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Monday, 19 March 2012

The Dead C - 'Tusk' (Siltbreeze)

When I first heard the Dead C, Tusk was their current album. I'm not sure if it's the very first one I heard, or maybe just one of the first, but it helped to define the band to me, early on, as a bunch of anti-music conceptualists. This mostly incorrect assessment (they were anti-something, but extremely musical) is largely based on the opening cut, 'Plane', which is not to say that I didn't listen to the rest of the CD. And probably also on the cover art, which is an eerie, Goya-esque drawing that echoes the minimal liner notes(a monolithic font, big bold letters, and nothing in the way of recording credits save a "NZ1997" at the bottom). It was probably 'Head's monster summation that really drew me to the band, which is actually a pretty amazing rock song that is constantly on the verge of collapse. Which, I guess, sums up Tusk nicely. The title track is the most free-form, though it bears far more resemblance to  The White House, Repent, and even Operation of the Sonne than to the Fleetwood Mac record I can't help but compare it to. Tusk is a really great collection of the Dead C doing everything they do - it's as varied and complete as Harsh 70s Reality, as you get the spacious, improvised soundscapes and also some bone-crunching vocal-led songs. 'Tuba', in a minute and a half, tells you everything you need to know about this band's songwriting capabilities; 'Head's second half would have to go on an all-time best-of (which, apparently, it is - on the Vain, Erudite and Stupid collection). But I keep going back to 'Plane', which begins with 7 minutes of rattling sound tape loop, oh-so-slightly evolving as it shakes around, with one regular variable-speed change to mark regularity. Though it resembles nothing else the Dead C ever recorded, it still shapes sound in space quite wonderfully, even with a limited palette, and feels totally appropriate with the guitars and drums kick in halfway through. This is one I always forget about, as it tends to be overshadowed by the earlier records, partly due, I'd say, to the repetition of songs across multiple releases, in different versions. This is a later Dead C, maybe now best called "mid-period", and the full-fledged ringmod AMMateurism of the Language Recordings era is almost there. Electronics are more present here than in any of the pre-Sonne records, especially on 'Imaginary', which is feels as much about urban decay as it does the wild expanses of one's imagination. This is the last release they did on Siltbreeze, so it's truly the end of an era, and what an era this was.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Dead C - "Trapdoor Fucking Exit' (Siltbreeze)

When Michael Morley groans 'Hell has come, hell has come' in 'Power' (which appears on this disc twice, in original and extra-crispy form) he makes a convincing argument. Trapdoor Fucking Exit actually begins with 'Heaven', then leads (descends?) into 'Hell is Now Love', a slightly more spacious, nervous version of 'Love'. This is a odds-and-sods semi-album built around the 'Helen Said This' 12", which we already addressed in the Underbite blog. But that's a hell of a centrepiece, even if it's split up and fragmented with weird sexual stompers like 'Bone' and and the non-Latin version of 'Bury' wrapped around them. The whole disc clocks in at 69 minutes, and maybe this is the best introduction to the Dead C, though far from their "best" album. There's some true classics here, such as the aforementioned 'Power', another take on 'Sky', and the "acoustico" triptych at the end of  'Power', 'Bone' and 'Mighty', where the Dead C show off how beautiful their banshee squeals can sound in an acoustic setting. (Though these acoustic guitars sound like they are coursing with electricity, and the absence of Robbie Yeats is really felt.) It's a trick they only employ this one time and it's great they don't overuse it (the acoustic-y stuff on the DR503 era not counting). 'Bury (Refutatio Omnium Haeresium)' remains as epic as the first time we listened to it, particularly when it ascends to a beauteous plateau at the end. There's a lot of details here across the length of this disc. 'Mighty' ends with a playful call and response guitar jam, with guest/4th member Chris Heazlewood (who plays on about half of these tracks). 'Helen' retains it's grandeur even in the coarse, digital form of the compact disc; the crawling ebb and flow at the end, arpeggiated and shimmery, remains one of the Dead C's finest moments. This sense of horizontal motion, also present in 'Krossed' (though under duress there) is something I love about open-form music. The ambience that the band has at this point, which stays uniform throughout this whole disc even though the sessions were recorded at different times in 1989/1990. Which I guess means that this should have come before Harsh 70s Reality, though I'm pretty sure it was released after. Maybe this is an error in my chronology, in which case, whoops, sorry.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Dead C - 'Harsh 70s Reality' (Siltbreeze)

This, really, is it. Though really, I feel like I've been repeating myself on each of these trips through the Dead C's musical lair; I'm just creating an echo of empty language in a feeble attempt to convey how great something is that should just be experienced. Maybe that's a way to portray about this blog overall - a failure to articulate. And there's a window, because that tension between articulation and letting it slide; between intention and affect - that's maybe what's so fucking stunning about this CD. There's a lot of Harsh 70s Reality to make it the singular record that it is (even among the band's already stellar catalogue by this point). Opening with 'Driver U.F.O.', the most blatantly anti-structural track they'd released to date, is not a sensible way to begin your masterpiece. But 'Driver U.F.O.' is not just a jam; despite the millions of free-rock, spacey explorations I've heard in my young life, there's something about this one that makes it more complete. I can't articulate (there we go again) much beyond that, but I don't have to. It's a brilliant balance of all things that are great in improvised music, which includes (but is not limited to) texture, rhythm, space, and dramatic currents. One thing you can do with Harsh 70s Reality is consider it alongside other big records of 1991/1992 - specifically Loveless and Nevermind, two records that inspired billions of my peers but in some ways don't hold a candle to the artistic genius and complexity of this. Or maybe, instead of being so quantitative, we can just appreciate these three cornerstones as being three sides all balancing each other, structurally. It's crazy to think twenty years has elapsed here, two-thirds of my life, and that this would probably pass the "Velvet Underground" test - it was certainly heard by the least amount of people compared to Loveless/Nevermind, but probably all of those who found it went off and started their own bands. I myself came late to this, getting into the Dead C around the time of Tusk and luckily coming across a bunch of these CDs secondhand in a short period of time. Talk about getting thrown into the deep end! Back then, it was the long, loose jammy tracks that spoke to me most - 'Driver U.F.O.' and 'Sea is Violet', for example. Whereas the songs, I didn't click with them right away, maybe not til I came across Eusa. 'Sky' is the real comparison against Nirvana; if you have doubts look at the (insane, amazing, thank god for YouTube) live clip online and wonder what was floating in the water down there. 'Love' has been regurgitated in several forms on various records - this is something else to admire about the Dead C, their continual reappraisal of past compositions - but this one is a slow, 10 minute dirge that might be the best take on it. Much of this record ws recorded live, some as far back as '89 according to the liner notes (a barely readable typewriter font on some beautifully minimal artwork). There's not much distinction between studio and live anyway - the fidelity can benefit this sound, but this is a mid-fi world that messrs. Morley, Russell and Yeats pioneered and conquered. Harsh 70s Reality is rounded off with 'Baseheart' and 'Hope', the latter being another all-time great Dead C classic. This is the CD issue and it omits two tracks due to space limitations, which believe it or not, I've never heard (but don't fear, I'm downloading them now). Some years ago I saw the LP version of this for about $40 and I passed it up, but now that seems like a bargain.