What does it mean to say that a band has returned to form, when doing away with form was kind of the point to begin with? The Dead C’s 2007 album, Future Artists, found the New Zealand trio mainly immersing themselves in electronically generated tones ‘n’ drones (with a few metal scrapings for flavor), and while it’s hard to begrudge a 20-year-old group their indulgences, it’s far from the most thrilling excursion in their bulging, misshapen catalog. Secret Earth, though, is the stuff: the largely improvised anti-rock that characterized their ’90s output, which brought them to the attention of Sonic Youth and, subsequently, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere underground.
Nothing moves like this band’s music: rolling and roiling, inexorable yet indifferent, an unstoppable object impelled by unreasonable forces. Think of the creeping lava that created the Dead C’s country thousands of years ago, horrific in its time but resulting today in beautifully fractured terrain, like the islands in Otago Harbor, pictured on Secret Earth‘s cover. Don’t let any TV biker-hippies fool you—this is real freedom rock, free of the codified mannerisms and looks (and chords, structures, and sales figures) that make up late-capitalism-era rock music.
As any Iraqi will tell you, though, freedom ain’t always pretty. Bruce Russell’s guitar never met a note it didn’t—well, it’s possible that roaring, keening guitar has never met a “proper” note at all. Michael Morley’s mostly indecipherable vocals drift between moaning and wailing. Drummer Robbie Yeats is closest to convention, his spare but crashing work marking the disorienting darkness of Secret Earth‘s four long songs. The songs stubbornly refuse to develop; their rewards lie not in where they go, but rather in the way they just go. “Plains,” which simply smokes for nine minutes, most immediately resembles rock, but it might take a dozen listens for the riffs of “Stations,” the album’s longest piece, to begin to define themselves as some other-dimensional blues. (Do people stick with an album that long anymore?) Two-thirds of the way through the track, a line that I want to believe goes, “It is such that I’m unsuuure . . .” drips out of Morley’s mouth, offering as much justification as there could be for the Dead C.
The Dead C play Bowery Ballroom October 13