In his Free Noise Manifesto, The Dead C guitarist Bruce Russell emphasizes the value of dismissing organization in music, of casting aside the desire for arrangement and utilizing free-rock instrumentation as a “jumping off point.” The text was penned in answer to the question “What is free?,” and in outlining his definition, Russell consequently embarks on a written justification for what he and his Dunedin co-conspirators have been recording for the last 26 years. He states that music, in the traditional sense, is in fact a series of organized noise fragments, that the structure and the mathematical formulae used to produce music condemns sound to be caged as a consequence of pernicious coordination. If that were true, The Dead C should surely be thought of as the most venerable liberators of sound, the bona fide partisans of tonal frequency.
The band began on a whim after Michael Morley invited Russell to “play” guitar with him and Robbie Yeats, then of The Verlaines, back in 1987. Russell always seems keen to disclose his inability at “playing” the instrument — it’s a matter he addresses quite urgently in a recent documentary by his daughter, Olive, called 27 Minutes With Mr. Noisy. Despite coming from different musical backgrounds, the trio immediately stumbled into a strategy that has remained at their very core since DR503, which was released four months after the group’s formation. Through dropping their debut on the almost local Flying Nun label and performing regularly in and around Dunedin, The Dead C went against the grain of New Zealand’s aspiring music scene, where a certain strife for perfection and structure was the order of the day. The proceeding albums have continued to follow those primary objectives, which also lie at the heart of Armed Courage. Through their own approach to free-fall noise rock, they hit a deep and unsettling resonance that blurs the edges of consistency through a tubular discharge of feedback and distortion — it’s a style that has been explored by everyone from Lou Reed to Oren Ambarchi over the years; however, the two tracks that comprise this latest offering yield a sound that is distinct and loyal to the key principles outlined by Russell in his manifesto.
In Olive Russell’s documentary, her dad claims that “no two Dead C shows are the same… but they are also all the same.” He makes a distinction between their sound and the efforts of other artists, emphasizing that his band could be picked out for bearing an unmistakable signature that fans easily recognize. That’s a pretty bold statement after 26 years of improvised material that often differs substantially across an astonishing back catalog, but with Armed Courage, the band has truly left its mark. It might not feature the metallic buzzsaw breaks of 1992’s Harsh 70s Reality or the laptop experimentation of Future Artists, but the sound is unquestionably theirs. It was mostly recorded using guitars, drums, and Morley’s scattered vocals, but there are also piano keys flung across the background of “Courage,” like a timid +1 frightened to join in at a dinner party where everyone else knows each other. The album gets right to the heart of Russell’s argument, in that it’s a clamoring stream that’s unorganized and spontaneous, building on fundamental stylistic preferences that are integral to the band’s aesthetic. For the most part, that is strengthened by the relationship between the dual guitars and percussion, with the latter acting as a stimulant in building the intensity of both tracks and grading the recording’s ferocity. Both pieces are performed as though the music is a tool for exploration deep into the aural cavern that The Dead C have been ambling down ever since their inception.
Armed Courage isn’t about making a statement, whereas other releases might have been; it’s about continuing to explore the limits the band began stretching when they first started to record. The distortion rumbles heavily amid high and low frequencies, as Yeats’ percussion melds hissing tones that fracture and bleed apart; his cymbals crack the pace, clearing the air like violent thunder on an uncomfortably humid night. That could be used to describe any part of “Armed,” which is solely instrumental and totally relentless; it’s a track that will either draw you in through curiosity — where it will keep you for the the duration — or push you away right from the start; it’s the band’s tenacity that drives them in pulling off such a captivating sound across two long-form tracks, both of which employ similar techniques. “Courage” is not as punishing from the outset; the piano keys and warbling pulses separate the piece into three sweeping movements, which soon build into a demented surge of deep modulation and Morley’s ruptured mumble. It’s when he sings that the band’s impact on Sonic Youth and even Yo La Tengo (who infamously covered The Dead C’s “Bad Politics”) becomes clear, as the vocals pan in and out of burning tonal shifts and Yeats’ wild drumming.
The Dead C are trapped in their own compulsion to experiment, and on this occasion, the results prove their partnership to be extraordinary. Throughout Armed Courage, the artists tune in and out of each other’s mental channels, even in the raucous shrill of blistering improv. This peaks at around the 11-minute mark on “Courage,” where the drums die into the track’s second movement and the strings become fragile before fading into a brilliant throb that happens all so meticulously. It’s insanely pleasing to the ear, and it demonstrates just how focused the band remains, through both its creative output and its musical unison. The addictive severity of The Dead C has been captured here as a testament to their inner workings and persistence, not only in exploring the hinterland of instrumental noise, but also in pursuing their approach with passion. Russell has talked about how he enjoys the constraints of old equipment and recording in humble environments, but on Armed Courage, the effect couldn’t appear further from restriction, as it forges the very motifs that set their sound free.