The Dead C aren't easy to review; their influence and stature as ominous cult experimentalists often leads to easy deducements that rarely describe how this sound actually reverberates. ‘Noise-rock’ is hardly a descriptor, as the trio frequently ventures into explicit abstraction (as was the case on the vast majority of last year’s Future Artists), and even when the band establishes modes based in ‘rock ’n’ roll,’ the sheer chaos and density of their resonance is never so easily boiled down into such a simple categorization. They truly are an act wholly unto themselves, never once letting their flirtations with structure or melody establish authority over their compositions, nor letting their mesh of noise-drenched improvisations drift into formless meandering.
Secret Earth is an apt counterpoint to the mostly instrumental Future Artists — possibly the first Dead C album in a long time, if not ever, to be solely made up with what could be taken in as “songs.” Vocals make their way into all four tracks, with the blistering wail of Mike Morley’s lackadaisical drawl keeping pace through the walls of feedback, harmonic dissonance, and deteriorated melodies that characterize this mode of the band. While making an all-out ‘rock’ album was always threatened (and albums such as The White House and Tusk nearly approached this), it seemed that if such a long-player actually manifested, it would be a cop-out of sorts, lacking the blind-siding elusiveness of their esoteric side and caving into comparatively more graspable material.
Secret Earth subverts these potential quandaries by finding The Dead C at their most invigorated, lacing their rock excursions with their quintessential concoction of feedback, squalor, and an almost paradoxical grandiosity that marked such past favorites as “Sky” and “Head.” Opener “Mansions” is a more subdued drifter that lets Morley’s vocals permeate up front while the bleak and progressively-tamed dissonance underneath crawls to its sudden stop by the song’s end. It’s a song that seems to falter out naturally, cycling into nothingness rather than leading from its peaks into grander response.
“Stations,” by turn, relentlessly piles on obtuse walls of gut-wrenching feedback and guitar-abuse that's ingeniously controlled by the band. Never once losing its majesty through its 16 minutes, the pressing body of dank crackle and electric whine is an obscuring behemoth of sound, one simultaneously overwhelming and invigorating.
Meanwhile, “Plains” lets the guitar violence of Morley and Bruce Russell guide the forward-motion of the 10 minutes, with Robbie Yeats’ drums contained in what sounds like another plane of existence, submerged into near-oblivion while the distorted sludge of the strings boils over into its own entity. Perhaps the highpoint, “Plains” is confirmation of how music that vehemently forgoes the expected conventions of its art takes intense care and talent to pull off. The Dead C’s noise, although incredibly unpredictable and unruly, is tightly constructed as its makers intend. While monumentally anarchic, its cathartic release and vigorous emotion is an underlying focus that lesser noise-rock acts would not be able to elicit from their instruments.
“Waves” closes the record as an antagonistic ballad of sorts, ringing with strange melancholy while free noises scatter like ashen debris, while Yeats’ murky rhythm struggles with its life to climb up from under the brume. Indeed, Secret Earth’s craft is jagged and frightening, but like any acquired taste, it’s a studied and confident craft that is all the more obviously inventive with careful immersion.
Secret Earth finds The Dead C providing the comfortable thrills of their skewed take on rock music across an entire long-player without hitting cliché or repetition. As the band has remained consistently vital and perplexing over their 20-plus-year career, it’s not terribly shocking that Secret Earth is one of their strongest releases, but one still gets that tinge of immense satisfaction hearing them produce a record this far into their career with every wrenching noise and dissonant sonic standing unrelentingly strong.