If I had but one word to describe The Dead C., it would be “underappreciated.” I thought the band’s mix of noisy abstractions, post-punk, and pure sound art on a 4-track would make them a college favorite overseas, akin to Sonic Youth in the mid-‘80s. Such is not the case. When I interviewed Bruce Russell in February, he said the New Zealand band’s fan base is extremely small in their homeland. The band scored an opening slot for Sonic Youth in 1992, and many popular local acts were dismayed. In the liner notes to Vain, Erudite and Stupid, Nick Cain, a fellow New Zealander, expresses his initial discouragement with the band’s perceived ineptitude. He chalks it up to the average New Zealander’s unfamiliarity with the history behind the band’s sound aesthetic. He writes, “It shouldn’t be forgotten that New Zealand is a very young country, and one with about zero history of freeform -- or ‘experimental’ or avant-garde -- music whatsoever.”
Though the band’s fan base lies mainly in Great Britain and the United States, coverage of the band by the media in these countries has been slim. Until Mike Crumsho’s phenomenal Dusted Magazine article on the band, virtually nothing of substance has been written about the band in our little digital music community. The Wire is the only print magazine with the stones to cover the band avidly, and they hardly touched upon what the classic sub-underground label Siltbreeze meant to the band’s career. So, when Bruce Russell told me in an interview last year that Ba-Da-Bing was issuing a two-disc anthology to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary, I thought The Dead C. were finally getting their due. After all, this is the perfect year to release such an endeavor. Experimental music is rapidly gaining an acceptance among the indie rock set, and there seems to be a rapid production of new, strange, great, challenging underground music.
Much to my dismay, when I received Vain, Erudite and Stupid, the career-spanning Dead C. compilation, it came adorned with a huge sticker that touted the group as a “new favorite band” for those who like “Lightning Bolt, Sunn 0))), Wolf Eyes and Growing.” Not only do these bands sound nothing like The Dead C., but the oldest band in the group has existed for only half as long. The Dead C.’s sound is steeped more in the smart, philosophically-driven sounds of post-punk and free jazz than modern, rock-based experimentalism. The band’s most engaging output relies on gritty, live-in-the-studio (or on 4 track) recording techniques. They sometimes layer their recordings by employing a trick they learned from The Fall, improvising the song atop the original recording without listening to the recording. The modern “out” music enthusiast may be thrown by the close listening required to absorb the band’s textural brilliance.
But, if I judge the album by its cover sticker, I become a part of the very same problem that limited The Dead C.’s audience for so many years. If the sticker succeeds in selling more records, the band will, ultimately, gain more listeners. When placed in the player, Vain, Erudite and Stupid’s genius speaks for itself. The hazed, almost folky sonic attack of “Max Harris” begins the double disc splendor with a whirlwind of ambience and freeform fury à la Bad Mood Rising. From there, the anthology guides the listener through The Dead C.’s stunning career.
Disc one follows the band from 1988’s DR503 LP to 1994’s odds and ends collection World Peace, Hope, et al. This disc showcases the band’s evolution from lo-fi revisionists of ‘70s post-punk to free-jazzers guised as a post-punk outfit. Most of the songs have lyrics and follow some sort of structure, albeit not verse-chorus-verse. Almost all the songs close out with open-ended jams seeping from the basic structure of the tune and sifting through vast deserts of avant-garde stylings, from ambience to drone to harsh noise. The band more closely surveys these textures on disc two, which chronicles the period from 1994’s The Operation of the Sonne to 2003’s The Damned. In this period, the band traveled further away from conventional song structure, until the majority of their tunes could be classified as compositions.
There will surely be some dispute over the anthology’s track choices, as the band had to summarize their 20 years of work with two 70-minute discs. The tracks selected from the band’s landmark double album Harsh 70s Reality, “Constellation” and “T is Never Over Pt. I & II,” were lumped off the CD version due to time constraints, and are not necessarily the best representatives of the album’s sheer glory. The tracklist also features no real rarities or hard-to-find tunes. The past six years of the band’s career, which yielded a double album, two LPs, and a split 12” with Konono No. 1, are represented by six songs. Thus, those listeners getting their first dose of the mighty Dead C. from Vain, Erudite and Stupid learn little about what terrain the band is shredding these days. The three post-millennial albums by The Dead C. are, by strides, brilliant and intriguing, but I’d side with Siltbreeze Records head honcho Tom Lax’s liners and label the band’s years on the Siltbreeze imprint as their best.
Of course, their Flying Nun and Xpressway output is equally impressive. The majority of this material finds the band exploring ways to showcase their sonic diversity within the constraints of actual song structure. During this period, the band’s indebtedness to post-punk heathens like Throbbing Gristle and This Heat is apparent, but the band’s voice, albeit embryonic, dampens any critical “clone” cry.
