Hearing Troubleman Mix-Tape kick off with a snippet of Miles Davis cursing his audience during a mid-’70s gig, I can’t help wishing that the collection’s compiler, Troubleman Unlimited prexy Mike Simonetti, had been prescient enough to have tacked on some invective from Miles’s high-art brother-in-arms Karl Stockhausen. After all, the German composer isn’t just the father of modern avant-something-or-other, a guy who’s made a career doing with tape loops and sheets of sound something similar to what the 49 bands here do with guitars-bass-drums-synths. He’s also about the only big-cheese Westerner who had the cojones to publicly express genuine awe re the WTC attacks, describing them to a journalist as “the greatest work of art ever” before fleeing to the countryside amid widespread backlash.
I’d guess Herr Stockhausen didn’t envy the terrorists’ “art” for its power to kill so much as its power to change the way a whole lot of people think in a hurry, to instantly and irrevocably set putative “worlds” in direct opposition. Which, all things considered, is about the greatest thing music can ever do, anyway. And though not even in the case of the Beatles or The Rite of Spring has it ever been done with the speed and effect of those jetliners, the collision of social realms back in rock’s heyday (under- vs. overground, counterculture vs. orthodoxy, my mom vs. my grandma) must’ve seemed pretty exciting. (Dunno for sure, though—I was born during the Carter administration.)
What’s significant about Mix-Tape is that it makes this kind of world vs. world shit seem worth mentioning. Strangers Die Everyday, the prescient-enough title of the latest full-length from Troubleman torchbearers Red Scare (whose raging “Iron Curtain” is included here), only hints at the sentiments of the best of these tracks; the jagged, spiraling-into-nowhere riffing and near oedipal conceits of “Father,” by cagey art-punk vets Blond Redhead, better epitomizes the comp’s otherworldly (or just doggedly underground) aspirations, its implied contempt for anyone concerned with anything more frivolous than the primacy of noise. From jackhammer fuzz-romps to well-constructed rapid-fire raveups to art-fuck synth-pop, Mix-Tape is all about tuneless, punchy DIY experimentalism, but even so it’s not the “destruction” (or deconstruction) of songform, or the total eschewing of youth-demographic “hip” (fuck you, Strokes!), or even the too goddamn many “underground” signifiers floating about that make it meaningful. It’s the utter fascination with sound-as-such coupled with age-old punk-rock oompah, which when it works well is something like getting slugged in the gut while wigged out on acid: a weird art/violence aesthetic that in the hands of distortion aces Lightning Bolt (say) can really dig its claws into your skull.
Granted, Simonetti was in some ways merely playing Alan Lomax to a colossal and disconnected Underground, and so Troubleman Mix-Tape is not only redundant but downright cloying in spots. Form-wise, most tracks are rollercoaster-ish rides shot through with repetitive guitar spills and haiku-like punk shouting (though a couple of these acts just like to scream and scream alone). About half of the first disc might remind you of the Swans’ most mediocre pitter-patter; the second is a little more cerebral and less body-rocking, roping in synth jams and a couple quiet pieces, plus too much math-rock. My favorite track among the 52 is probably “Sailing the Sea of Hoag” by Excelsior, which might just be the third or fourth greatest instance of an archetypal classic-rock riff as interpreted by arty young assholes in someone’s dingy basement ever. Outhud’s “Emporor Selassie’s Morning Wood,” besides having the greatest title of any song this year, burns ahead with a groove that at first suggests “post-rock” claptrap like Tortoise but ultimately comes off as a brilliant dog-eared art collage, and one of the better non-raucous pieces here. A couple of bands are now defunct, and a couple contributed only B-sides; on the evidence presented, I’m only willing to check out newish full-lengths by the aforementioned Lightning Bolt, Red Scare, and Excelsior, plus Rah Bras (a coed team of jokey riff-sters), Red Monkey (multi-layered indie crunch w/ super female vox), !!! (wiry lo-fi funksters), Love Life (murky neo-psych), and maybe a couple others, like Radio 4 or much lauded prizefighters Unwound.
Sprawling as it is, the comp works in part because this kind of avant-hard stuff usually goes better in shorter and more variegated doses rather than as absorbed through any number of LPs. More to the point, as a kind of document of an underworld, a window on an alien ant farm, it’s fascinating. Which means that for indexers of trends, progress, etc., it’s gotta be tempting to see the underground captured here as the dark side of an indie-rock scene whose soft white underbelly has been poking out more and more from beneath its thrift-store T-shirt, with crap like “slo-core” and shitty ’60s mimicry holding too damned much sway among rock-oriented youngsters.
Mix-Tape does indeed testify to the health of of a universe beneath the radar of the CMJ charts, and since about a third of its tracks really do hone in on a kind of weird hostility-qua-sound, it’s also a reminder that, even during this time of teen-pop/hip-hop fecundity, punk intellectuals who find art in bad fortune (or whose art banks on not giving a fuck about whatever concerns the rest of us) are not alone in the world. And all the same, comps like this have in the end not a whit to do with the “kill pop music” project espoused again and again by the likes of Slipknot on those year-end MTV roundups. To destroy a world, even one as ingratiating as the one currently labeled “mainstream,” you’d have to give a shit about it. Hung up on noise, DIY-ing themselves to oblivion, these kids don’t. And as much as I love ‘N Sync, all I can say is, more raw power to ’em.