"What in the world is happening?" Siouxsie asks over dissonant feedback and chugging power chords on Mantaray opener and kick-off single "Into a Swan." "What in the world can this be?" For those of you wondering the same about what Siouxsie’s first solo record will sound like — no Banshees or Creatures in tow — "Into a Swan" soon offers an answers. It erupts into an ass-kicking session of heavy guitars and dauntless lyrics about transformation and transcendence, with Siouxsie sounding better than she has in years. And it is this confidence in attitude and sound that makes Mantaray such a success. In sharp contrast to Sioux’s American-punk counterpart Debbie Harry’s latest album, Necessary Evil, where things come off sounding too contrived for an audience that has come to expect a little more from the Blondie singer, Mantaray is a glorious amalgamation of all things Siouxsie, and that is saying a lot.
Thirty years ago, Susan Janet Dallion was part of a group of British suburbanite outcasts known as the Bromley Contingent, from which birthed the idea of a band: Siouxsie and the Banshees. A now well-fabled history, the Banshees shared a collected enthusiasm for the Beatles White Album and also happened to be avid Sex Pistols groupies, which is exactly how Sid Vicious wound up playing drums for the earliest incarnation of the band during a one-night stint in ’76. Rumor has it they weren’t very good, but they had enough style and snarl to leave an impression. Siouxsie’s look of black, spiky hair and heavy eye-makeup launched a legion of look-alikes and devotees — most famously Robert Smith of the Cure. And over the course of twenty years and eleven studio albums, the Banshees worked hard to live down the begrudged goth label all the while penning gems like "Hong Kong Garden," "Happy House," "Cities in Dust," and even a Top 40 hit in 1991 with "Kiss Them for Me." Siouxsie also formed a group with Banshee drummer and then-husband, Budgie, called the Creatures, which as recently as a few years ago was still active.
Now, following a recent divorce with Budgie, Mantaray marks the first solo outing for Siouxsie, making the occasion both celebratory and bittersweet. Still singing in her signature staccato style, Siouxsie pops words like balloons as she sings about relationships proven loveless and betrayal among friends. Stylistically, Mantaray is dressed to the nines, from Weill-inspired German cabaret to glam, from aggressive rock to chamber pop. Loud, brash, but never cocksure, Mantaray swaggers like a cat in heat. On the kiss-off "Here Comes That Day," Siouxsie warns, "There’s a price to pay for a life of insincerity" over a boisterous brass arrangement, one of many highlights on this album.
Although Mantaray will just as willingly trample over you in its stiletto heels, there is warmth to be found, particularly on closer "Heaven and Alchemy." Dubbed the "Ice Queen" early on in her career, what makes "Heaven and Alchemy" so effective — and easily the best song on the album — is the vulnerability on display. It reminds us that underneath all of the latex and leather, makeup and breakups, Siouxsie is a romantic at heart, and she’s just put out one of the best albums of her career.