Sunday, August 18, 2013

Severe Exposure
Sub Pop
Melody Maker, 1995 

by Simon Reynolds

            'Humanity' and 'honesty' are two of the most overrated things in rock.  So hats off to Sub Pop for bringing us Six Finger Satellite, a band whose coldblooded conceptualism and contrivance makes them exiles in their own land.  Heartless and arty where their compatriots are heartfelt and artless, SFS are the best Sub Pop band since you-know-who.

     With their Kraftwerk-style uniforms (whitecoated lab technicians circa last year's fab mini-LP "Machine Cuisine") and strict-time robo-rhythms, SFS are rock reptiles in the tradition of Devo or Tubeway Army. This time round there's less of  "Cuisine"'s dirty electronica, and instead a slight return to the guitar-centric sound of the debut LP. SFS exhiliratingly join the dots between various forgotten moments in post-punk. And so  "Bad Comrade" begins as a grim processional through the bleak urban wastes of 'Red Mecca' era Cabaret Voltaire, then explodes into the caustic agit-funk paroxysms of Gang of  Four; "Parlour Games" and "Simian Fever" recall the art-metal clangour of Chrome and  Bowie's "Lodger"; "White Queen to Black Knight"  virtually rewrites  "Annalisa" from PiL's underrated debut. As for "Cock Fight": forget Nine Inch Nails et al, this is the real industrial rock, a swarf-spitting, steelworks scree.

            Thematically, we're talking grotesquerie-a-gogo, the kind of perverse, puerile  preoccupations that characterised Throbbing Gristle, Big Black and Devo. "Rabies (Baby's Got The)"  gives the game away in the title, while "Where Humans Go" appears to be a 'Soylent Green'-style sci-fi fantasy of people being rendered down into meat for cannibal consumption, with machinic beats and effluent-like synth-slime conjuring the abattoir's grisly ambience. The ultimate destination of this particular rock strain of  impulse-to-outrage and morbid fascination with abjection is always the Final Solution, and so the last track "Board The Bus" revives the scenario of "Machine Cuisine"'s  "The Magic Bus"  (with its cyborg gauleiter grunts of "work equals freedom" and "fire at will, commandant").

            Dodgy flirtations with the Teutonic/technocratic aside, Six Finger's rigour and frigidity are strangely refreshing at a time when so much US rock is basically 70s singer-songwriter angst with a fuzz-box.  Expose yourself to their severity.        

Melody Maker,  1995
by Simon Reynolds

                It was actually a mistake that first got me intrigued by Six Finger
Satellite. At the end of the 1993 Sub Pop compilation "Curtis W.  Pitts", there's
a devastating diatribe against Sebadoh that basically accuses them of pimping
their own neurosis; as Six Finger are the last act credited on the sleeve, I
assumed they'd authored it.  Turns out it's actually a self-critique that Barlow
& Co cobbled together to play over the PA prior to Sebadoh hitting the stage. An
error, then, but a strangely appropriate one, since Six Finger---with their
almost English flair for concept, image, packaging and manifesto, their creed of
discipline and unitary vision--are nothing if not anti-slacker.

    "This is a time of slacker rock," says singer John MacLean with a pained
grimace. "Regular guys stepping onstage in T-shirt and jeans, complaining about
their personal problems.  And we're definitely a reaction against that, rock as psychotherapy session. A lot of these bands seem amazed that they're
confused by life."

     Six Finger have no truck with the spiritual weaklings of  lo-fi, which is basically punk degenerated into an ersatz folk music (Sebadoh = James Taylor with a fuzzbox). Six Finger descend from an altogether less meek-and-mild strand of punk, that runs from the Stooges' raw power through the Pistols' virulent nihilism to Big Black's ear-scalding severity.

    Where this vision of punk (brutalism, will-to-power, appetite for destruction) inevitably seems to end up is Germany.  And so The Stooges' Ron Asheton performed in SS regalia, while as a solo artist Iggy had "visions of swastikas" reeling in his head; Johnny Rotten sang about the Berlin Wall and Belsen; Big Black covered Kraftwerk's misogynist ditty "The Model".  Punk-prophet and Kraftwerk-fan Lester Bangs pointed out that Germany had invented speed (amphetamine and the autobahn) and argued that rock's future lay with the German bands' man-machine interface and motorik rhythms.  It's on this aesthetic freeway connecting Detroit and Berlin, where guitar-blitzkrieg meets synth-precision, that you'll find Six Finger Satellite.

     On the cover of their first Sub Pop single, 'The Declaration of
Techno-Colonialism', the band wore space suits and Gary Numan make-up; inside,
there's a manifesto about the need for "a pact between man and machinery".

    "We had all this was stuff about showing up at the studio on time, being physically fit, because you have to earn the machines' respect," says John. "We keep to a strict regimen of getting up at 9 0'clock, meeting at the coffee shop, doing some callisthenic exercises before repairing to the studio, then winding up at the disco at night."

