Fear of Music


Evol was four punks’ instruments screaming bloody redrum. Goodbye 20th Century was said punks, 13 years older, covering John Cage and other wind chime mimes. Did the fountain of Sonic Youth abandon noise tantrums or fully embrace them? (Does Trick Daddy have regrets, or is that children’s choir in “I’m a Thug” simply meant to contrast with his true nature?)

Clearly, making music out of psychodrama is no easy trick. But three newish records representing the avant vanguard of NYC’s experimental, post-millennial punk scene fuse noise with nuance like the dirty South merges laid-back with hyped-up hip-hop. And in a novel twist circumscribing their artiness, none of the bands in question has ever collaborated with John Zorn.

Lightning Bolt—a bass-and-drums duo Thurston Moore recently requested to open for him—just released Ride the Skies, which sounds like a Back in Big Black that you can throw ‘bows to. Black Dice’s Cold Hands has the aforementioned Cagey minimalist vibe sandwiching soul discharges not unlike those of Sonic Youth’s Japanese buddies the Boredoms. The Red Scare’s Strangers Die Everyday is a splintered, resonant version of mid-’90s mid-to-fast-tempo emo-inflected hardcore. Only the Red Scare actually play chords.

You could say the triumvirate deconstruct their already wound-up influences—as if Unwound, Unsane, and, tee hee, Pussy Galore haven’t done this already. And anyway, who are you, Derrida? Still, it’s a decent point. Lester Bangs—to reference another quotidian authority—once declared that “hardcore is the womb,” chords its “walls.” (Self-proclaimed one-chord wonders the Adverts called this “Safety in Numbers.”) Hardcore has since enjoyed the same proliferation and diversification as all other music, but its root, rote tirades have tended—when subspecies haven’t gone AWALL—to intensify, becoming faster, tighter, and more politically segmented. (Straight edge, for instance—what was up with that?)

Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, and the Red Scare have likewise local peers whose lineups sometimes overlap with their own and are sometimes nearly as good: Panthers (groundbreaking dissonant HC with Rolling Stones swagger), the Rapture (dreamy disco HC), Pixel Tan (brainy, brawny disco), Orchid (brainy grind), Avey Tare and Panda Bear (brainy ground-up acoustic guitar and electronica). Most favor physical attraction over philosophical abstraction; i.e., you listen to them for fun.

All in all, their boom-bap unlocks a major cathartic rush. Lightning Bolt unleash double-timed, “Tom Sawyer”-sized riffs over a slamming, tripping, and often mutating approximation of that song’s drum solo. Their bassist, Brian Gibson, does a wailin’ Van Halen, in essence picking up and apart the same supersonic space as a six-string.

Almost submerged in the mix is Brian Chippendale’s distorted “throat mic” (taken from a telephone, run through a pre-amp, and embedded in a homemade mask) exhortations, lamentations, and animal sounds. He counts up to “13 Monsters” with incomprehensible lines interposed, military march-style, over a syncopated but simple hammering of the toms and broken ride cymbal. You can hear him panting.

Then the bass bursts in, fast and fuzzy and colorful and huge. The drum kit gets tossed down the stairs but never hits bottom. After about 70 seconds the cycle starts anew, with Gibson switching into live-wirejumping-around mode, lines abandoned, notes bending and flipping and roaring. In under three minutes the song ends, Chippendale buried somewhere inside, screaming “TEN! TEN! TEN! TEN! TENNNNNN!” So much for safety in numbers.

Lightning Bolt are best experienced live. (Ditto the audience-baiting—again, no safety in numbers—Black Dice.) Brian Gibson’s complicated amps-speakers-effects setup is as loud as the fucking garbage trucks outside my window every night. (Watts in the quadruple digits, ’tis rumored.) Chippendale’s snare probably rates with the gunshots others hear outside of theirs. It’s hard not to fall into dude-rip-riff-man-fuck-rock-yeah metal hyperbole here, so let’s just say you feel the music. And I don’t mean in an emo way.

