The conflict at the heart of The Dead C.’s post-Siltbreeze career continues on Future Artists. The band seems to think they cannot ignore the technology they showed such disdain for in their early career, when in fact it's the computerized sounds that prevent their late-period albums from being fully realized. Throughout their later career, The Dead C. have struggled to sustain interest with lengthier compositions, due mainly to a stubbornness in acknowledging their past accomplishments. Sure, classic-era Dead C. jams like “Driver UFO” also exceeded 15 minutes, but these tunes kept the listener’s interest by constantly shifting soundscapes. The lo-fi recording techniques used in the past introduced a world of fuzzy sound, and the band’s battered gear added the element of chance-noise through glitches (Bruce Russell’s broken amp, for instance, provided a low-end fuzz layer to the post-punk jams). No doubt The Dead C. still use these instruments, but late-period compositions push the computer sounds in the forefront over the jimmy-rigged thrift store instruments. While computers may come close in sound imitation, they will never take the place of pure instrumental chance. Without the sound of chance instruments and shape-shifting feedback in the forefront, the repetitious sculpt of each tune becomes monotonous and static.
In sum, the band laid down many-a heady jam in the post Siltbeeze-era, but self-indulgence sometimes got the best of them. 1999’s self-titled double-CD introduced their new methodology and parted fans like that biblical bearded dude splitting the Red Sea. The album seemed to be bursting with fantastic ideas, even if some of those ideas tottered around for too long and toyed with the listener’s patience. Others tossed it off as an album full of “Driver UFO” wannabes, as even the most forgiving Dead C. fans cannot sit through the entire half-hour of “Speederbot” without fast-forwarding through most of the see-saw feedback composition. New Electric Music continued in the same vein with some exciting tunes, notably “Killer,” but the album was the first in which some of the band’s ideas seemed half-baked and overstretched. 2003’s The Damned harked back to a more rock-based platform with three of the best rock-based Dead C. tunes since the Siltbreeze-era: “Truth,” “Holy,” and “Heat.” Though it shines at moments, the album seems tame and recycled, as if the band was trying to cover itself.
Future Artists is the first Dead C. album in four years. To say it is well worth the wait would be a cliché and a lie. The album presents five predominately instrumental songs and clocks in at an hour. While it certainly captures moments of rough beauty akin to the best parts of Harsh ‘70s Reality or Operation of the Sonne, it also contains vast experimental wastelands of tossed-off ideas. The band throws some epic tunes into the mix, but none on the scale of “Driver UFO.” They also throw down a three-minute lo-fi gem that makes one wonder why the band no longer balances their album with equal amounts post-punk tunes and sound sculptures.
“The AMM of Punk Rock,” a 13-minute exercise in creating ambience through dissonance, starts Future Artists on the right track. The nugget features some great digital noodling and a rough-edged industrial sound as a centerpiece. Incredulous changes in texture see the band shifting from baron deserts of low-end noise sputters, high-pitched squelches, and computerized sound fragments to tribal percussion framed by tame, rumbling feedback. Ending with three minutes of wavering computer noise and Robbie Yeats’ free-jazz drumming, the song introduces the album in grand fashion. The aptly-titled “The Magicians,” a death-disco outburst, follows with three-minutes of post-punk that would fit well on Eusa Kills. The song pairs an infectious, off-kilter skronk guitar line with sinister, sensual vocals, conjuring the 4-track magic the band used to entrance listeners in their early years
“Eternity,” a 17-minute excursion into guitar-driven darkness, is the album’s pinnacle. A lonesome batch of power chords accentuated by hand drums begins the tune. It’s deceptively simple, yet inventive and exciting, no-frills psychedelia. Though feedback frills round out the chords, Bruce Russell doesn’t let his wild dissonance roar until around the five-minute mark, letting Michael Morely explore the riff’s emotional impact. After Russell briefly displays his chaotic side, Morely loosens his control and analyzes the riff’s DNA while Russell batters his axe. Around the 11-minute mark, Morely resurrects the riff from its feedback-encrusted coffin, but his delivery becomes more forceful, as Russell attempts to imitate Albert Ayler’s saxophone ghost sounds with his guitar. The tune ends with a few apparitional prickles and chiming, high-pitched feedback; it is, quite possibly, the best Dead C. instrumental since “Driver UFO.”
The remainder of Future Artists does not fare as well. “Macoute” flirts with choppy noise-fuzz structures and computerized sax sounds before settling on oceanic simulations with a puttering fart overtone. Guitar feedback skeletons make the disorienting computer jam interesting in parts, but it just sounds like a race car video game from the '90s going VRRRRRROOOOOOMMMMMM, while the video game owner flagellates. They imitate sounds of the night à la Watersports for one minute before fading out with techno dust. “Garage” incorporates some half-measures that sounds like a no-wave blues band tuning up, but at least half of the song holds the listener in a lackadaisical trance. The song is the more interesting of the two missteps, sounding like a post-punk band making music behind a marionette of Son House’s corpse before they stomp it to maggots and dust with a huge computer. For 20 minutes, the band flirts with forming a structure and limps around rhythmically like an injured horse before engaging in a classic fuzzball fight. It fades out with a few clicks and a lingering feedback line, which is ultimately swallowed by computer noise.
“Garage” is a fitting end to a satisfying but scattershot notch in The Dead C.’s belt. It also serves as a sonorical metaphor for this stage in the band’s career: computers ultimately drain the life from the jam. The Dead C. shine when venturing to interstellar regions using their old, reliable methods; their seemingly one-dimensional lo-fi era actually contained multitudes of possibilities. But when they add new technology into the mix under the guise of adapting to the times, they falter and flail around like an eel out of sewage. The Dead C. need to learn that though computerized technology may seem like a vast music wonderland ripe for experimentation, it’s a dead end for their music.