2013: The Drones - I See Seaweed
Mea culpa, but better late than never, and you don’t need a Doc-equipped DeLorean to travel to a time where this record is still vitally relevant, because you’re standing in it. We’ve paid The Drones their dues twice in a row for records still as essential as they were when they came out, so let me not allow the circle to go unbroken: I See Seaweed is the best album by The Drones yet, which makes it one of the best rock albums of this nascent decade, full stop, and go take a float down the river if you disagree. Arguing why you need to hear The Drones is almost a moot point by now, but this record perfects the smacks you around the noggin’ with more dread-filled hopelessness than an entire tent of doomed Arctic explorers, while somehow remaining more elliptical and brutal than anything else they’ve released, moving with a mixture of reckless uncertainty and whiplash dynamism that makes “Jezebel” feel like breakfast cereal.
(Basic assumptions going forward:  Gareth Liddiard is the greatest lyricist currently working in the idiom of guitar music (uncontestable), and  When Iggy Pop gave up on punk, it went to Australia to be periodically resurrected there for at least a while [sorta contestable])
The Drones made their reputation on calling bullshit for what it is, whether the folly is English redcoats chasing down newly Antipodean convicts for sport or I See Seaweed extends the problematic to global warming, the degradation of rural towns for mining purposes, the destruction of animals for space research, and the hegemony of conservative media shock jocks. As usual, they beat you with their truth in a way that’s peculiarly Australian, goldminer-cum-sledgehammer, but what’s new is how much better they are at investing their arrangements with a deftness of cruelty, as if there’s a sense of permanent incipience and tension, in that the hardest moment is always the one yet to come. They no longer need to blast you to get the point across, which is a strange mercy, and something largely due to Steve Hesketh’s keyboards being constantly present like a drowning seagull pinned beneath a mast beam. Listening to the Drones is now more Pale King than Money, and we’re richer for it.
Take “They’ll Kill You,” which details the failures that twenty-something Australian emigrants encounter when they try and escape reality by positing a greater one beyond that country’s borders. The cracking of illusion is painted in the way the chord progression yields and opens to a seasick lurch down the scale in the bridge, sliding like the point in an argument where things start getting thrown, and sinking towards the inevitable conclusion: “this birdhouse migrates too”. It’s downright devastating, and in doing so, it pins down a peculiarly Australian neurosis in a way that’s instantly accessible in a fashion that Sixteen Straws couldn’t have been. The message is clear. The country isn’t the problem.
Accessibility is a moronic characteristic to mention with a band as gut-shakingly vital as The Drones, but it bears an important point out: the more this band evolves, the more they are capable of bringing people inside the tent. Where once Liddiard scraped a comb across the Australian past, here he discusses our communal post-(and possibly pre-)atomic future in terms that leave no one cold, but everyone chilled. Although we’re all fucked, this is not the paean to hopelessness that previous records have been; what I See Seaweed excoriates of false moralism, willed ignorance, abdicated responsibility, and misplaced misanthropy. As The Quietus pointed out, Liddiard isn’t recommending the grab-a-gun-and-blow-your-mind-out fatalism of Havilah’s “Oh My” anymore; this is him throwing down the fucking gauntlet, because he is talking directly to you here. This is not historical recollection, this is not documentary, this is the nine o’clock news, looking you right in the fucking eyes and waiting for you to start doing something real.
To get to the heart of I See Seaweed is to grow incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of only serving yourself, of condescending to your weaker parts, to say we didn’t start the fire and curl up in front of Game of Thrones. To be more to the point, any forward-moving relevance that g/b/d/k/v music is going to have relies on music like this, stuff that uses the inherited, elemental force of sweaty anger to drive a stake through the arrogance that mere consumption and observation entails, the notion that old forms can be superseded through aiming towards invention alone, that considerations of mere aesthetic alone trump meaning and urgency, that having someone put their bloody hands around your throat is a passe gesture. Music that prescribes nothing but diagnoses, and leaves you to pick up the tools. What we need, what we will always need, is art that apprehends you with the threat of making you fucking afraid and aware of the fact that you are a problem. You are a problem, and I See Seaweeed has to ask: Whose side are you on? Just yours? Wrong answer.