    In between the guitar-centric debut "The Pigeon Is The Most Popular Bird"
and the Gang of Four/Tubeway Army amalgam of their new album "Severe Exposure",
Six Finger made a full-on foray into electronica with last year's fab
mini-LP "Machine Cuisine".  Here, they made extravagant use of the slimy
inorganic textures generated by their vast collection of outmoded analogue synths. Like
the boffins of UK art-tekno, Six Finger prefer quaint '70s instruments to
modern digital technology, partly because of the extreme, unsubtle artificiality
of the sounds they generate, and partly because the old synths are played in a
strenuous, hands-on way that feels more rock'n'roll. Onstage, singer J. Ryan
wields his portable synth like an axe, strapped around his neck.

   "Modern computer music like techno is the perfect example of the machines
playing the people," frowns John, when I question their strange lo-fi approach to
futurism.  "Analog has this warmth that's closer to human.  When it's heated up
to optimum operational temperature, analogue gear has the same temperature as the
human body."

     Like Elastica, Six Finger play rock purged of hippy indulgence ("when I
heard about Jerry Garcia's death, I felt a great weight lifted off my shoulders,"
quips bassist James Apt) and severed from its pre-1976 blues roots.  Their
compulsive but unswinging, strict-time rhythms lie somewhere between New Wave's
raunch-free twitch'n'jerk and disco's metronomic pulse.  Drummer Rick Pelletier
even incorporates a disco-style crashing hi-hat into his playing.

    Six Finger are veritable scholars of post-punk. Earlier, during the
soundcheck for their gig at CBGB's, James namechecks This Heat's "Deceit" and
ATV's "Vibing Up The Senile Man", the Stranglers, Suicide and PiL.  Later, during
the interview, the band cite Gary Numan, Devo, DAF, Kraftwerk, plus San Francisco
post-punk/art-metal bands MX-80 and Chrome, whose "acidic but potent"
guitar-clangour is a big influence on John's playing.  They hint that their
future output may bear the imprint of Eno & Bowie's Berlin-based trilogy
"Low"/"Heroes"/ "Lodger".  As for contemporary kindred spirits, they give the big-up to Hydrogen Terrorists, from their own locale of Providence, Rhode Island; James describes them approvingly as "the soundtrack to a seal clubbing".

    "We're interesting in anything that involves two opposing forces,"
elucidates James, when quizzed about their 'beauty is cruelty' aesthetic and
Devo-esque interest in the superhuman/subhuman interface. "Whether it's in
personal relations or the structure of the Nazi empire. A study of the oppressor
and the oppressed."

    So which do you sympathise with?

   "That depends. Whoever has the guts to carry something through. People who
don't recant on their ideal.  Perverted genius, scary figures from history like
Rasputin the Mad Monk."

     In their groovy press pack, each member of Six Finger lists their favorite
dictators (Ngo Dinh Diem, Idi Amin, Genghis Khan and Steve Albini).  For some
reason, there seems to be an innate tendency for rebel rock to drift toward a
fascination with fascism.  Perhaps it's not so odd when you consider that the
Nazis were Romantics, Nietzche buffs and neo-pagans (all tendencies shared by
arty rock'n'rollers).  And so Iggy talked of being a fuehrer without followers,
the ubermensch that Nietzche could only write about; Bowie spent much of his
coked-out mid-70s flirting with Nazism and Aleister Crowley.  Following in this
well-trod path, Six Finger attempted to rival the Pistols' "Belsen Was A Gas" for
sheer tastelessness with "The Magic Bus" on "Machine Cuisine", in which a
vocoderised J.  Ryan plays the role of a sort of robot commandant ushering
passengers on board their way to the Final Solution.  And on the new LP, "Board The
Bus" revisits this most dubious of scenarios. So what gives?

   "I guess I've just read a lot of war books and had my share of Third Reich
fantasies, so I'm acting them out", J.  says sheepishly.

    "It's only because they were such a remarkable organisation," continues
James. "It has nothing to do with the acts themselves, just the way they were
structured.  It's how most people wish they could live their lives: hyper-regimented. Get up, slaughter 50 thousand people, then have lunch.  They were striving for a kind of efficiency that's beyond the attainable. We've come close, on this tour."

     "At one of our shows, we used to have a Six Finger black arm-band, and a
local newspaper accused us of being Nazis," adds John. "But I've always thought
of the whole performance aspect of rock as being related to fascism, the cult of

    James: "The confusion our generation feels is from not being able to live up
to the highly edited lifestyles we see on TV. And so being able to go see a
really focused, committed performance, means something.  We try to present a
unified front so people can fixate on the band."

     John: "There's a whole fascist side to it where it's not background music,
it's a love/hate thing.  People come up and say 'that show was offensive to me'.
They could have just left the club but the fact that they stayed and watched all
the way through, hating it, is cool.  To me that's like someone saying they really liked it."

    We appear to have reached another of those stagnant lulls in rock
history when barbarism seems better than banality, when the frisson of the
monstrous seems preferable to ennui.   "If you can bring out a violent response in someone, that's good," says James. "People are so dissassociated from their own being these days, they need to be jolted.".   

"Severe Exposure" is out now on Sub Pop.

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