The Onslaught

Recombinant Rock in the Valley of Dub

Isis, meanwhile, deserve praise for being the first metal band to come out and admit they're the aural equivalent of calendar art. (Or at least that's how I interpret their album title Oceanic.) They have guitar leads and a singer who does the usual death-metal rasping, but the general movement of the (glacially slow) guitar notes is to take us to gorgeously dark chords that loom massively against the night sky; and these chords are the music's story. Pleasantly engulfing, but you have to like oceans.

Ugly Casanova's Sharpen Your Teeth seems deliberately vague. He's dreaming along a back road, and the wind is rising. Each instrument is looking for an excuse to go its own way. A couple of singers rasp in the distance, sometimes to a pre-blues ring-shout type shuffle. You think you're relaxing along with the lazy beat; then you realize it's got you by the throat. Recombinant blues-rock shuffle, and it can be as compelling as anything by N.O.R.E. and Missy Elliott.

Much of the packaging and liner notes on The Only Blip-Hop Record You Will Ever Need Vol. 1 is tongue-in-cheek—e.g., the humorously self-canceling album title—but compiler David Byrne seems serious in saying that, since this European electronic music doesn't appear to emerge from blues or folk traditions, it's therefore pretending to be rootless and free from the weight of tradition. I don't particularly hear that claim—I can think of other music that asserts its rootlessness far more emphatically. Blues, for instance. (Or are we supposed to think that when Robert Johnson goes, "I got to keep movin', I got to keep movin' . . . there's a hellhound on my trail," he's celebrating his rootedness and sense of place? This is a pet peeve of mine, but I wonder if people who consider blues a traditionalist music ever actually listen to it. And the metaphor "roots" needs to be retired or at least not treated as synonymous with "ancestry.") Anyway, though the guys on this compilation use computers, they're more enamored of bass and space than of blip. Enamored of dub, that is. This is music where you hear the texture of the bass beat and go, "Oh wow." A lot is genuinely beautiful and seems designed to take you out of yourself and put your focus on blank space and the beats that surround it. And the music isn't humorless, either—the Marie + Scratch track builds its beats out of electronically treated mouth farts. Some other guys here fill the blank spaces with spy-movie riffs, Memphis soul, bird cries, ska. Still, this is merely music to savor, like a fine wine. Stoner music for preppies.

One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida
photo: Courtesy Jagjaguwar Records
One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida

Tarwater are on the Blip-Hop anthology with something dubbier and moodier than anything on their Dwellers on the Threshold CD, which is far better than I'd expect from an LP with "threshold" in the title. (If they'd asked me, I'd have told them to name it Dwellers in the Vestibule or Guys Who Sleep Under the Piano.) No matter how soft or exploratory or diffuse or squiggly they're being, there's a hard-rock pressure to everything they play, a basic push to the rhythm.

The "R.A.F.R." in R.A.F.R. VOLUME 3 stands for "real ass-fucking rock." No, it doesn't; it's a record label that calls itself "Rock and Fucking Roll," and this compilation is of bands in Ramones or Cramps or tuneful punkcore mode, copying the punk ferment from 1975 to 1981 without catching anything like the range of that ferment, or the ferment itself, much less any of the ferment that's hit us since. To my surprise, damn near every track makes me smile. But this record raises a puzzling issue: All bands draw on the past, and a lot I've mentioned (Ramones and Cramps included) are quite explicit and gleeful in pointing toward the sources they're pilfering. But some current bands ape a style to the point where they might as well have a year draped around their neck: Kaisers (1963), Greenhornes (1966), Mooney Suzuki (1969). And others will drape themselves around a beloved predecessor: Richmond Sluts (Heartbreakers), Overthrowthe (Velvet Underground). There's a fallacy in taking someone else's journey to be your destination, though fallaciousness doesn't necessarily make the music bad, just different. I don't mind in principle that the Kaisers and Resonars take the hate music of my mid-1960s youth and try to turn it into pale formalist beauty. Hate just can't be gotten from those notes anymore, anyway. (The Kaisers' Shake Me and the Resonars' Lunar Kit rarely go beyond the pale into beauty, unfortunately.)

The Greenhornes could even be cast as the garage-rock band in a movie that's set in 1966. They're very canny in their accuracy; Dual Mono, like thousands of records from that time, even has a blues song with a riff like "Smokestack Lightning." Another track is a full-fledged Yardbirds rave-up. The group can't reproduce the sense of how noise, energy, and restlessness exploded out of the era's tuneful popcraft and threatened to upend it, given that those old fuzztones and distortion and power chords are now so run-of-the-mill that they're no longer incendiary. But the Greenhornes do make the sounds seem special—tentatively psychedelic, as if the band had just heard their first Yardbirds album and wanted to try it themselves. And those sounds also capture what a Yardbirds rave-up was—a beat crescendo with stuff thrown into it. Which is not unrelated to Tarwater and techno.

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