1995: The Amps - Pacer
With all the hoopla (full-album setlisted original lineup tour, SPIN retrospective, etc.) around Last Splash in 2013, I can’t help but feel it’s time for Pacer to get its due. At the time of its releases, pithmaster General Robert Christgau slogged off the album as “slight,” but time has shown me that where Frank Black Francis’ yelping, David Thomas-y sing-song has grown shrill and cloying, Kim Deal’s ciggy-charred, girl-group-that-beats-up-the-other-girl-groups voice has only calcified in its ineffable grace. There was such a charge putting this album on, after hearing “Tipp City” on 120 Minutes, and realizing it only gets better.
As much as I’d loved Last Splash, it paled in comparison to this catchy, cut-loose batch of unassailably distinctive garage anthems. The only thing slight about this album was that it left me wanting more, and near-20 years later, even spare, thorny sidesteps like “Breaking The Split Screen Barrier” and “Hoverin,” have exponentially grown on me with their offbeat charms (dig that crash cymbal work at 1:48 on the latter). The Dean did offer some praise of Kim’s voice, as it is one of those irresistible elements that make her stop-start musical career all the more frustrating. But life happens, and you can’t force inspiration (some of Mountain Battles illustrated the unfortunate result of this).
I recommend the above video — my current favorite and side two opener, “First Revival” — as a stellar example (out of 12) of how this album is truly inspired and a million times better than its obscure displacement in rock history would suggest.
1988: Missing Foundation - 1933 Your House Is Mine
By 1988, when Missing Foundation’s sophomore album 1933 Your House Is Mine was released, industrial music was approaching a crossroads. Leaving aside the weirdo experimentalism of artists like Current 93, Nurse with Wound, and Coil, its most visible proponents were groups making dance music for goth kids (not necessarily a bad thing), and Ministry’s Land of Rape and Honey was about to initiate the next seismic shift into straight-up heavy metal. Set against this backdrop, MF feels like something of an anachronism, a regression to industrial’s formative years spent straining radical politics, musique concrète, and performance art through a punk rock sieve.
It would be a stretch to describe 1933 as a “refined effort” compared to MF’s debut, but amid the fragmentary bursts of noise heard on tracks like “Kingsland 61” and “1933,” one could find tracks that more-or-less coalesce into structures that feel more conventionally song-oriented. “Burn Trees” is probably the most recognizably industrial-sounding track on the album, driven by an austere, endlessly repeated guitar figure and over which is laid a reptilian sample of front-man Peter Missing rasping the song’s title. Semi-title track “Your House Is Mine” lurches to its feet from a series of false starts and becomes an ominous funeral march to the beat of metal-on-metal percussion. Hell, “Jameel’s Turmoil” actually features an honest-to-goodness groove.
Of course, much of the conversation surrounding Missing Foundation has focused on their chaotic stage shows (they were accused of starting a riot in Tompkins Square in 1988), their unique iconography (the upturned martini glass graffitied onto buildings all along the lower east side) — in short, anything but their music. One could be tempted to believe that the apocrypha surrounding the group is more interesting than their output, but I would contend that this only speaks to both how successfully the group fused sound, visuals, and performance into an indivisible whole, and how supremely at home they were in New York of the 1980s. As Sam McPheeters of Men’s Recovery Project (among others) points out, Missing Foundation embodied a spirit completely in tune with their time and place. MF were fixtures of the lower east side squatters movement, and their post-apocalyptic sound — cobbled together from trash, primitive samplers, and whatever partially working instruments they could get their hands on — sounded right at home in a city that still contained neighborhoods that looked like they belonged in a third-world nation.
