Tuesday, June 10, 2008
director's cut, The Wire, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Back in the late '80s, the smartest British bands took their cue and their clues from the US noise underground--from bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Big Black and Butthole Surfers, from labels like Homestead, SST and Touch & Go. American rock's intuitive, unselfconscious approach seemed infinitely preferable to the 'English disease' (preciousness and premeditation, our crippling flair for concept, manifesto and self-salesmanship). More to the point, American underground rock-- from Sonic Youth's 'reinvention of the guitar' to the Buttholes' resurrection of wigged-out late '60s acid-rock--sounded so much bigger and better than our own stunted and runt-like indie fare.
But in 1995, nobody in Britain is looking to America for anything. From the retro-parochialism of Britpop to the future-orientation of post-rock, the UK has never been more out of synch with what's happening in the USA. In the mainstream of MTV, 'modern rock' radio and the Billboard charts, grunge still rules, a full four years on from Nirvana's breakthrough. The big sellers and emerging contenders in 'mersh 'alternative' are all bands you lucky sods in Blighty have never heard or heard of; bands with music as drab and prosaic as their names--Jawbreaker, Sponge, Korn, Candlebox, Silverchair, Googoo Dolls, Better Than Ezra, Knapsack, Filter, Rotator Cuff ....
What about the indie sector? Stunned by the speed and thoroughness with which the record industry co-opted and mainstreamed the entire late '80s Amerindie ensemble of stylistic traits, tropes and attitudes, the underground has struggled to find a way forward, to re-vive la difference. Lo-fi was its first response, and a weak one, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values. If grunge is created by and for burn-outs (i.e. kids who were born to lose), lo-fi is by and for slackers (post-graduates who choose-to-loose). This class factor explains why lo-fi's version of the twentysomething blues is more irony-clad than grunge's earnest, artless passion, and why lo-fi's reference points are more arcane (the perennial bourgeois-bohemian desire to distance oneself from the herd). And so we get Pavement & co's entertaining but ultimately inconsequential reconfigurations of the underground canon of Beefheart/Fall/ Can/ Faust, as opposed to grunge's Sabbath/Black Flag/Husker Du matrix.
As the ersatz folk culture of fanzine editors and 'used vinyl' store clerks, lo-fi was always gonna turn out to be an aesthetic and cultural dead-end. Like, I suspect, a lot of Brits, I'd more or less stopped keeping tabs on it by last year: with all manner of post-rock, trip hop, drum & bass and art-tekno provocations afoot, who could be arsed tracking lo-fi's latest miniscule permutations on the canon of avant-garage rock? But hark, listen again--that strange rustling sound is the furious cogitation of a new breed of American underground bands who are struggling to think their way past the impasse of lo-fi's retro-eclecticism. Bands who have reached or are verging on a distinctively American post-rock: Tortoise, Labradford, Sabalon Glitz, Ui, Stars of the Lid, Space Needle, Bowery Electric, Rome, Jessamine, and many more.
SPACE IS THE PLACE
Grunge literal means 'grime, 'muck', 'dirt'. So it's appropriate that so many of those in revolt against grunge's earthy passion have turned to science fiction and outer space in order to free up their imagination. For instance, all the tracks on Labradford's "A Stable Perspective" are loosely inspired by the space race: "El Lago" is the district in Houson where Neil Armstrong lived while training for the Moon landing. The band's Mark Nelson talks nostalgically of the space race as "a monument to the human spirit, a desire to see something fantastical", before adding, poignantly, "I was one of those kids who thought we'd all be taking trips to the Moon by now". Jud Ehrbar of Space Needle talks of how the band's "Voyager" album is influenced by '50s sci-fi movie soundtracks and early '70s space-rock, then notes wistfully that "the innocence of those spacey bands has gone, we've lived through an era of disappointment with outer space, so in a way those yearnings have met up with the cynicism of grunge". And at the end of Sabalon Glitz' "Ufonic" CD, these frustrated longings for the transcendence fuse with post-JFK paranoia and disillusionment, in the form of a long interview with a cantankerous crank who's obsessed with flying saucer abductions and the government Conspiracy to conceal from the American people the truth that Contact has already been made.
