Mojo column, early 1994
by Simon Reynolds
An idle glance at the weekly music papers, and you might
think that the only thing happening in rock is the likes of
Oasis (refried Sixties-isms + lippy Northern arrogance = a
band whose sole raison d'etre is to be BIG). Beyond the
hype-odrome, however, there's still a host of groups who are
committed to pushing the envelope. On both sides of the
Atlantic, the weird shit is still hitting the fans.
In the US--where rave has had little impact on rock and
hip hop is considered the cultural property of African-
Americans--weirdo bands shy away from hi-tech like samplers
and sequencers. Inevitably, this means they must turn to the
past for sources to pillage: acid-rock, Krautrock, post-punk
extremists and eccentrics like Pere Ubu and The Fall...
Avant-rock bands in America tend to be schizo-eclectic: they
join the dots between past pinnacles of extremity, try to
find and fill the gaps in their record collection. Reviewing
this music inevitably obliges you to drop a 1000 names. And
so Mercury Rev's excellent EP "Everlasting Arm" (Beggars
Banquet) comes with liner notes by David Fricke that, quite
appropriately, reference Brian Wilson's 'Smile', Syd Barrett,
Gil Evans, Van Dyke Parks and Sly Stone--all to describe the
5 minute title track. The 34 minute "Deadman" is itself pure
homage, roping in Alan Vega from Suicide to deliver a psycho-
monologue amid a noir-ish, Tom Waits/Bernard Herrman
backdrop. (Shit, I'm doing it now).
Another sector of adventurous eclecticism in America is
lo-fi--bands like Pavement, Truman's Water, The Grifters,
and Sebadoh. The latter's latest "Bakesale" (Domino) retains
the genre's trademarks (fuzzed-up guitars, sloppy, sprawling
drums, fallible slacker vox) but beefs up the sound until it
verges on grunge. I wish mainman Lou Barlow would go back to
the ghostly tape-loop experiments of his earliest days. For
that kind of homespun weirdness, you have to turn to
LaBradford and their remarkable "Prazision" LP (Kranky, P.O.
Box 578743, Chicago, Ill 60657). What to call the spectral
drone-haze oozed by this drumless duo via tape-loops, moogs
and treated guitars: lo-fi ambient? Krautrock, without the
'rock'? kosmic balladry?
Back in Blighty, Flying Saucer Attack operate on a
similarly brilliant but baffling wavelength to LaBradford.
Their second album "Distance" (Domino) is where lo-fi
Krautrock worship (FSA especially venerate Popol Vuh) meets
ambient. The title track is Aphex-with-guitars, while
"Oceans" is an idyllic expanse of serene chaos, conjured from
tribal rhythms, amp-hiss and found sounds. Other songs offer
fuzzed-up '60s psych midway between Mary Chain and Hawkwind--
entertaining, but nowhere near as interesting as FSA's more
Stereolab and Pram are often lumped in with
the lo-fi bands, because of their fetish for deliberately
antiquated synths. On their recent, chartbusting LP "Mars
Audiac Quintet" (Duophonic), the Lab's blend of muzak
harmonies, moog squelches, Marxist lyrics, minimalist 2 chord
mantras and motorik beats, is as mesmerising as ever. I love
the way they've triangulated a bizarre aesthetic universe for
themselves out of Marx, Neu! and Francois Hardy-style Gallic
girl-pop. Pram use clapped-out analog synths, home-made
theremin, brittle rhythms and dolorous fiddle to create a
magical sound midway between Aphex, Art Ensemble of Chicago
and The Raincoats. Where Pulp's use of cheesy keyboards is
kitsch, Pram sound genuinely cosmic, closer to Sun Ran than
'Magic Fly'. Appropriately, Pram's big theme is dreams of
transcendence in the face of drab provincial mundanity. And
so on 'Dancing On Star' from the new LP "Helium" (Too Pure),
Rosie trills: "one of these days I'll be up in the heavens".
Other UK bands--what I call the post-rock vanguard--have
eagerly embraced the latest technology, adding samplers,
sequencers and MIDI to the trad rock gtr/bs/dms line-up.
Laika are typical and exemplary. On their debut LP "Silver
Apples Of the Moon" (Too Pure), they sound like the missing
link between the avant-funk of Can circa 'Soon Over Babaluma'
and the 'ambient jungle' you hear on London's pirate
stations: weird samples over urgent drum-and-bass grooves,
peppered with itchy rhythm guitar and serpentine synth-
twirls, and topped with Margaret Fiedler's breathy semi-rap
vocals. Laika's music is totally anti-Luddite, yet
wonderfully organic and warm sounding.
Other UK experimental bands are forging a more frigid, anti-humanist interface with
with technology. "Isolationism", the fourth in Virgin's
best-selling series of ambient compilations, features 23
artists ranging from post-rock (Main, Ice, Scorn, Disco
Inferno) to ambient noir (Aphex, Seefeel) to avant-garde (Jim
O'Rourke, Thomas Koner, Zoviet France). What this disparate
bunch share in common is a yen for creating desolate,
forbidding soundscapes, using warped samples, effects-
processed guitars and environmental noises. With its
amorphous drone-clouds and dank sound-grottos, "Isolationism"
is a challenging but utterly compelling compendium of one the
eeriest strands of weird shit today.