By Lindsey Rhoades
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MAGAS, an arhythmic one-man MC-505 Roland ringleader from Chicago, barks out dance commands like a sergeant, accidentally conjuring brilliant beats. At live performances the crowd treats him like a holy curse; his dark, bass-infested groove is a guilty pleasure, and his low, gory vocals the cryptic Word of a higher power. MAGAS punishes accordingly, pointing fingers, forcing audience members to freestyle rap, and commanding the power supply to surge and black out for maximum dynamic infusion. Any idiot can push a bunch of buttons on a fancy synthesizer and make noise, but how many can seriously whip a congregation into shape through sheer stage presence?
Fifteen years after people like Derrick May and Frankie Knuckles kicked off the first surge of electronic mayhem in Detroit and Chicago, a varying spectrum of junk-harvesting Midwesterners like MAGAS constitute a whole new "savant garde." Their brains work faster than their fingers, and they tend to resemble each other thematically, believing in a circle of extremes and cultural awareness. The more accessible pop culture's version of technology is, the more imitations exist, whether in the form of Palm Pilots or goofy sound toys; these like-minded musicians take the bad imitations of imitations and transform them back into the original ingenuity and risk from which the products sprouted.
Detroit artists Wolf Eyes and Max Cloud and Chicago outfit Nautical Almanac perform out of huge suitcases crammed full of whipwormlike cords, little kids' sound toys, found electronics, and discarded computers they've wantonly destroyed and rewired into strange, unprecedented instruments. Half the time, their sounds are unpredictable: Such is the case with Max Cloud's effects pedal made from an old Simon game, which spews unwanted noises if he taps the light combination incorrectly. Masquerading mathematic equations as fanfare-esque beats, Max Cloud is the most comically lyrical of this bunch.
Wolf Eyes, described by a hilarious flyer for a recent European show as "Suicide meets Throbbing Gristle and Bon Jovi," develop their rhythms over stoner burnout melodies, using scribbly tape manipulation and drum-machine distortion as treble and bass. And Nautical Almanac designed a whole new electric "guitar"violin strings stretched across a picture frame, with its pickup attached to a brain-damaged Casio, then processed through a series of patches modulated through frequencies produced by striking the strings. Instead of controlling their own noises, they rely on directives from their equipment, putting themselves in psychic mind warps and trying desperately to escape their own mechanical creations.
As recording artists, all these bands need the freedom to digress from beatsit's easy to get distracted among the bleeps and whooshes and layered rhythmswhich maybe explains why they founded their own record labels. Nautical Almanac, Wolf Eyes, and Max Cloud all have releases on Wolf Eyes member Aaron Dilloway's Hanson Records; MAGAS's label, Danger de Nuit, is in the process of being housed by a records-and-soap boutique he and his wife are creating.
The Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl has reportedly endorsed musical ventures by Andrew W-K, the guy who produced the new Wolf Eyes single, and it's said that George Clinton accidentally showed up at a Max Cloud performance and said, "Keep it up, man, and soon you'll be the new king of funk." The fan base is expanding, too: Besides ever-hated avant and no-wave fans, these groups attract indie rockers, miscellaneous art-gallery snobs, club kids, and local rap artists. Parents show up too, as do fat joggers looking for any excuse to take a break. Not to mention random homeless people sneaking in through back doors.
The bands approach their music like rock stars, pausing for applause (a giant faux pas in club culture), dedicating songs, and providing anecdotal soliloquies. Maybe their brains crackle over Brion Gysin, linguistics, Fred Lane, toothless dentists, and more seemingly random but intellectually stimulating subjects, but their hearts tick to Journey, Freddie Mercury, and Coven. So the heterogeneous audience is easily explained by the syzygy of rock's and electronica's roots. As if watching a bad magician who actually turns off the lights to perform sleight-of-hand tricks, the crowd stands transfixed by the blatant mischief, incredulous that musicians would actually do such things.
Like what? Oh, like when Nautical Almanac forced a lightbulb to drink water, then tortured the poor thing when it wouldn't perform. Or how, at a parking-lot performance, Max Cloud completely wrapped his van in blinking Christmas lights, and 40 people rocked the vehicle to the music blaring out of a loudspeaker rigged up on the vehicle's roof. At Chicago's famous Congress Theater, Wolf Eyes fans flew down the spiral staircase in the stolen rubber inner tubes that Max Cloud rolled over his equipment as instrumental devices (think bow across string); during the same show, Wolf Eyes did a "Surf's Up" set, complete with mechanical waterfalls, surfboards, and bikini-clad young ladies. These activities set back an effort to restore the theater to its gilded, velvet-lavished origins, as did a MAGAS performance, which rattled plaster loose from the dome ceiling 75 feet overhead. In fact, that was the wildest the theater has been since Derrick May packed the place almost eight years ago. This time around, though, there's obviously no such thing as a chill-out room.
MAGAS plays the Good/Bad Art Space (383 South 1st Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) May 26. Contacts: Bulb Records, firstname.lastname@example.org; Danger de Nuit, P.O. Box 470919, Chicago, IL 60622; Hanson Records, email@example.com