For that reason, 1933 is perhaps the group’s most emblematic work. The title is a reference to the fall of the Weimar Republic, which came into being in Germany at the end of the First World War and gave way to the rise of the Third Reich. It was a disorganized, ineffectual body, ill-equipped to deal with the near-insurmountable challenges facing its country: skyrocketing inflation caused by demands for war reparations, spiraling unemployment resulting from the Great Depression, and shattered morale and social unrest in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Looking back 25 years later, this analogy seems more than a little over-the-top, yet at the same time, it’s eerie how well this album resonates with our current political climate. “Your House Is Mine” may have been written as a screed against gentrification, but it could just as easily have soundtracked the wave of foreclosures that accompanied the housing collapse of 2008. “Invasion of Your Privacy” is more meaningful than ever following last year’s revelations about the NSA and PRISM, and songs about ecological disaster like “Burn Trees” are, unfortunately, unlikely to ever become less topical.
As we’ve previously indicated, New York in the late 80s was a hell of a good place to live if you liked your rock noisy. But even amid such formidable acts as Cop Shoot Cop, (a soon to be huge) White Zombie, and Swans, Missing Foundation took the art of confrontational musical performance to a level that was difficult to match. Yet, 25 years later, their music, which once represented the ultimate in nihilism and urban alienation, seems strangely hopeful, a desperate howl against capitalist excess from a more idealistic age.
2000: Q and Not U - “A Line in the Sand”
Two-thirds into the opening track of Q and Not U’s debut album, No Kill No Beep Beep, we can hear the start of a revolution. “A Line in the Sand” transitions seamlessly from angular to dancey, where everything — the rhythm, the feel, the mood — changes. The album was released in 2000, just when a new trend was emerging, with bands regularly recycling the sounds of Gang of Four, Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid, and tons of other punks who loved having enormous basslines driving their noisy, angsty songs. Soon, it would become the sound of independent rock for a couple of years and even occasionally crossover to the mainstream.
In its original form, it was music to protest and party to; it was angry and poignant, sure, but it was also festive. Considering that the patron saints of this sound were the fiercely political Gang of Four, one could offer the speculative reason that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed music that was both outspoken and frenetic enough to dance like there was no tomorrow (not that politics were explicit for this wave of bands). But it was still a somewhat regional concern: Dischord has always reflected the sound of Ian MacKaye’s bands. Early signees played out like Minor Threat companions, and most later bands embraced the paced, dexterous sound of Fugazi. Q and Not U surely took some cues from Fugazi, but they also seemed to be influenced by the dance music of the D.C. Go Go scene sound and the aforementioned post-punk bands.
Sure, The Rapture released an EP the year before and there were plenty of other offshoots playing in a similar fashion, but it’s rare to hear a band shift five years into the future within a single song. And most amazingly, “A Line in the Sand” and all of No Kill No Beep Beep still feels like a contemporary party, something that can’t be said about many subsequent “dance punks.”
2004: Digital Mystikz & Loefah - Dubsession
Seven years after the dust has settled on its final golden year, we are now approaching the 10th anniversary of dubstep; or, rather, the 10th anniversary of its ur-release, Digital Mystikz’ Dubsession, a.k.a. DMZ002. Binding the rootical electronica of 90s digidub to 2step’s floor-friendly urgency, DMZ002 consecrated an emergent sound nascent in the productions of Horsepower and the DJ sets of Hatcha and Youngsta. On tunes like “Jah Fire” and “Ten Dread Commandments,” the Mystikz submerged the slinky rhythms of UK garage in oily pools of reverb, slowing the tempo to a slimy skank punctuated by the whip-crack of snare-bursts masked in echo. Best of all, Loefah’s “Horror Show” — murky with the haze of reverb-soaked howls and backmasked moans — stripped away everything that made 2step such a sickly head-rush, leaving only a fibrillating sub-lo riff and filigree patterns of tightly-enveloped kicks and snares. A plaintive two-note hook occasionally strobes in the darkness, tugging at the consciousness like desperate rope signals from a subaquatic rave, but for the most part “Horror Show” is thrillingly physical:
The final stages of a gurning comedown from the coke-sozzled delirium of 2step garage, Dubsession traced the outlines of a cavernous, futuristic dancehall from patterns of echo-space and bass-pressure. A renewed sense of the power of silence became possible in 2004, fired by sonic strategies of omission and distortion.