Musically, these bands align themselves with the space rock continuum that runs from Silver Apples, Hawkwind and the German kosmik bands to Spacemen 3 and Loop; bands who sublimated rock's blues roots into a bright blue beyond of guitar transcendentalism, thereby offering a rich source of ideas for anybody who wishes to escape the gravitational field of earthbound grunge. Chris Holmes *, core of Chicago's Sabalon Glitz, namechecks the likes of Amon Duul II and Popol Vuh, and acclaims the latter's 1970 LP "Affenstunde" as "the first ambient record, it had all these synth gurgles and tablas and water sounds". Using Farfisas, micromoog, theremin, dulcimer and stylophone, plus FX-laden guitars, Holmes and his cohorts reach a similar celestial backwater of radiant amorphousness on the (literally) brilliant title track "Ufonic".
Holmes has an even more ambient side-project, Ashtar Command, whose name continues his obsession with cult cosmology (Ashtar being a sort of Intergalactic UN who channel instructions for humanity through receptive earthlings). Sabalon's hip cachet in America has swiftly gotten Holmes signed to Atlantic, but his latest project, "Songs About Our Sun"--a collection of "morning ragas, repetitive Popol-like riffs played on pretty acoustic instruments like sitar and tablas"--will probably come out as an Ashtar release on Chicago techno label Organico. Similarly, the mantric abstraction of "Starry Eyes" and "Scientific Map", highpoints of Space Needle's otherwise song-oriented "Voyager", looks set to blossom in Jud Ehrbar's lo-fi ambient side project Reservoir. Ehrbar (who quit the drummer spot in grunge combo Scarce just before they signed to a major, in a nicely symbolic act of defection from mainstream rock) describes Reservoir as ""extremely repetitive, keyboard-based music, kind of ambient, but more organic and dirty-sounding".
Although he's not opposed to sampladelic music and even cites De La Soul as an oblique influence, Ehrbar's preference for 'raw' analog over 'sterile' digital is typical of the US post-rock fringe. For some, it's a simple matter of economics: Ehrbar says he'd love to get a digital set-up but the band could only afford Farfisas and that ilk of outmoded synth, which are still dirt-cheap in the USA. But it's also the case that musicians coming from a lo-fi, garageland background find analog synths easier to integrate into their thang, because they're hand's-on instruments more compatible with the real-time band-format. "Analog gear might have 100 filters and knobs to play with, as opposed to the mouse and VDU you get with digital," says Holme. "When I play live, I can never totally duplicate the sounds on the Sabalon record, 'cos every time you turn the machine on, it's a different machine. There's a direct correlation between your physical act and the noise generated, and there's more instant gratification". Six Finger Satellite (whose singer J. Ryan appears onstage with a portable synth strapped round his neck like a guitar) go further and talk, bizarrely, of analog having a "warmth" that digital lacks. What once, in the Numanoid '70s, epitomised frigid futurism and alienating alien-ness, has now become a signifier of 'grit' and 'humanity'! But then the same thing happened to fuzz and wah-wah, once outlandish effects in the '60s.
For sure, there's a boy-collector aspect to the US underground's current fetish for analog. Sabalon's fifteen-strong armory of synths includes a proto-mellotron called the Chamberlin that was once owned by the Moody Blues, and he's currently negotiating the purchase of "the Dr Who mellotron used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, complete with all their effects from 1962-1972". But faddishness and kitsch appeal aside, analog-mania reflects a genuine frustation with American rock's conservatism, a desire to extend the guitar/bass/drums format and re-open the frontier once explored by the kosmik bands who used these instruments the first time around. At the same time, that experimental impulse is slightly inhibited by digital-phobia; analog functions as a sort of preliminary stage before the full plunge into sampladelia.
For American underground bands, digital is associated with hip hop (a no-go zone for whiteys) and with Nine Inch Nails style industrial (for hipsters, a disgrace). If you want to stretch the boundaries but aren't quite ready to grapple with samplers, sequencers, MIDI and 'hard disk editing' ( a la Young Gods, Techno-Animal and Disco Inferno), what better half-measure than to invest in an ancient Moog, Korg or Buchla? Chris Holmes predicts that with the rising trendiness and therefore prices of analog gear, US bands will soon turn to "early, low-resolution samplers like the Ensoniq Mirage that have gotten cheaper". In a year's time, many American bands will doubtless have followed in the footsteps of the UK's initially analog-inclined Pram, who discreetly incorporated sampling into their sound on the recent "Sargasso Sea". For now, though, analog rules. In Chicago alone, there's the synthed-up motorik surge of Trans Am and Frontier, plus the intriguing Rome, whose dubbed-out miasma of wah-wah guitar and noxious electronica is something like early Cabaret Voltaire meets late Loop. On the kranky label, Labradford uses a battalion of polymoogs, Roland vocoders and early Korgs to color their meditational balladry, while Jessamine leaven their murky mantra-rock with Silver Apples-style oscillators.