“3 Years” is exemplary of this period, with its forceful, disjointed dueling guitars. Mike Morely investigates the exuberance found in applying Mark E. Smith’s “repetition, repetition, repetition” aesthetic to his rhythm guitar line, alternately slowing down the tempo and revving it up and stressing certain chords in the progression. Bruce Russell adds interstellar atmosphere with excursions into drone, feedback, and Godz-style skronk, while Morley’s singing, which is close to an outback version of Lou Reed’s sing-talk, is gentle and rhythmic, providing the melody where the guitar lines leave gaps. Robbie Yeats’ militaristic drumming builds the dark mood, melting it all down into an exciting bad acid feedback fuzz fight that hints at what was to come in the band’s career.
“Helen Said This,” the band’s first Siltbreeze release, is a masterwork. It marks the moment when the band used their influences as a launching pad, rather than an anchor. Included on the anthology in its entire 11-minute splendor, the song is a jagged shard of lo-fi post-punk. The song begins with a sort of art-punk guitar take on the Wild West gunner showdown anthems of Ennio Morricone before whittling down to give way to the lackadaisical, almost tandem dual vocal delivery. Throughout the song, the disjointed vocal lines and stern rhythm guitar allow the band to explore far out regions in each bridge while remaining grounded in the basic song structure. With each repeated verse, the band gains mountainous intensity until they combust with fuzz guitar mayhem. As the explosion simmers down, the guitar lines slow down and the band delves into industrial textures, until the song wades in an ambient cooling pool. A beautiful call-and-response results with slowly blossoming chords and chiming, machine gun strums being accentuated by guitars played like percussion instruments.
Many of The Dead C.’s songs follow a similar formula. “Power” uses the whistles, moans, and hums of feedback derived from a fervently strummed guitar in place of the customary rock guitar solo. “Constellation” virtually recycles the “Mighty” riff but lets each chord bleed in droning distortion. By this time, coming up with a new riff seems less important to the band than examining the possibilities of the riff itself and seeing how much they can skew a song structure. After five minutes of Morely’s singing and the purring riff, a different recording is spliced into the song. Psychotic yelling replaces Morely’s usual delivery. The distortion that once provided a tourniquet, allowing the guitar fuzz to linger, gives way, and the resonating notes end with sharp feedback shanks.
“T is Never Over Pt. I and II” is a four-minute supernova of inter-spliced ideas. Beginning with a 30-second foray into isolating minimal industrial soundscapes, the song is an exploration of the formlessness of ideas coming to fruition. While a guitarist tries to conceive a riff in the background, sharp dissonant guitar infusions and what sounds like a Ham radio transmission overlaps the jam. Pot and pan percussion and wavering, formless guitar sound chunks blot out the background session, and the song becomes a metaphor for The Dead C.’s future recordings. The idea trumps the song, and in the end, the shapeless sound is more interesting and absorbing than it would be if it were fully realized.
Eventually, The Dead C. threw any sort of song structure out of the window of a moving car and recorded the results. “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,” from 1994’s high-water mark three-piece drone suite The Operation of the Sonne, is a 14-minute void wherein sci-fi B-movie synth effects, amplifiers humming white noise, and jagged guitar lines heighten a spoken philosophical treatise. Words have now been pushed to the background in favor of droning electronic interactions. When the words fade out, one is able to stare into a meditative infinitude with the resulting sound clash.
Save for the thrash 'n' clang noise rock of The White House’s “Bitcher,” much of disc two operates on a similar plane, sacrificing lyrics and melody for sound design. “Repent IV,” off 1997’s sound-collage Repent, sounds like a spaceship flying over a no-wave band practice. “Head,” from 1997’s rock-based Tusk, jitters with an overlay of scary post-psychedelic guitar noise, while Yeats keeps a steady drum beat and Morley conjures a dark, angular boogie.
The centerpiece on disc two is “Tuba is Funny (Slight Return)” from 2000’s double disc The Dead C.. Many other selections from the double disc are steeped in industrical, electronic soundmaking rather than The Dead C.’s usual guitar excursions. On “Tuba...” the band chooses to create a groove akin to something off Miles Davis’ On the Corner. The chords of the repetitious bass/brass line are forceful and sly, but they give the band enough leeway to delve into a pit-of-hell guitar assault underneath the groove. As a bonus, Robbie Yeats’ tribal percussion lends an even more occult feel to the song. When the tape finally shorts out and the song is sucked into infinity, the magic of The Dead C. is apparent. Here is a band that can do virtually anything and draw little or no attention to themselves. They create layers of sound but record it on primitive equipment using primitive techniques, effectively hiding their glory from inattentive listeners. Vain, Erudite and Stupid suggests that perhaps the band is not overlooked and underappreciated, just hidden in plain sight.