If these were uncharted waters, the idea of dubstep as a particular sound or genre washed up pretty quickly, leaving behind a fragmentary set of tendencies that continue to manifest unevenly across house/tech/pop boundaries. Dubstep’s frangible quality has been the secret to its endurance as something between a folk memory and a music genre. The word itself has become an empty vocable, drearily signifying, at the very least, electronic music with a prominent bass line. But despite the word being overused to the point of nonsense, it’s worth recalling that, for many producers, the discovery of dubstep was analogous to the discovery of a pocket of air beneath the deep freeze of mainstream reifications. Diverse outfits like Senking, Shackleton, Old Apparatus, Actress, and Machinedrum (etc., etc.) lack anything like a shared sound or style beyond a common ground in the space left behind by dubstep. It seems apt that a sound rooted in erasing and obscuring should be heard most clearly in the echoes left behind by its disappearance.
2012: Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell - “Elephant in the Room”
Every weekday night from 6 to 9 PM, Columbia University’s radio station WKCR 89.9FM NY (best known to some as birthplace of the Stretch & Bobbito Show) broadcasts a program called Jazz Alternatives. The Wednesday edition, known as the Musician’s Show, features songs specially selected by a guest co-host, usually an upcoming or established player who comes to the studio to discuss his or her music and influences.
So it went that one Wednesday evening in the spring of 2013, while driving from my old apartment in Huntington Station to my girlfriend’s old apartment in the Huntington Bay area, I tuned my radio to its second preset only to hear some jazzman, whose name I didn’t catch, introduce a song called “Elephant in the Room” by Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell.
Quite the mouthful, huh?
To be clear, I heard all of that but couldn’t remember it, especially not after my mind was blown by the song’s opening notes, an arcane yet oddly familiar piano melody as unsettling as it was beautiful. I was utterly enthralled and instantly obsessed, on some Phantom of the Opera ish. The riff soon became a foundation for the song’s other players (Gunhild Seim on trumpet, Arlid Hoem on alto sax, John Lilja on bass, and Dag Magnus Narvesen on drums) to build on, each contributing another brilliantly imagined, perfectly restrained piece to the proceedings. By the time Arlid’s saxophone solo came whirling in around the 2:50 mark, I had nearly reached my girlfriend’s place, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t find out exactly who and what I was hearing.
So, I looked up WKCR’s phone number and called in, and the host graciously answered, provided me with the names of the group and the song (which I jotted on the back of a post-it note pulled from inside my wallet), and thanked me for listening. Such is the magic of non-commercial radio.
A Google search for “Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle with Marilyn Crispell” would produce the Elephant Wings album stream (located at the bottom of this post), and additional inquiries about Marilyn Crispell herself would lead my girlfriend and I to attend a duo performance with bassist Gary Peacock at the Rubin Museum of Art, where we would stick around after the show to purchase the pair’s new ECM Records release, Azure.
All of this is well and good in its own right, but none of it can compare to the rush I experienced upon first hearing the beginning of “Elephant in the Room.” For me, then, this song is all about how a single melody, no matter how simple or unremarkable in its form, when played just right, can pique a listener’s interest and remain fresh in the mind no matter how many times it’s repeated. Perhaps this very concept is the elephant to which the song’s title refers, for in the worlds of free-jazz and avant-garde, repetition is sometimes viewed as a dirty word. Yet here is a melody repeated almost ad infinitum, an unwavering loop that, at least in this listener’s case, truly gave the album its wings, inspiring me to reach out to the project’s Norwegian originators and request that they send a copy my way. And despite the album’s other strengths — of which, I’m sure you will find there are many — it’s that elephantine melody that led me to put this post together in the first place.