Atomic Punks

Indie Rock Gets Mechanized

The cyborg was never the best metaphor for '80s new wave synth music, because cyborgs always have a bit of human left in them. From Kraftwerk forward, many new wavers aspired to machine immersion, a state where you could hide behind blips and beeps and washes because hiding was easier than dealing with the organic stuff. You were never sure if Human League or A Flock of Seagulls ever needed to go to the bathroom, much less "have relations" (at least "Cars" told us Gary Numan liked to get out of the house occasionally). Contempo electronica offers the ability to build a universe from your laptop: no need to yak with the other humans there.

But a handful of postindie punks such as the Need, Long Hind Legs, Mocket, Octant, and Replikants—all from the Olympia-to-Portland axis—have ditched four-on-the-floor guitar for random samples, synths with tempos set on "no wave," and bass styles as much from Mingus as from Miami. This is anelectronic-toned band-rock, with collaboration and community and relationships supporting the machinery. These bands are the realcyborgs. Cyborgs that play in sweaty clubs, put up flyers, get laid, and vote Nader. It's fleshy music by folks who know their way around Pro Tools. (The budget-minded should examine the Kill Rock Stars label's new Jackson's Jukeboxcompilation, featuring tracks from most of the above.)

The Need Is Dead (Chainsaw), released on Valentine's Day, is both heavier (with the Melvins' Joe Preston on bass) and less overtly dyke-tastic than the duo's first album, a Black Celebrationto their earlier Speak and Spell. Rachel Carns and Radio Sloan have toned down the jerky changes, replacing them with more solid grooves and slightly less, uh, deviant structures. The Need are still indie's most badass bandits of logic and tempo, but suddenly they're declaring death to false metal as well as to closed minds. The vocals are as much Siouxie as Lora Logic, and I still have no idea which voice is which. Once again they're clocking in at under 30 minutes, but the songs' new heft makes them feel longer. The lyrics obsess on ribs and circuits cut to ribbons, and bodies burned by lust. The Need also have a big grudge against (or an overwhelming fondness for, or both) someone named Sally.

Sapphic cubists the Need
Sapphic cubists the Need

The Need served as the now defunct Mocket's rhythm section on last year's terrific and weirdly unnoticed Pro Forma(Kill Rock Stars)—a record that served as the smoothest apotheosis yet of this new Northwest vibe. Casio and Farfisa notes skipped around Audrey Marrs's girlie-action chirping and Matt Steinke's tape loops and flangey guitars (Steinke's side project Octant features a percussion robot, a "random tone generator," and even catchier songs). Mocket could stop on a dime and wig out with hummingbird style and grace; it's a shame few seemed to hear them.

Two out of the three members of Unwound—whose thunderous indie punk defined the '90s for their chain-walleted constituency as much as Pavement or Wu Tang Clan—moonlight in Replikants and Long Hind Legs. Both Olympian outfits record for 5 Rue Christine, a Kill Rock Stars sublabel that's home to lots of these mechanical kids. 5RC takes its name from Gertrude Stein's '30s Parisian apartment—perfect for a label that specializes in hypermodern alien alinearity. Although the label has expanded to accommodate L.A. jazz-spazzes Godzik Pink and avant-cabareters the Get Hustle, 5RC's core m.o. is in Long Hind Legs' fuzzy, twirping ballads and Deerhoof's jerky girl-pop. The Replikants bragged about the lack of samplers on their beepy 1998 debut, but last year's Sickaphonics refined the components and occasionally incorporated a DJ into their haunting forms not quite shaped like songs: "Replikants Requiem" is music of the spheres, as done by guys used to playing basement shows. Their record cover is fake Russian constructivism that looks drawn with Magic Markers.

This mensch-machine sound isn't just confined to the Northwest or 5RC, either. Deerhoof hail from San Francisco, and Kathleen Hanna's East Coast-based Olympia transplants Le Tigre constructed one of last year's best records out of postacademic beeps and witty clicks the way De La Soul created 3 Feet High and Risingout of whatever half-funky-half-clever yammering they could find. Rah Bras hail from Richmond, Virginia, ancestral home of brainy-but-thuggish math rock, great band names, and—without a Sub Pop or Dischord—a vibrant indie scene no one outside of the mid-Atlantic ever thinks about. Rah Bras start with the sort of early-'90s Virginia flailcore perfected by bands like Hose.got.cable, but they eject the guitars for operatic femme vocals, heavy samplers, and treated bass. The joke is they don't lose flailcore's flair for live overkill: While the songs are too thinned-out on their two overly Residents-esque EPs, Rah Bras are gloriously powerful in person, with Marie Bethel's punk arias pushing up and over the boy-howling and frantic drumming behind her. The trio's most brilliant moves are their transfixingly nonironic top-40 r&b covers: A small clubin northern Virginia packed with jadedindie youth almost rioted with delight aftera stunning version of Sparkle's "Be Careful"a few years back. The cut-ups and synthblares never overwhelmed the sex drive or palpable sense of team. And when Bethel anddrummer-turned-crooner John Skaritza sing the hottest verses of Genuwine's classic "Pony" as a wailing duet over keyboard feedback, it's as gleefully transgressive and boho-sensual as anything blurted by their Northwest humanoid brethren.

The Need and Le Tigre play Brownies April 7 and Dumba April 21. Kill Rock Stars, 120 NE State Avenue, Olympia WA 98501; Chainsaw, POB 1151, Olympia WA, 98507; 5RC, POB 1190, Olympia WA 98507.

 
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