For those emotionally invested in American underground punk—you know, the noisy, cult-specific upchuck rock of severely lowered popular expectations—the summer’s most exciting, revelatory, and potentially epoch-defining package outing is something called “Oops! the Tour.” “Oops!,” which hit Manhattan and Brooklyn last week, includes cartoony velocity boys the Locust, ear-bleeding bass-drums messiahs Lightning Bolt, brutal progsters the Flying Luttenbachers (whose punk = free jazz = black metal = King Crimson = no wave acts as an aesthetic godfather), and more. It’s a lineup that links everyscene’s hands, from nth-wave indiepunk to pedals-through-pedals art-noise improvisers to post-grrrl politicos. (Let’s hear it for the unifying effects of mass-market irrelevance!)
Aside from the approaching-popular Locust—who were a crucial part of the Cecil B. Demented soundtrack and are a favorite of John Waters’s in general—Lightning Bolt probably have the biggest buzz. Their destructo duets swing from the rafters with sink-your-teeth-in riffs and galloping chaos. As their recent DVD Power of Salad proves, they make screaming through throat mics and ski masks look hot. Perhaps because of LB’s heightened profile, electric strings’n’drums duos are suddenly everywhere, the format of choice for guitar extremists who want to condense noisepunk’s hair-parting overdrive to a very specific palette. Orthrelm, Hella, and Pink and Brown inflict couplehood on prog’s composition fetish, punk’s speed, and metal’s squiggle. Even before the White Stripes crossed over to the MTV Movie Awards, ’90s indie rock futzed around with the format now and again. (Anyone remember that charging rhino GodheadSilo? NY love rockers Kicking Giant? How about former Voice contributor Lois Maffeo’s folk-pop twosome Courtney Love? No, not that Courtn . . . look, forget it.) Noise-fusion jazz does it all the time, from the transfixing power of Coltrane and Ali’s spiritual unity on Interstellar Space to Japanese prog titans Ruin to Thurston “Watch Me be Punk and Indie and Noise and R.E.M. and Ono All at Once” Moore. But where most rock and improv duos replace the third leg of a traditional power trio with depth and space, these fellows blur the sonic picture with chaos and skree.
Orthrelm—Mick Barr on spaceship-crashing guitar solos and Josh Blair on free-prog drums—are Washington, D.C., boys who trade any sort of melodic inflection for lightning-fingers technique so beyond-the-pale wanky it’s tough not to burst out laughing at their reductive audacity. But these five-second telegrams are surreally addictive. Barr’s previous twosome, Crom-Tech, was also guitar-drums, but at least they occasionally trafficked in, you know, riffs (or, as Barr put it in an interview with the Washington CityPaper, “playing a part, like, two or three times over”).
Fearless enough to walk onstage amid an increasingly fashion-conscious D.C. punk milieu in an X-Men T-shirt, Barr became a cult hero in a city that loves to mint them. (Tolatta and Peterbilt, two labels that have released Barr’s work, are run by Fugazi’s Joe Lally and Guy Picciotto, respectively.) Even his nonsensical vocals sounded like S.O.S.’s from an interplanetary species that speaks in Eddie Van Halen hammer-ons. Orthrelm distill Crom’s formula even further down the grooveless ladder: no vocals, no repetition, let ‘er rip. Asristir Veildrioxe offers up 99 (!) “songs” in under 13 minutes, art blurts for folks who find grindcore time-consuming. A third instrument would just clog up the works. Barr’s playing bears roughly the same relationship to death metal as death metal does to classical: a reduction of a genre’s aural aesthetic to its wiggiest essence. Even banging your head is out. (For those who find Blair’s jazzy ejaculations too flesh-and-blood, Barr’s solo persona Octis utilizes a blast-beat drum machine for 72 songs in a half-hour, dressing the shred in Bathory drag on the vibrant, fetishistic, pill-shaped, double 3-inch CD on Peterbilt, Uppragn Srilimia Ixioor Ocrilm Nollfithes Mrithixyl.) Some—like the Luttenbachers’ Weasel Walter—hear Bartók in the blurs, but Orthrelm’s first-person shooter spurts shine brightest as three-second salvos of ultra-nerd soul.
It’s tempting to cast San Diego’s Hella—who play some West Coast “Oops!” dates—as the Zappa to Orthrelm’s Beefheart; the former are less amorphous, more overt and precise about putting their instrumental prowess on display. Hella just sound more like guys who get out of the house and visit other humans now and then. On Hella’s Hold Your Horse Is, Spencer Seim’s guitar—in typical hard-prog fashion—can’t figure out if it trusts melodies or not, even if Zach Hill’s quick-wit drumming can take any sort of punch. Hooks appear and disappear in seconds, falling into half-baked licks and stop-start hostility. “Brown Metal” is all percussive exhilaration and hummingbird growl, while “Been a Long Time Cousin” revs in place until it finds a theme it can live with, gets bored, and moves on. Initial listens imply Hill’s convulsive pounding bears up under the changes, but who really knows who’s doing the bearing? Leadership becomes moot in these duos; each member is responsible for exactly half of the dialogue, because unlike in a larger ensemble, weight never shifts in mid-flight.
Though not on the “Oops!” tour, Bay Area act Pink and Brown join Orthrelm and Hella on the similarly definitive 5RC compilation If the Twenty-First Century Didn’t Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It. Of course one dude performs in pink and the other in brown, and their 2001 debut album, Final Foods, was a dull mess, noise-rock clichés spilling across the floor like an overflowed toilet. But what a difference a tour makes; their half of a recent Load Records 12-inch (split with movie-soundtrack goofballs Death Drug) is a tiny revelation. Improvisational guitar guzz still subs for melodic emotional sinew, but like Lightning Bolt, Pink and Brown know a groove when they smell it. P and B drop rhythmic swagger into the murk like they just figured out that’s what folks look for in noise; suddenly they feel less like a two-man gross-out machine and more like savvy thrashers who want girls to show up at their shows. Like Orthrelm and Hella, P and B are about adeptly refining a dialogue until they’re playing exactly what they want, and not one note more; two people are more efficient than three, and yet more punk for it. These duos are fire jugglers—keeping a musical notion in the air as long as possible, then passing it off for maximum mania.