Monday, April 28, 2008

Revival of the Shittest
(The Social Registry)
The Wire, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

Probably the most peculiar band to emerge from the ferment of out-rock activity in New York these past few years, Gang Gang Dance are a disconcerting live experience. Of the two shows I’ve caught, the first was fairly excruciating and the second was sublimely odd. Half the enjoyment, at least for over-acculturated hipster types, is trying to get a handle on where the band are coming from. You might momentarily flash on Can’s “Peking O”, The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday”, Attic Tapes-era Cabaret Voltaire, The Raincoats’ Odyshape, or forgotten downtown New York outfits from the Eighties like Saqqara Dogs and Hugo Largo, only to have the reference point confounded within 30 seconds as the group move back into untaggable territory. Gang Gang Dance’s music is like a myriad-faceted polyhedron. As it gyrates before your ears, different aspects flash into focus: No Wave, prog rock, drill’n’bass, psychedelia, glitch, assorted world musics, and more. But there’s always a feeling that the music is an entity, animated by some kind of primal intent, as opposed to being the byproduct of eclecticism and aesthetic flip-floppery.

Coming only a few months after their self-titled album on Fusetron, Revival of the Shittest is a vinyl rerelease of the group’s sort-of-debut, which originally came out in the autumn of 2003 in an edition of one hundred CDRs. Pulled together from live tapes, studio out-takes and rehearsals recorded on a boom-box, the six untitled tracks capture moments in the protean early life of the band. The first thing that grabs, or gouges, your ears is singer Liz Bougatsos. It’s hard (at least for someone with my limited grasp of technical terminology) to pinpoint precisely what she’s doing with her pipes--singing microtonal scales inspired by Middle Eastern music, perhaps? On Track 6, she emits what can only be described as a muezzin miaouw, while elsewhere there’s often a kind of 4th World/"Ethnological Forgery" aspect to both her vocals and the group’s music that suggests a sort of defective Dead Can Dance. Sometimes she seems to be simply singing every note as sharp as possible. Whatever the technique involved, the end result ain’t exactly pleasant--indeed, her ululations have a set-your-teeth-on-edge quality, like vinegar for the ears. But there is something queerly captivating about the way Bougatsos weaves around the strange, sidling groove created by her bandmates Brian DeGraw, Josh Diamon and Tim Dewitt.

Seemingly a blend of drum sticks on electronic pads, hand-percussion, and digital programming, Gang Gang Dance’s beats have clearly assimilated the bent rhythmic logic of electronic music in the post-jungle era. Heavily effected (often using reverb and delay), the drums generate a florid textural undergrowth redolent at various points of 4 Hero, Arthur Russell, and Ryuichi Sakomoto’s B-2 Unit. Needling guitars and glittering keyboards, often processed so that it’s hard to tell which is which, exacerbate the chromatic density. Writhing with garish detail, Track 5 feels like you’re plunging headfirst into a Mandelbrot whose patterns aren’t curvaceous but geometric--endlessly involuting cogs and spindles, the acid trip of a clock-maker surreptitiously dosed at work. On tracks like this, Gang Gang Dance music has a quality of deranged ornamentalism (think pagodas, mosques, but also coral reefs and jellyfish flotilla) pitched somewhere between exquisite and grotesque. A beautiful horror unfurls--folds and fronds, filigree and arabesque-that reminds me of Henri Michaux’s maniacally exact accounts of his mescalin experiences in Miserable Miracle.

At 31 minutes, Revival of the Shittest is just long enough--anymore and you’d be worn out by its polytendrilled density. At the same time, it’s this very quality of TOO MUCH-ness that makes Gang Gang Dance so compelling.

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