It’s interesting to think about early work with respect to the growth, maturity, and/or aging of an artist. It’s a well-known fact that as one ages, one’s palette changes as the physical requirements of playing an instrument shift. Embouchure, speed, and direction of attack are all mutable, even if one’s concept may not be in as much flux. Of course, experience changes the relevance of certain ideas to one’s practice, and one would hope that one isn’t the same person at 50 or 70 when one is at 25 or 35. Perhaps a shift in context has made it increasingly rare that composer/guitarist/poet Lydia Lunch performs earlier work, though the terse atonal vitriol that spewed forth across stuttering rhythms from those early Teenage Jesus & The Jerks sides has “aged” extraordinarily well (ditto her early solo discs and prime collaborations).
Now based in Spain, Lunch both affirms and rejects the “grand dame of no wave” (or any such terminology) in Retro Virus, a quartet convened with Weasel Walter (guitar), Algis Kizys (bass, ex-Swans/Foetus), and Bob Bert (drums, ex-Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore). Released on Walter’s ugEXPLODE label, the eponymous Retro Virus was recorded live at Knitting Factory Brooklyn at the close of a November 2012 US tour, and it finds Lunch and company in top form, loosely following the historical arc on a varied program of Lunch originals and versions of Rowland S. Howard’s “Burning Skulls” and Alice Cooper’s “Black Juju,” the latter cast into “Justice is Might” territory (both appeared on the 1991 Shotgun Wedding LP).
It’s probably true that few of Lunch’s recent outfits have been as breakneck and taut as this one; Kizys and Bert are pretty much exactly what one would hope for in a sludge-rock rhythm section, pulsing and dogmatic but with a shit-kicking flair. Although better known as a drummer in his own improvisation ensembles and the long-running (and continually evolving, albeit presently inactive) The Flying Luttenbachers, Weasel Walter is a strong and incisive guitarist who has amalgamated such diverse interests as Robert Quine, Blixa Bargeld, Keiji Haino, and Rudolph Grey into a singular and toothy approach, heard to fascinating advantage on the tough “Meltdown Oratorio.” Lunch’s voice is quite a bit lower than it was in the 1970s and 80s (no surprise there), but even if it isn’t the skittering coo one heard in earlier work, her throaty declamations are rangy and physically intense. On “Black JuJu,” she casts breathily upward, perhaps a result of constant needling from Walter’s wiry and keening slide.
It’s interesting to hear pieces like “Red Alert” and “I Woke Up Dreaming” shoved kicking and screaming into bottom-heavy, sweaty post-industrial rock, and they are perhaps the better for such a transposition. In the hands of Retro Virus, Teenage Jesus tunes are more bullish than acerbic in their monolithic-ness, and that in itself is interesting. (As a sidenote, Lunch and Walter recently performed a short program of Teenage Jesus music as a duo in Paris, with Walter playing a stripped-down drum kit and guitar simultaneously, stripping any excess fat to an absurd degree.) The landscape of “Mechanical Flattery” (from Queen of Siam, 1980) is thickly arid, while the following “Love Spit with Blood” (an 8-Eyed Spy chestnut) is angular and harrowing within surf-rock machinations, narrowly (and elegantly) tracking between frantic slop and freight-train drive that continues on the following “Ran Away Dark.”
Retro Virus wouldn’t be a live Lydia Lunch disc without teasing vehemence, whether in the meaty sneer of “3x3” (a paean to an awry tryst) or the priceless between-song banter of bemusement mixed with contempt. That said, there is truly a reverent beauty that appears, especially in the dirges — the wonderful “Afraid of Your Company” contains both sultry slink and burred declamations — and the ensemble locks in as more didactic tunes emerge. “Burning Skulls” is gothic, massive, and hawks spit from the stage, exactly how the departed composer would’ve wanted it. While certain of Lunch’s peers might grant sleazy noise-rock a cartoonish noir, this is the real deal. It’s also fairly obvious that Lunch and the band are more comfortable when they just motor — “No Excuse” (from the rare EP of the same name) is a swaggering corker, while the aforementioned “Black JuJu” is absolutely staggering.
Looking beyond the somewhat dated production values of late-80s/early-90s avant-rock and “industrially-associated” music (which are occasionally played up here), the tunes and their general feel are surprisingly undated, tough and economical in execution but with an underlying ornateness (some might call that excess — to each one’s own). Lunch is a force among vocalists/presences, and it’s wonderful to be reminded of that so keenly. Her nuance, power, and theatrical dynamism are certainly front-and-center here, but with a cracking ensemble sonically dropped in from the prime era of scum, Retro Virus is also some of the most empathetic music Lunch has made.