Other neo-psychedelic bands--Bowery Electric, Bardo Pond--have not taken up the analog option. Still guitar-centric, they are nonetheless perhaps just one album away from the brink between drug-enervated dronology and riff-and-rhythm-free ambience that Spacemen 3 and Loop crossed with "Playing With Fire" and B-sides like "Circle Grave", then explored further in such sequels as Spectrum and E.A.R., Spiritualized and Main. This is a genuine post-rock because the guitar is no longer kinetic (a riff-machine) but atmospheric (a texture and timbre generator). Fed through effects pedals and "signal processing" devices, the guitar effectively becomes a kind of analog synthesiser. Syd Barrett, with his use of slide to unleash a fractal chaos, and Fripp/Eno and Cluster, with their tape-delay generated aural Op Art, got to this re- or un-invention of the guitar first. But there's still realms of work to be done.
Some American bands--Labradford, Stars of the Lid, even Sub Pop's ambient-grunge band Earth-- have already reached Main-land, creating lustrous, meditational dronescapes deceptively similar to Robert Hampson's efforts. I say 'deceptively', because none of these bands have yet embraced the studio-as-instrument methodology that underpins Main or Thomas Koner. In terms of approach, they have more in common with the real-time din-scapes generated by UK bands Skullflower and Flying Saucer Attack, or New Zealand's the Dead C. For instance, 90 percent of a Labradford song is composed before they enter the studio; according to Mark Nelson, "at the heart of each track lies a real-time performance, recorded live."
From Krautrock to rave, the psychedelic rollercoaster eventually comes to rest in the blessed serenity and aural entropy of ambient. (Look at the New Age dotage of Ash Ra, Neu!'s Michael Rother, Cluster, et al; look at the mellow, soul-caressing directions taken up by raved-out acolytes of techno and jungle). Drug burn-out aside, ambient is a logical destination for American space-rockers too. But it's also a potential cul de sac. When you've decentred songs into soundscapes--removing vocals and verse-chorus-verse structures, dropping the backbeat and dissolving the riff, eradicating every last vestige of rock dynamics--what's left? Where do you go from there?
Those American bands reluctant to abandon groove and the physicality of rock altogether--Cul De Sac, Run On, Ui-- look to another strand of early '70s experimentalism, and locate models of post-rock kineticism in the flesh-and-blood rhythm-engines that powered Can and Neu!, early '70s Miles Davis, Tim Buckley, sometimes even Canterbury scene artists like Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt. Motorik, the metronomic proto-disco pulse-beat of Neu! and Kraftwerk, is particularly influential with the likes of Trans-Am, Six Finger Satellite, Cul De Sac, as it offers a way for rock to keep moving without lapsing back into rhythm-and-blues. (This also explains why self-appointed curators of the Neu! legacy, Stereolab, are so highly regarded in America).
Superficially similar to the Krautrock-aligned bands, but fundamentally at odds with their hypno-groove aesthetic, is the style that the Yanks call 'math-rock'. Applied to bands like Don Caballero, Polvo, Chavez and the now deceased Rodan, the term refers to an avant-impulse that is expressed entirely through rock's anti-dance rhythms and through the trad line-up of guitars/bass/drums. Riffs are chopped up and tesselated; dynamics, tempos and time signatures are convoluted; strange and complex chords are clustered. The result is a bit like King Crimson with the spectre of Steve Albini looming over them and glowering 'keep it punk!".
What the Can/Neu-heads and the math-rockers do share is a dogged adherence to the traditional American privileging of live performance over sweatless studio-trickery. Only one band seems to be able to slip fluently between 'organic' improv-rock and dub-wise aural anamorphosis. On their self-titled debut, Tortoise bridged the gap between Slint (godfathers of the new rock geometry) and Seefeel. On the mini-LP "Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters", they plunged deep into the dub-descended art of remixology. Their second album proper "Millions Now Living Will Never Die", due out in January next year, mixes the succulent flow-motion of live jamming with the dizzy disorientation of studio-sorcery. On the astounding first track, "DJed" , the glistening gamelan web of chiming vibes and pizzicato bass is suddenly afflicted with what sounds like tape drop-out, and it's as though the top layer of the track is scraped away like paint, revealing another track from a different sonic universe altogether: an Aphex/Mouse On Mars tekno-dub reverbscape of blips, crackles and glitches. Elsewhere, the album veers from the triple bass-guitar interplay of "A Survey" to the lugubrious spy-movie trip hop of "Along The Banks of Rivers".
