Riffs Are Not Dead


I’ve seen the turntables and the damage done. Most juveniles this past holiday season, once they got over Dad not cashing in his pension to buy a PlayStation2 on eBay, probably set their sights on some wheels of steel wrapped in ribbon. I wasn’t born until the end of the ’70s, but I’d like to think that teens of that decade pawed at Christmas Strats and tried coming up with something as incendiary as AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood” or Heart’s “Crazy on You.” Most of ’em probably wound up covering Foghat at their talent shows, then selling their axes for weed. Likewise, kids today probably just dream of nailing really nice blends, and creating a pomo pastiche as hot as Entroducing . . . Well, who cares, most of ’em will probably cut one 12-inch that sounds like Rickie Lee Jones singing over a Guy B-side before they get Internet jobs.

But is anyone still trying to write hot licks? Have they all been played? Michel Foucault might say, “Oui”; Jamie Stillman says, “Hell no”—Kent, Ohio, is as far away from Paris as you could hope, and it’s where he and his band, the Party of Helicopters, practice their magic. Most of the songs on Mt. Forever snap open like a switchblade and never really retract; they just kind of extinguish themselves. The title track sees Stillman playing tug-of-war with himself and his rhythm section when he churns out a two-minute solo that doesn’t yawn, it just opens wider. “Pounding for Vipers,” the baddest heat-seeker of the bunch, opens with a spiraling guitar line that cuts back and forth between beauty and thrash. Both cuts kick open the door and catch you watching the Heart Behind the Music. Depending on your ears, other guitar lines sound like garage metal or Mould/Mascis. Stillman’s riffs have no makeup on; they just stand there in the doorway with missing teeth. As with all great riffs, you recognize them the first time around, and you whisper, “God, I’ve missed you. Where have you been?”

The proceedings never get so grisly or traditionally metallic that you’d think the Party of Helicopters were spending their free time growing mustaches, but they’re never smug or ironic enough to make you think they were wearing cardigans and reading The Wire, either. Underneath Stillman, in a treble-frenzied blitz, drummer (now ex-drummer) Jon Finley and bassist Ryan Brannon kick up a skittish post-hardcore storm, going from speedy blasts to pinning the action to the floor. Singer Joe Dennis is kind of the wild card. His airy, nearly fey vocals stay in the back, drawing cartoons in his notebook and scribbling band logos on his sneakers. But his harmonies never get so ghostly that you’d color him ethereal, and the lyrics work as snippets of someone cutting himself to pieces and sewing himself back together. Back on Sabbath IV, when Ozzy moaned, “Long ago I wandered through my mind/In the land of fairy tales and stories,” he was a geek-icon with a microphone, not a marauding Nordic Übermensch burning shit up for his utopia, or some amped-up ball of testosterone searching for mosh justice; Dennis aligns himself with Ozzy’s escapist outsider, forgoing the faux-Black Arts nonsense and hardcore finger-pointing at the Headbangers’ Ball, and instead settling for fronting the band at Carrie’s senior prom. The blood starts flowing, Dennis watches Sissy Spacek get testy. “She’s my gunplay,” he sighs. “She’s my gunpowder.”

Troubleman Unlimited, 16 Willow Street, Bayonne, NJ 07002

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