1982: King Crimson - “Waiting Man”
Most people know “21th Century Schizoid Man” and most music fans are at least a little familiar with King Crimson’s sound from the 70s. It is broadly defined as “progressive rock,” but touches upon many sounds, structures, and has enough good ol’ fashioned ambition to make for some of the most exciting music of the era. Having said this, few people nowadays mention their output from the 80s (except, of course, for dedicated fans of prog).
It is said that King Crimson came into their own for a seconds time when Robert Fripp and Bill Brufford welcomed Adrian Belew and Tony Levin to their ranks. Discipline, the first album from this new lineup, is considered a return to form for the band, yet remains an album few people talk about. Either that or we remain too astonished by their first seven albums to move on.
Yesterday, my boss at work came across this video and (Miami Vice outfits aside) it sounds like the future. It’s layered with new elements added slowly, with loop upon loop building a clockwork organic realm. The band uses (admittedly) crude sequencing and electronic drum pads along with their traditional instruments, which themselves are heavily effected (hello, Frippertronics!). You can hear the sounds of Gamelan and subtle African percussive music in it. You can hear the era itself (guitar synthesizers, Simmons pads) but also something else to come in its core.
This is Don Caballero before Don Caballero, Battles before any of them knew about two-finger guitar tappings in a rhythmic way. This is Foals before their members were born. “Waiting Man,” from their album Beat, could be inserted in a 2013 album and no one would notice. This is the sound of richly layering instruments to make pop music before the 21th century demanded it.
1986 - 1987: Big Black - Atomizer / Songs About Fucking
Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”
– The Song of Roland, Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753 (circa 1140 C.E.)
It’s only a coincidence that the drum machine that helped unite electronic music with traditional masculinity shares its name with an 8th century Frankish war hero. Though according to his literary depiction — poems limn him as a broad-shouldered he-man with a deafening horn — the Roland of legend makes a fitting namesake for the Roland TR-606, the drum machine of choice of Steve Albini and Big Black.
Big Black wasn’t the first band to use a drum machine, or even a Roland. However, in the early 80s, Albini’s aggressive noise-rock outfit was one of the few bands that could rely on a little whirring gadget and still come off as unquestionably (if slightly satirically) macho. It was a stunt decades in the making.
In the early 20th century electricity in general was perceived as threat to masculinity. Electric current, and the chic urban modernity that came with it, was expected to wash away strength and virility in a wave of comfort and soft living. In his 1901 novel Labor, Emile Zola shows electricity pushing humanity toward an Eloi-like existence defined by unending leisure. Others, significantly less optimistic, saw power’s shocking influence as a factor in speeding all of civilization into a Spenglerian decline. While these fears of castration-by-a-thousand-amps did fade, it was decades before electronic music got it’s cultural bar mitzvah and was welcomed into the world of masculine pursuits.
From its early days, music primarily produced through circuit boards did not put hair on chests — it was largely the realm of sweater-clad academics (see this incriminating photo of Stockhausen). Even its first foray into the mainstream was headed by androgynous goths like Gary Numan and the faux-andriod neuters of Kraftwerk. Partially, this is a holdover from those old concerns: Twiddling the knobs on a synthesizer did not hold the same masculine allure as pounding out a beat on a drum kit. It wasn’t until the advent of industrial music that electronics started to beef up their effete image. And here the semantics are decidedly not a coincidence. Early practitioners of industrial music self-labeled, consciously attempting to associate their sounds with the gritty, blue-collar world of machine shops, blast furnaces, and steel mills.
With their two mid-80s albums, Atomizer and Songs About Fucking, Big Black drove away any remaining vestiges of electronic music’s frou-frou reputation. Both these albums present a raw, angry, and distinctly male ethos — and they do it using a Roland TR-606 (later, using the less evocatively named EMU Drumulator). In fact, the drum machine was as crucial to the band’s work as its hyper-masculine affectations. The machine was even credited in liner notes as “Roland,” as if the menacing beats on “L Dopa” were created in-studio by a burly Frankish percussionist and not an 18-volt appliance.
Roland isn’t undeserving of the credit, either. The persistent rhythms it provides on “Kerosene” give the song a taut, suspenseful energy. The device’s mechanic precision and cold textures help color all of the band’s work, providing a rigid backbone for Albini to build his bellicose tracks around. The combination of Roland with Albini’s dissonant guitar and transgressive lyrics created a novel effect. Big Black’s songs are rooted in electronic and mechanical sounds but use the direct, aggressive nature of traditional rock and punk. The songs often traffic in dark and ugly tropes that present a critical view of masculinity (sample: “feel my fist/my fist of love”), but Albini’s complex relationship with gender politics aside, the music is not twee. Listen to “Strange Things” and you can hear how masterfully the two realms are blended — Roland’s percussion sounds right in line with the thumping bass and guttural yells of its human counterparts.