Although they practically have a residency at round-here venues like the Cooler and Brownies, Lightning Bolt technically still base themselves out of Providence, Rhode Island. (Remember, carpetbaggers even get elected to the Senate in New York.) Kip Uhlhorn, the Red Scare’s shouter-guitarist, only recently moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee, where the band’s three other members remain. Black Dice also began in Providence, before ending up in Brooklyn—they actually traded two members with Lightning Bolt in 1995, when everyone was still weaving baskets at Rhode Island School of Design (where the Talking Heads first confronted their fear of music).

At that time Chippendale rented a mill-building loft near RISD with a friend, and they rearranged and changed the billboard letters identifying their defunct neighbor Harris Lumber. Fort Thunder soon became (and remains) the de facto center of an often low-end-obsessed sect of bands with rhythmic ‘tardcore bents: Rain Man-dancing Arab on Radar; bouncy-buzzy-bass Men’s Recovery Project; ranty-buzzy-bass Olneyville Sound System; signed-to-SubPop Six Finger Satellite and their offshoot dance outfit, La Machine; many others. (Load Records puts out most of what they call Providence’s “Freak Rock Explosion”—hear the You’re Soaking in It . . . sampler.)

Providence pedigree noted, Black Dice slash more than they groove (outside Providence soundalikes: early Melt Banana and, tee hee, Harry Pussy). Though two of the four tracks on Cold Hands don’t do much at all. The title cut could be a music box being wound in slo-mo or somebody picking guitar strings above the fretboard, where they don’t ring. It sounds like a deserted shipyard must to a stowaway. Scary!

But another quotidian authority—my mom—tells me that “cold hands mean a warm heart” (I have bad circulation). It’s hard not to fall into ambient-swirl-background-beauty understatement here, so let’s just say Black Dice have feeling. Take “Birthstone”: It’s a sheet of feedback that eventually frays, cymbals marching in, guitar threads diverging, bass throbbing. It breaks down as it grows. Just like people. Sad!

The louder tracks are more concerned with communication breakdown. “Smile Friends” seems sarcastic: Whatever Bjorn Copeland is gurgling and shrieking, it’s probably not words. But he sounds about as pissed-off as insert-OG-HC-boy-here. Hisham Bharoocha drums spaced-apart speed bumps at first, over which the guitar and bass trip, spilling piercing and droning tones. Then, shockingly: an off-kilter beat and kicking, skittering, screaming everything else.

Strangers Die Everyday, the Red Scare album, is more orderly, albeit punctuated with comet-tail guitar debris. There’s no illusion of security—somebody, after all, is always kicking the bucket. The Red Scare remind me of Red Dawn, the ’84 film wherein a strapping Patrick Swayze fends off pinkos that parachute into his Small Town. Which reminds me of “Powderfinger,” the ’79 Neil Young song wherein a hick who “just turned 22” wonders what to do about an ominous boat comin’ up the river. Pa’s radar love sends a voice to the back of his brain: “Red means run, son/Numbers add up to nothing.” Then the godless commies blast him.

Paranoia doesn’t strike deep; it comes from inside. “Does it hurt? Isn’t that what you wanted?” Uhlhorn cries on “Kodaliths,” so you can just make it out. Matt Hall keeps lurching, time driven by the kick-drum; choppy “Venus in Furs” guitars run run run. On the far side of “Iron Curtain” we’re sentenced to “Five Months in Poland”: the slow, voiceless build of frowning notes, broken-back beating, and finally an unraveled coda. Workers of the world unite but still are not safe. Then the wall falls; we are delivered from hardcore.

If only someone would deliver us from late capitalism. Not surprisingly, stripmall developers are looking to evict Fort Thunder. Their wrecking balls remain blue, but don’t count on Providence’s mayor—just indicted for running a criminal enterprise, i.e., the city—to step in. Meanwhile, imagine what it must be like to dedicate your time to a band while paying to live in NYC. What’s news to you is just noise to somebody else, so appreciate art while it lasts. Hello 21st century, where evol comes in spurts.

Fort Thunder; Load; Troubleman Unlimited