (2020) in a set of new release that sit in perfect harmony with ACR’s back catalogue of studio albums The Graveyard and the Ballroom (1980), To Each (1981), Sextet (1982), I’d Like To See You Again (1982), Force(1986), Good Together (1989), ACR:MCR (1990), Up in Downsville (1992), Change The Station (1996) and Mind Made Up (2008) and the compilations ACR:SET (2018) and ACR:BOX (2019). The latter included ‘Dirty Boy’, a brand new track featuring Magazine and Bad Seeds legend Barry Adamson, as well as the now-classic, previously-unreleased cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Houses in Motion’.