Big Black’s catalog is a stunning combination of electric power with animal magnetism. Where Kraftwerk used drum machines to transcend the physical to a Computer World, Big Black put them to work creating brutish, visceral Songs About Fucking. Electronics plugged into pure atavism. Where the machine may have seemed more in place in dance music or a karaoke bar, it was now a tool fit for anger-fueled aural destruction. Like the Roland of legend blowing his horn, the drum machine could now signal chaos and violence.
1994: Neptune Towers - “Caravans To Empire Agol”
Back in the early 90s Darkthrone was releasing their best material in the form of black metal classics such as A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger. Things were going just fine, but Darkthrone half, Fenriz, wanted to experiment with synthesizers. Black metal is all well and good (err…bad and evil?), but it’s not the kind of genre where you’ll be able to experiment with Tangerine Dream-style kosmiche. Fenriz explained in an interview that he made some synthesizer music intended for Darkthrone albums, but decided against it because it wouldn’t fit right. Enter Neptune Towers, a project Fenriz described as, “Avant Garde Astral/Alien Synth.” Pretty fitting.
So, yeah, you can sum it up pretty easily as “black metal guy jams out to some Tangerine Dream,” but who wouldn’t want to hear that? The first album, Caravans to Empire Agol, is the better of the two in my opinion. Consisting of two tracks, “Caravans to Empire Agol” and “The Arrival at Empire Agol,” the album is concerned with soundtracking the journey through this strange alien world. While Empire Agol seems like a place you would never want to go near, I don’t mind vacationing there while this dark little album plays.
2009: V/A - Electric Holyland
Would Jesus jot band names like Wild Olive Branch Band and Earthen Vessel on his Trapper Keeper? Or, more interestingly, is it fundamentally wrong to write, release, and promote music about God? EVEN MORE FASCINATINGLY, is it logical to expect missionary-style rock from members of the Christian flock?
Hell, if I knew the answers I wouldn’t be here right now, knowhat’msayin’? But the Electric Holyland compilation, released in 2009 by Lysergic Sound Distributors, goes a ways toward lessening the stigmas associated with music with religious connotations while also absolutely justifying them in a few cases (even the true hand of god couldn’t save some of these tunes). It’s not an album I expect rookies will be craving; you only need this if you’re already schooled in Nuggets and its many (of varying quality) offspring to the point of utter exhaustion.
Jesus hears our every need / This you’ve got to knoooooow
The mind goes through a couple of stages upon absorbing statements such as the above over and over. The first stage is humorous appreciation for the abject devotion the participants display. They talk ‘bout talkin’ with the lord, walkin’ with the lord, calkin’ with the lord (sorry, had to complete that rhyme scheme), and their preachiness is so much more natural than the weird bullying religious presence we seem to all be resigned to today. The second stage is to recoil a bit; aren’t these bands the precursors to seed-poisoners like Scott Stapp and Jars Of Clay? This ain’t COOL man… This ain’t COOL man.
The third and final stage is acceptance, as Electric Holyland is, in the end, a fun listen that insists legitimate music can be found absolutely anywhere, and while I’m not ready to laugh about Creed just yet, they never rocked as hard as the wonderfully vexing Shekina Glory’s “Ask” (which glues Sabbath fuzz to a goddamn flute solo and insists Jesus has come to “claim us as his own;” to me that’s creepy) or perfected a Mamma/Papa/Spanky/Gang melody as complex as those found within the godlike fiber of The Jesus Band’s “Jesus Is Mighty to Save.” They certainly never snarled like Britt Warren, who half-raps over a strange riff that starts out sounding like that fucking Tonic song then morphs into a 1970s stomper. Weird, brody; weird.
It’s one thing to worship our god the savior; it’s another to suck unholy ass while you’re doing it like, say, Petra. A good portion of these bands don’t suck, even as they’re beseeching you to get involved in something that most definitely does, and the strange ins and outs of the situation make for an interesting listening experience. That a lot of these ditties are direct copies of radio hits of the time only helps, as the oooh-ahhh factor of hearing your favorites of the era sets in nicely alongside the odder cuts. Maybe living in mega-church hell has something to do with it, but I find Electric Holyland a lot more authentic than most god-based offerings.
1985: Exodus - Bonded By Blood
We live in an age of privilege. If you know how to play your cards on the internet, you can listen to anything. The only limit is whether you want to listen to something or not. Because of this, stigmas about what you are “allowed” to like have perished.
This wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
Metal was the music of burnouts, fuck-ups and losers looking to a) get laid and b) nerd out on exciting guitar music. Any self respecting music fan felt embarrassed by the look, sound, and attitude that headbangers manifested. For their part, metal fans thought people who listened to other music were morons who couldn’t handle their genre. They were close knitted elitists.
