The War Turns Me On

Synthesizers Keep Their Disco Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight

"You got to start with no fear in your heart." Not a possibility. A.R.E. Weapons are all aboutthe fear in our hearts; their album knows this, even if the lead singer can't quite articulate it. There's the danger guy: You pass him on the street; he's the kid with the razor blade, playing Space Invaders on St. Marks Place. And there's you in your own life, one of lethal boredom and unnamed dread, and in dealing with it you discover that you're the danger guy too. "Fact of the matter is there's lots of war that keeps raging on/Fact of the matter is, is the war that turns me on." So, although singer Brain McPeck (note the spelling: Brain, not Brian; rhymes with gain, not cryin') says his momma told him, "Don't ever be scared," and his old man told him, "Please do not live in fear," the choice that Brain implicitly gives us is truer and more subtle: It's not between living in fear and living fearlessly, but between living in fear and living with fear—flourishing on the edge of fear, facing danger. "Lickin' on an ice cream/Just turned thirteen/About to make a bad scene . . . [pause] . . . a whole lot worse/I'm going out tonight/Gonna be a knife fight/You're gonna be OK kid . . . [pause] . . . you're gonna be all right."

A.R.E. Weapons is one of the most interesting records ever to use disco electrobeats and synth washes for rock'n'roll effect; it's got raps and gang shouts and melodies and supercheap electronics ping-ponging and careening all over the place—I mean, it's one of the most interesting to officially use them for rock'n'roll effect. Disco, of course, has from the start been unofficially using itself for rock'n'roll effect, from Moroder to Flashdanceto LeAnn Rimes. And if you don't think there's menace in disco, then you've just never listened to much disco, have you? And hey, A.R.E. Weapons would tell you that if you can't dance in the face of fear, then babe, you just can't dance.

History of the world, part 17: Even though disco and techno guys can electronically create timbres that real horn players can't, they use synthetic horn bursts (as do A.R.E. Weapons) in much the way big bands and r&b of the past had used real horns, as punctuation and emphasis.

Use of synth "strings" is a different story. In old jazz and r&b, strings—real ones—had generally been for sweetener or for lush and romantic background. But such strings were mostly relegated to ballads, since it's hard to get a violin section to swing. Isaac Hayes and various French disco fellows found rhythmic ways to use strings, inserted the orchestral moods from movie soundtracks into dance tracks, tied the lushness to the beat. Nonetheless, their strings still tended to be an ocean of mood. When disco went electronic, it synthesized the strings and took out the sogginess. Electronics changed the emotional character; it no longer had to be lush or sweet. It could be hard or crackling or vague, depending on how you wanted to color your landscape. Static drifted in from other worlds. So although synth washes are still sometimes used as background, the sound is light in a way that real strings can't be, and you can start with your basic synth-wash sound and electronically break it down into little beats, from mood to rhythm.

A.R.E. Weapons deploy this electro-synth sound as hard rock, but without losing its disco flavor. The synth riff that opens their album sounds like thin electric wires in a mesh arrangement, a sound that had only been used previously in disco and electro. A.R.E. Weapons immediately give it a techno-rock dissonance; as the song develops, they add gang shouts and power guitar. But actually, here the power chords are the ocean (tide, storm, tempest), the synth is the foam.

Brain McPeck does the Alan Vega beatnik shtick of somersaulting the words from his mouth, without Vega's habit of getting his tongue stuck in his teeth. The lyrics tend toward the obvious: They inform us that kids have nothing to do; they keep waving gang fights at us to make sure we understand that it's dangerous out in the world—there's even an earnest, maudlin track that tells parents to go easy on their children 'cause you gotta know it's rough being young. (Sorry, I don't think boredom is an explanation for knife fights any more than it's an explanation for algebra: "Hey, if you had my shitty life, you'd be doing quadratic equations too.") But this is all charming within the general aural tumult, and has its own emotional flavor. "No one ever follow me in a fight. [Laughs.] I'm too unstable. All right, I'll leave." Brakes screech, man mumbles, a Euroriff speeds by. Cheap Casio gutter dub. Ratty, idealistic, inconsistent, naive, obnoxious. Inspirational verse: "Be cool, motherfucker!"

 
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