Shriekback is not an easy band to classify. They borrowed heavily from funk but had a very different agenda; their music was more suited for contemplation than for parties. They combined synthesizers and drum machines with throbbing bass lines and unorthodox vocals to evoke a primordial world where the line between human and animal was blurred. The title of their fourth album, Big Night Music, might be the most succinct summation of their work: Shriekback's music was always an appropriate soundtrack for life in the dark, but with the emphasis on the possibilities rather than the dangers. Though often haunting, it was not gothic and harbored strains of pop and dance that rose to the surface from time to time. Still, however accessible they became, Shriekback cultivated an air of mystery that made them hard to pin down. Further complicating any evaluation of their career is the fact that they never made a single, brilliant album that concentrated all their strengths in one place; their best material is spread out across a decade during which they underwent a great deal of evolution.
Shriekback came together in 1982 as a loose association based around the trio of Dave Allen (bass), Barry Andrews (keyboards/vocals), and Carl Marsh (vocals/guitar). Allen and Andrews had previously been members of Gang of Four and XTC, respectively; Marsh had played with the more obscure Out on Blue Six. They quickly developed a trademark sound that had little to do with the members' previous credits. The bedrock of that sound was Allen's muscular yet liquid bass playing, which was a quantum leap beyond his relatively crude work with Gang of Four. On top of this Shriekback deployed creative and intricate drum programs; Andrews' multifaceted synthesizer shadings; strategically placed, mostly rhythm guitar from Marsh; and whispered vocals from Andrews along with Marsh's more melodic singing. Both vocalists were technically limited, but this was more than compensated for by the band's tight playing and evocative, intelligent lyrics.