Tortoise cite figures as diverse as King Tubby/Scientist/Lee Perry, Brians Wilson and Eno, and rap producers like Hank Shocklee, as the inspirations behind their un-American interest in the vertical organisation of sound (spatial and layered, as opposed to horizontal-through-time). The Jamaican notion of 'version' seems to have a particularly strong grip on their imagination, not just with the "Rhythms, Resolutions" project, but with "Goriri", their contribution to the "Macro Dub Infection" compilation. "Goriri" is a drastic remix of "Gamara" (recently released as one side of a 12 inch for Stereolab's Duophonic label), which in turn was a dramatically expanded revamp of 'His Second Story Island' from the debut LP.
The real question is: why are Tortoise, with their dub-wisdom and studio-smarts, so unique and so isolated, in the American context? Why were they the only white Americans to appear on "Macro Dub Infection"? Post-rock is a Trans-Atlantic phenomenon, but there are telling differences between the British and American strands, and most of them revolve around British bohemia's susceptibility to the influence of black music, whether American, Caribbean or homegrown. US post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of hip hop.
Dub's immeasurably greater impact on British left-field rock goes back to the late '70s, to the kinship punks felt with Rastafarian reggae's spiritual militancy , its millenial imagery of exile and dread. In particular, the trajectory Johnny Rotten took from "Never Mind The Bollocks" (with its infamous metallic production) to PiL's "Metal Box" (with its dub-noir stealth and space) is vastly significant. "Metal Box" turned a significant segment of Lydon's following onto dub, Can, etc. You can trace the reverberations of Jah Wobble's bass through Killing Joke and On U Sound to The Orb, Scorn and Techno-Animal.
In Britain, staying unaware and uninfected by hip hop and its homegrown offshoots like trip hop and drum & bass can only be achieved by a strenuous feat of cultural inbreeding (congratulations, Britpop!). It's not exaggerating to say that hip hop's sampladelia made UK post-rock possible, from the impact of early ultra-raw Def Jam on My Bloody Valentine to the inspirational effect of the Bomb Squad/Public Enemy production on the likes of Techno-Animal. The resistance of US rock bands to such influence is puzzling--given the omnipresence of rap from MTV to that jeep with booming system coming down your block--and can only be attributed to the sensitive racial politics that surround rap in America. While UK bands could respond to hip hop as yet another exotic imported 'street sound', white American bohemians feel that it is black cultural property, to be given props, but not to be trespassed upon.
As for techno influencing American post-rock, forget it. Not only did rave never come close to overwhelming America like it did Britain, but there's a cluster of bigotries that form an impenetrable barrier: the premium on live performance, the lingering legacy of 'disco sucks', the hatred of machine rhythms. The upshot of all this is that UK post-rock outfits, influenced by various admixtures of dub, hip hop and techno, tend to be studio-centric sound laboratories for whom live performance is an irrelevance; whereas American post-rockers remain deeply committed to the band format and playing live.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
There was a time and a place, when/where the British and Americans were in synch and a band like Tortoise would not have seemed like such a miraculous aberration: New York in the early '80s. Just ask Sasha Frere-Jones, whose avant-funk outfit Ui harks back to an era when musical miscegenation was the norm on both sides of the Atlantic, from Gang of Four to James Chance, A Certain Ratio to ESG, Pop Group to Ze. Frere-Jones jokingly describes Ui as "a revival band", in so far as they're an attempt to resurrect the 'hybrid' New York of his youth.
"Back in 1980, aged 13, I'd listen to NYU college radio where they'd play white funk like Pigbag, the Higsons, Liquid Liquid and Konk. At rock shows, the DJ's always used to play dance music and dub between bands. Grandmaster Flash would support The Clash. I'm wary of romanticising the past, I hate nostalgia, but I've thought about it enough that I don't think I'm distorting things. What happened to New York feels like a real loss," he says, referring to the de facto segregation that keeps hip hop and underground rock and dance music equally insulated from each other.
