Thursday, May 23, 2019
slackerdelia - Mercury Rev + Medicine
The New York Times, November 22, 1992
by Simon Reynolds
After the explosive success of Nirvana last year, and the ensuing breakthrough by Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, alternative rock is now in a paradoxical state. Commercially, it has never been more powerful, but musically, it has become increasingly less adventurous.
The rise of the punk-metal hybrid known as grunge has led to a new orthodoxy of sound and attitude, based on a mix of Black Sabbath-heaviness and punk aggression, bludgeoning riffs and bleary disaffection. With older groups like Sonic Youth trimming off their experimental edges in an attempt to sound more raunchy and younger bands like Helmet and L7 offering a belligerent hard rock, the alternative scene has gotten predictable and oppressive.
But for those who long for something a bit more multidimensional, there is an alternative to "alternative", in the form of bands that still adhere to the former underground spirit of expansiveness and idiosyncracy. Some of these groups have been swept up in the music industry's frenzy to sign alternative bands. In particular, two groups have recently made striking major-label debuts: Mercury Rev's Yerself Is Steam (Columbia 53030; CD and cassette) and Medicine's Shot Forth Self Living (Def American 45067-2; CD and cassette). Both bands are darlings of the British independent-rock scene but are not yet widely known in their native America.
If Mercury Rev has a kindred spirit in this country, it's Pavement, whose album title, Slanted and Enchanted, captures Mercury Rev's dazed and confused aura as deftly as does its own. The sensibility of these two groups recalls the absurdist world view and daydreamy drifting of the characters in Slacker, the 1991 cult movie directed by Richard Linklater. Slackers are beatniks without the get-up-and-go to venture "on the road". Instead, they achieve nirvana by cultivating apathy until they become highly attuned to the bizarre details of everyday life.
Mercury Rev's musical antecedent is not the despondent heavy rock that influences grunge, but another early '70s style, the cosmic rock of Pink Floyd and of German bands like Can, Faust and Neu. The latter, affectionately known as the "Krautrock" movement, were dedicated to exploring the electric guitar's cornucopia of textures. Similarly, Mercury Rev's guitarists – Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and David Baker – eschew riffs in favour of a dense tapestry of distorted and distended guitar lines.
'Chasing a Bee', the opening track on Yerself Is Steam, begins with undulating clouds of feedback juxtaposed with what sounds like cows mooing in the distance but is actually overdubbed guitars run backward. The song shifts between mellow, bucolic passages and a manic deluge of noise, interlaced with a child-like flute courtesy of Suzanne Thorpe.
'Syringe Mouth' echoes a particular Krautrock idiom called motorik, which evokes the exhilaration of cruising on the freeway, enjoying the onrush of stimuli as one hurtles along the road to nowhere. The gorgeous 'Coney Island Cyclone' is another paean to aimless propulsion. "Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Your Heart" begins with the incantation "onto the ice floe"; then the song revs up and dashes across dazzling expanses of white noise. But Mercury Rev isn't always torrential. It also excels at slow-burning ballads like 'Fritters' and the stately, majestic 'Carwash Hair', in which gilded guitars and poignant melody rival anything in the Velvet Underground songbook.
Medicine is another American band that likes to wring startlingly new noises from the electric guitar. On its new album, the effects-laden guitar textures and Beth Thompson's and Brad Laner's androgynous vocals recall English trance rockers of recent years like Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine.
'One More' is a dazzling roar of fuzzy drones and feedback that leaves listeners reeling as though afflicted by the imagination's equivalent of snowblindness. 'Aruca' starts with a fractious din and finally slips into a fragrant swirl of psychedelic funk.
Like My Bloody Valentine, Medicine juxtaposes extremely brutal, grating sounds with incredibly sweet, delicate melodies. Sometimes they get the recipe wrong and err on the side of saccharine '60s retrospection. But at its best, Medicine reinvents psychedelia rather than replicates it.
'Sweet Explosion' is a brilliant blend of modern trance-dance and acid rock. Thompson's crystalline vocals and the glassy guitar are as disorientating as a kaleidoscope. 'Queen of Tension' starts beguilingly, with Thompson's dulcet tones heard beneath a steady drizzle of guitar distortion. Then the song blasts off into the firmament, as Laner turns all the switches to "interstellar overdrive".
Medicine and Mercury Rev aren't alone in invoking the cosmic ambitions of the Krautrock bands or early Pink Floyd. On a similar wavelength one finds the Boston group Cul de Sac and the British rockers Bark Psychosis. All these groups shun the populist hard rock that is now the alternative norm in favour of soundscapes that inspire a riot for the mind's eye. Where grunge rock rubs the listener's face in grim reality, the slacker bands dream of being lost in the wilderness of outer or inner space.