By Chaz Kangas
By Katherine Turman
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"Living in a city where you're face-to-face with the best and worst aspects of humanity, I think that's inspired me to reach new lows with music," says Kevin Barry, guitarist/yelper for Brooklyn-based industrial-strength corrosives White Suns. "To make happy music and pretend that America is this great place where we elected a black president and everyone's happy and gay people can finally get married in New York? These are pretty small things when you look at the big picture."
This bleak, unflinching outlook may be one reason why distortion-mad gangs of local twentysomethings—bands like White Suns, The Men, Pop. 1280, and Pygmy Shrews—are terrorizing Brooklyn's humid loft spaces with violent defibrillations of New York noise-rock. Forced to duck beer cans, fireworks and smoke bombs at places like Death By Audio and 538 Johnson, these four bands of muckmakers are stylistically dissimilar, but all are spiritually linked to what Robert Christgau dubbed "pigfuck" in these pages in 1987—atonal downtown splatter, metallic AmRep churn and a brawny, muscular bludgeon that's one generation removed from metalcore. Maybe the contusion-is-sex aesthetic embraced by this new generation is the result of recession anxiety, or a long-needed buzzkill for indie rock's comfy-in-Nautica vibes. Or possibly it's just as simple as Pop. 1280 guitarist Ivan Lip says: "We didn't put too much thought into it. We just wanted it to be annoying."
The most visible of the nu-pigfuck charge is Brooklyn four-piece The Men, whose Leave Home (Sacred Bones) has met an outpouring of critical accolades for its sludgegaze-submerged mix of Wipers-ready ecstasy-punk and kraut grooves. Leave Home finds its emotional center in vocals that crack and collapse and break down. "We were sick a lot," says guitarist/vocalist Nick Chiericozzi "I had the flu during that session. I had to go to the hospital afterwards so I was pretty much on edge the entire time. My voice cracks like crazy—that's because I was pushing hard through the sickness."
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"My goal was to just blow out my voice, just to take a toll on myself," says bassist/vocalist Chris Hansell, who screeches "I am nothing" on the full-contact "My War"-dosed poetry-slam of "L.A.D.O.C.H." (The acronym, Hansell confesses, stands for "The Life And Death Of Chris Hansell.") "I didn't really write any lyrics for that. I just kind of improvised what I was saying. I probably couldn't tell you what I actually said, but it definitely was a ball of emotions coming out. I did the vocals at 12 at night in pitch black... My voice was probably blown out in the first minute of me singing. I didn't want people to like it necessarily. I almost wanted to make people a little angry. 'What is this, the same riff for six minutes?'"
"L.A.D.O.C.H." was recorded in an empty cement classroom in the basement of a former Catholic school that until recently housed Python Patrol Recording Studio, inhabited by Pygmy Shrews frontman (and friend of this writer) Ben Greenberg. Greenberg also recorded the most recent releases by Pop. 1280 and White Suns, and his abrasive yet ultimately comprehensible style unites the genre in a way. "Between those bands, we developed a common aesthetic of making things dirty and loud, but I try to keep a clarity and a power," Greenberg says. "Everyone's so into the lo-fi thing, and it's so easy. There's a lot of people being really lazy about what they let a label press into wax."
The most luminous of Greenberg's recordings is Pop. 1280's EP The Grid (Sacred Bones): 24 minutes of Blade Runner synths, Birthday Party dementia, and knife-like guitar noxiousness. "I think that making art is about confrontation. I really want my guitar to be loud and piercing. I don't want people to be able to talk over it," says guitarist Ivan Lip, who adds cheekily, "People don't like us a lot. We can really clear a room."
Lyrically, Lip and vocalist Chris Bug concoct an unflattering view of a world full of public masturbators, sewage surfers, RedTube-gazers, cops made of trash and bedbugs; The Grid peaks with the dreary ejaculation "the city's a cockroach lying on its back." Lip travels to poor neighborhoods in his day job as a social worker, and he admits that juxtaposing his daily ritual of visiting dirty subway stations against his rural Massachusetts upbringing has led him to view New York as a "really scummy place." The band also finds the roots of its perverted gaze and dark humor in the work of Dennis Cooper and William S. Burroughs—and they also influence the balance of caustic fuckery and melody. "Bret Easton Ellis is interesting because he's, like, a best-seller," says Lip. "In American Psycho, a guy puts a rat inside a woman's vagina, but it was one of the most popular books of the year. I like that it's not some weird transgressive thing that's only sold in the weird bookstore—it's, like, in Barnes & Noble."
The unapologetically hideous trio White Suns' debut Waking in the Reservoir (ugEXPLODE) is eight nearly impenetrable blasts of piston-like rhythms, prickly grinding and raw-throat wails. The extra layer of noise is thanks to the home-brewed instruments of Rick Visser, who cuts a mystifying live figure while playing an amplified spring and a mounted ceramic sundial. "It was a garden ornament in my moms house," says Visser. "I remember being a little kid, playing around, thinking it was pretty cool. One day, she was asking me to throw it away. I was walking to the trash and instinctually I threw it in the air and hit it with my hand. And I thought, 'Whoa, I want that.' It's a very dead sound. You can feel it in your chest, but it doesn't ring out."
White Suns' scavenged instruments are of a piece with it being highly attuned to the city's economic realities. "I'm forever broke," says Visser. "I can't go out and get a Kaoss Pad or a laptop. It's about improvising and being ingenuitive with pieces of metal." The lyrics wailed by Barry touch on the hopeless lie of employment ("Skin Deep") and class warfare ("Harvest"). "There's a definite economic power structure in America," adds Barry, "and White Suns is by no means at the top of it. So our art is kind of influenced by our position in those ranks."
Is that why the band has railed against chillwave? (Earlier this year, Barry told the Voice that the genre epitomizes a "pretend-nothing-is-happening mindset.") "It just seems lazy intellectually and it seems lazy politically too," says Barry. "That music just seems like support for some stupid lifestyle, rather than art." Adds Mark Perro, guitarist and vocalist for The Men, "I don't think we know any [chillwave] bands, but fuck those bands [Laughs]. Having not even heard them, we don't care."