Exodus were the Tomás de Torquemada of heavy music. It seemed like their whole point of existing was to yell “Death to posers!” Legend has it that original vocalist Paul Baloff used to cut people’s Mötley Crüe t-shirts and wear the rags on his wrists as trophies. And, just recently, I came across a comic book where they imagined themselves as serial killers cleansing the scene from “pussies.”
This adolescent attitude is surely to cause anyone not committed to metal to roll their eyes. It would be pretty easy to dismiss the band given this proof. Musically speaking, Exodus (at least on their first album) were untouchable.
It is said that the Big 4 – that is, the best and most recognizable bands to come out of the thrash metal scene – were Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. None of these bands would have gotten anywhere without Exodus. They were amazing songwriters with ambitious yet grounded arrangements and memorable riffs. What made them truly great was that their music possessed an urgency and heaviness unmatched by most of their contemporaries. Tracks like “A Lesson in Violence” churn like Minor Threat if they had guitar lessons, while “And Then There Were None” showed they could display power without resorting to speed.
Bonded By Bloodis not considered a groundbreaking album because it was shelved for a year and, in that lapse of time, the Big 4 and others released stuff that sounded groundbreaking. Whatever the case, the album is one of the most intense records ever put out and, despite the risk of being called a poser by the surviving Exodus members, I hope it’ll get more recognition outside the metal gates.
1981: Crass - Penis Envy
The story of “Our Wedding” by Creative Recording and Sound Services is a good one that bears repeating. Included in a 1981 issue of UK teen romance magazine Loving was a “Fabulous Record Offer,” a write-in coupon for a free copy of this “Wedding Day Single” sung by one Joy De Vivre. Little did the Loving staff and readers realize that Creative Recording and Sound Services were actually the anarcho-punk band Crass and Joy De Vivre one of their two female singers. Once word got out, Loving editor Pam Lyons called the hoax “a sick joke,” and told NME, “It was just a pathetic ploy by Crass to get publicity.”
A sick joke? Definitely. A ploy to get publicity? In a sense.
But pathetic? Not at all on Crass’ part. The only thing pathetic about the ordeal is the fact that a successful mainstream publication failed to recognize “Our Wedding” for what it was: a blatant regurgitation of the magazine’s own fear mongering and propaganda. Consider that whichever dimwit passed for a music or entertainment editor at Loving really might’ve listened to the desperately pleading lyrics “Never look at anyone, anyone but me/ Never look at anyone, I must be all you see/ Listen to those wedding bells/ Say goodbye to other girls/ I’ll never be untrue my love/ Don’t be untrue to me,” and actually thought them romantic, or at least passable as such.
Crass founder Penny Rimbaud had this to say: “These are the same authorities that made Chinese women into festering hooks, that made Victorian women gasp for breath beneath their whalebone binding, that make women today distort themselves with high heels and chemical additives … They offer you cheap products that exploit you and the emptiness that we all feel; their obscene and mindless intrusions into the emptiness are tragic insults to our intelligence. It is because of their poverty of thought that they off[er] ‘Our Wedding,’ pure unadulterated shit. THEY SELL IT TO YOU WITHOUT A CARE.”
Looking back, one mainstream magazine’s embarrassing failure and perhaps more embarrassing reaction to said fail created a perfect moment in countercultural history; an instance in which the day’s tastemakers were so brazenly heartless and out of touch they mistook satire for the real thing and advertised it accordingly. A contemporary analogy might come in the form of vaporwave artists successfully pushing their hellish Muzak distortions on banks and department stores. This, of course, hasn’t happened… yet.
While “Our Wedding” parodies pre-packaged romance and the commodification of love with a voice of innocent naïveté, Penis Envy’s first cut, “Bata Motel,” offers a searing send-up of the psychosexual nightmare patriarchal society attaches to the female gender, spelling out the “she was asking for it” mentality in terms none too abstract. Man’s prototypical female is embodied by the willfully submissive sex object (rape victim?) played here by Eve Libertine, who like Joy De Vivre in “Our Wedding,” addresses her mate directly: “Burn me out, twist my wrists/ I promise not to shout, beat me with your fists/ Squeeze me, squeeze me, make me feel/ In my red high-heels I’m an easy kill/ Tease me, tease me, make me see/ You’re the only one I need to be me/ Thank you, will you take me?/ Thank you, will you make me?/ Thank you, will you break me?/ Use me, don’t lose me/ Taste me, don’t waste me.” How one reads such requests and demands in light of modern pop’s sexual identity crisis (see: domestic violence victim Rihanna singing “I want you to be my sex slave”) is another matter altogether.
One laste note: if you’re looking for more information on Crass or at all interested in anarcho-punk music or anarchistic living in general, I cannot recommend the full-length documentary There Is No Authority But Yourself highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and take 65 minutes out of your day to check it out.