Hopping the Spires

'70s avant-rockers unearth new tones and timbres, ride fractured rhythms to intensity

Of all the rock bands that you might call avant-garde, DNA were one that actually did something new, the musicians countering the habits of their instruments, though each in a different way. With Robin Crutchfield, what was new was the architectural simplicity of his keyboards; with Arto Lindsay, it was the reaching—into his vocal cords, his guitar—to find new tones and timbres. So he foreshadowed techno, unearthing what sounds were available. Where Robin went for the essential, Arto searched for the unknown, discovering scrapes, flails, and squawks—and in doing so, creating a sense of glass spilling in precise shards, though shards that danced, flowed. So you had Robin building spires and Arto jumping from one to the next, piling condiments, refuse, and bric-a-brac on top. Ikue Mori, the drummer, was harder to define. Although she never lost the beat, she never tried to propel a track and never went near a backbeat, either, but rather left the bounce and the pulse to Robin. Ikue was more a commentator, embellisher, though an unusual one: She tended to work the toms rather than the cymbals, and thereby avoided the clichés of "impressionistic" drumming. She sometimes hopped along to the music, sometimes stayed with the toms, a rumble murmuring along in response to the other two instruments.

When Robin quit, Tim Wright joined on bass, but rather than stepping into Robin's role, he caused a rearrangement of the band's sound. Instead of using his bass as a bottom instrument, he jumped to the melodic lead. Arto responded with a new gentleness, dancing in and out, rather than on top as he had with Robin. Ikue fleshed out Tim's tones, adding timbre, or rolling her beats around his.

Since what DNA were doing (as chronicled on their new DNA on DNAretrospective) was so unexpected, it got me fascinated by their process, and changed my own playing. At the same time, I felt very much an observer in relation to their music: My life was here; their music was there, at a remove. Given Arto's tendency to splash all over, and the buoyancy of Robin's keyboard, I wouldn't call DNA's music a dignified withdrawal, exactly. But there was distance.

DNA, from a distance
photo: Tom Warren
DNA, from a distance

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Listening to the Notekillers, on the other hand, whom I'm hearing for the first time, I don't feel distance but the shock of recognition. Like DNA, they formed in the '70s, played noisy music that signified being "out," and disbanded in the early '80s. Unlike DNA, they got almost no attention, in part because they were in Philly rather than New York, in part, says guitarist David First, because they created barriers to their success (such as not moving to New York, perhaps?). They practiced six nights a week, but made only two singles, and released only one; the rest of the Notekillers album is old basement tapes, cassettes, demos, live tracks.

First writes: "[An] objective was that the music be equidistant from (and therefore equally close to) every vital type of music in the history of the world. . . . It should be able to follow any record on my turntable—Marley, Ayler, Pistols, Fahey, or Reich, raga, pansori, tea house, snake dance, or son—and the threads would be clear." Well, son I hear (a Cuban form whose beat patterns are similar to Bo Diddley's), not sure about the rest, not all of which have been vital parts of my life. First also mentions "microtonality," which he picked up by listening to Charles Ives. But if I'd had the opportunity I'd have told the Notekillers to face it, they were a rock band, albeit one with no vocals and few solos, one that put everything into its riffs and grooves. Since the basic attack of the music—the drum rhythms, the guitar strums, the driving bass—is rock, the whole thing comes across as rock. So son and mambo are heard as Diddley, drones and raga are Yardbirds and Velvets, and microtones recall c&w and r&b (which tend to slide into and away from the mi, fa, so, and ti notes anyway, rather than hitting them dead-on).

As the CD progresses, the band fractures the rhythm, chopping it into 5/4, 7/4, etc., screwing with the measure bars. But not only do they keep the groove, they give it a greater intensity—a snaking, twisting feel, a harbinger of a new blues or funk that still hasn't been invented. The Notekillers combine a precision that makes them conceptualize "microtones" and a recklessness that makes them try impossible grooves. In other words, this kicks.

 
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