What went wrong? Why are the Beastie Boys (whose Mike D went to the same Brooklyn school as Frere-Jones) and Luscious Jackson just about the only legacy of this early '80s New York, where Bad Brains, Au Pairs, Treacherous Three, I Roy and Minor Threat were all accepted as part of the same post-punk continuum? Frere-Jones lays the blame on the rise of two separate 'hardcores': the Sonic Youth-centered 'white noise supremacists', as Lester Bangs prophetically put it back in the days of No Wave, and hardcore rap.
In the first case, there was the gradual codification of Lester Bangs' "avant-garage" creed into an orthodoxy, by influential acolytes like Byron Coley of 'Forced Exposure' and Gerard Cosloy of 'Conflict'/Homestead/Matador, and the musical praxis of Bangsian theory as shaped by Sonic Youth, Big Black, Pussy Galore et al. "That Bangs idea of the point where free jazz meets up with white noise teen primitivism, it meant something in 1969, maybe even in 1979, but not anymore", argues Frere-Jones. "It's all about smart people pretending to be stupid, valorising adolescence, and that's a classic example of a white search for authenticity, the ultimate 'rawness'. But that's actually a very cerebral idea, not very intuitive or musical."
In Britain, the Jesus & Mary Chain had a similar pivotal role as Sonic Youth, their wall-of-feedback and rudimentary Spector-beat signalling the end of the New Pop era's flirtations with funk and disco, and a return to rock classicism (Velvets, Stooges, etc). Luckily, the impact of hip hop and rave in Britain injected some funk back into this anti-rhythmic dead-end; even the Mary Chain's non-drummer Bobby Gillespie briefly got on the good foot, circa 'Higher Than The Sun'. But in America, the rise of the hardcore ethos in rap meant "it became more important for hip hop fans to fend whites off. That's when you started to get the obsession with keeping it 'real' and 'hardcore'." And with a handful of exceptions--Beck, Consolidated, MC 900 Ft Jesus--white American bohemians stayed well away. Sonic Youth's quarter-assed flirtation with hip hop took the form of their comedic alter-ego, Ciccone Youth, and though they squeezed out some decent dubby Neu!-scapes amidst the crap rap and Robert Palmer and Madonna covers, they never let any studio-savvy they might have gleaned seep back into their 'proper' SY output.
By the end of the Eighties, New York's hippest band was Pussy Galore, apotheosis of the Lester Bangs credo and creators of possibly the most punked-out and funkless racket ever---not so much white as albino noise. It's surely no coincidence that Pussy Galore lynchpins Neil Hagerty and Jon Spencer both soon tired of hurtling headlong down this dead end of attitude-OD and distortion-overload. In their new combos Royal Trux and the Blues Explosion, they gradually redisovered 'groove' via the raunch of early '70s Stones and the funk of Mr James Brown. Others bands--Come, Mule, Railroad Jerk, Red Red Meat--also turned to the past in order to relearn the lost fundamentals of 'feel' and 'swing' from black R&B and hillybilly boogie, or more often from the late '60s/early 70s white appropriations thereof.
"They all had to go through the Stones to get to a decent backbeat," says Frere-Jones. "I think it was a subconscious way to finally respond to hip hop, 'cos you can't keep making noise. The Blues Explosion is Spencer's way of dealing with the fact that kids today, who've grown up exposed to hip hop, they're not going to get into something without decent rhythms."
While the Blues Explosion's own recordings are strictly live 'n' smokin', Jon Spencer made a more explicit nod to hip hop with this year's "Experimental Remixes" EP, wherein the Blues Explosion's No Wave boogie-funk got worked over by U.N.K.L.E. and Wu Tang Clan's Genius, Beck and Mike D. Ui are on a similar quest to shake booty, but instead of going back to raunch'n'roll, they play a hypertense blues-tinged avant-funk pitched somewhere between Miles' "On The Corner" and Can's "Ege Bamyasi". Although Frere-Jones is deeply enamoured of studio-based dance music from Wagon Christ to darkest drum & bass, he says his goal is to achieve hybridity within the real-time combustion-engine of a live band, rather than through the cut'n'mix of sampladelia. But as well as their excellent debut proper, "Sidelong", Ui have also made a remix LP, featuring astonishing revamps by Tortoise's producer/drummer John McEntire, downtown experimentalist David Linton of Circuit Bible, and a pair of unknown Canadian trip hoppers. More than anything, these three remix albums by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Tortoise and Ui, surely indicate a sea-change for the US underground scene, and the birth-pangs of an American post-rock. At last, some Americans are attempting to catch up with us, and with the future.
* It was Sabalon's Chris Holmes who sent me the Kansas Is Post Rock Country postcard.