The Nolo Contendere Boys Surplus

[Neo-Noise Collective; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: breakbeat, noise
Others: renter’s rights

Hell is a state or place, but space is still hard to come by. Seattle in particular faces a raging homelessness problem, triggered and exacerbated by numerous factors, among them an obvious dearth of affordable housing. And City Hall, incredulously, suggests tent cities. This willfully ignores the fact that the tent cities already exist.

It’s a hot-button issue here, one with no clear solution, so we’re told. And so the resilience of individuals facing homelessness — who manage to find serenity, some kind of peace in difficult circumstances — is inspiring. But these people do not exist as muses for the more fortunate. They deserve to be fed, housed, and free.

“Nolo contendere” means something like “rental contention” in Italian. Facetious or not, Seattleites Neo-Noise’s latest namesake adequately expresses the sitch in the city. And so there’s a certain indignant color to it. And it’s all left dramatically unclear whether The Nolo Contendere Boys are a real, original band or, more likely, a front for Neo-Noise’s regular cast of characters. (There’s a credit list, but I refuse to believe “Mister Shit” is a real name.)

In any case, the song remains the same: Surplus is all purple-like in color. The sketches embrace an acute awareness of Seattle’s changing, ostensibly liminal state via an insistent obfuscation of timbre and melody. The record opens with “Bake Sale,” the only real “song” here, because it says so. It all comes amid breaks that could be described as “punchy” or maybe “jumpy.” And they froth to the fore, bludgeoning an otherwise explosive rhythm into focus. It’s all pulled together and restrained by a grey-green digital wash of harsh noise, an analog daydream lit by a constellation of blips and clipped digressions.

It’s straight-to-DVD, like the night shift. And it’s like being locked in a life-size air-dry cycle or maybe the makeshift particle accelerator you have to go through at TSA. Highly reminiscent of Half Japanese or The Residents, “Bake Sale” provides something of a false start to what is otherwise a rhythmically unpredictable, chemically unstable record.

Repetition being an accepted form of currency (change), Surplus is further endowed with a tantric quality, elevating it above mere random stick-shaking or finger-wagging or raspberry-blowing. Rhythmic motifs stubbornly remain amid abrupt, atonal melodic shifts. And, as if twins separated at birth, these musical elements rarely synchronize.

The track names are a bit of a ruse, really. There’s no real point in describing them all, because the same improvisations follow through on each consecutive title. And despite the loose structure, the segues do helpfully give the impression of a single cohesive work, maybe one spliced together from separate takes. But there are moments when the provocations scan as aimless or tired, going on for far too long without meaningful interruption. The whole record is feature-length; the last two tracks both clock in at over a half hour.

And so I digress: Many native Seattleites — a nebulous, unfortunate term that can easily apply to someone who’s lived here four decades as it could to someone who’s lived here for four years — seem to feel as though the city is increasingly for sale, especially under the stewardship of Amazon Mayor Jenny Durkan. Experimental projects like that of The Nolo Contendere Boys, then, offer a kind of simple performed rebellion, among other expressions. It’s a loosely-stylized reenacted riot, one that rages against the general pasteurization of a city’s cultural landscape. It’s like, yeah, I’ve seen “Make Seattle Shitty Again” stickers. Have you? Fuck landlords, man.

And so while we may still have to pay rent every month, we can at least pretend that’s not the case and party. Surplus is the soundtrack to that party.

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