Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Dead C Compilation Revered By Tiny Mix Tapes

Tiny Mix Tapes delves deep into the Dead C's career-spanning Vain, Erudite and Stupid compilation. And for those of you who can't get enough of uncompromising improv rock, Future Artists, the band's first new album since 2003 will be released on Ba Da Bing at the end of May.
Full online review

The Dead C.
Vain, Erudite and Stupid: Selected Works 1987-2005
[Ba-Da-Bing; 2006]

Styles: post-punk, free-jazz, noisy guitar improv, industrial
Others: Throbbing Gristle, This Heat, The Fall, early Sonic Youth
If I had but one word to describe The Dead C., it would be
"underappreciated." I thought the band's mix of noisy abstractions,
post-punk, and pure sound art on a 4-track would make them a college
favorite overseas, akin to Sonic Youth in the mid-'80s. Such is not
the case. When I interviewed Bruce Russell in February, he said the
New Zealand band's fan base is extremely small in their homeland. The
band scored an opening slot for Sonic Youth in 1992, and many popular
local acts were dismayed. In the liner notes to Vain, Erudite and
Stupid, Nick Cain, a fellow New Zealander, expresses his initial
discouragement with the band's perceived ineptitude. He chalks it up
to the average New Zealander's unfamiliarity with the history behind
the band's sound aesthetic. He writes, "It shouldn't be forgotten that
New Zealand is a very young country, and one with about zero history
of freeform — or 'experimental' or avant-garde — music whatsoever."

Though the band's fan base lies mainly in Great Britain and the United
States, coverage of the band by the media in these countries has been
slim. Until Mike Crumsho's phenomenal Dusted Magazine article on the
band, virtually nothing of substance has been written about the band
in our little digital music community. The Wire is the only print
magazine with the stones to cover the band avidly, and they hardly
touched upon what the classic sub-underground label Siltbreeze meant
to the band's career. So, when Bruce Russell told me in an interview
last year that Ba-Da-Bing was issuing a two-disc anthology to
celebrate the band's 20th anniversary, I thought The Dead C. were
finally getting their due. After all, this is the perfect year to
release such an endeavor. Experimental music is rapidly gaining an
acceptance among the indie rock set, and there seems to be a rapid
production of new, strange, great, challenging underground music.

Much to my dismay, when I received Vain, Erudite and Stupid, the
career-spanning Dead C. compilation, it came adorned with a huge
sticker that touted the group as a "new favorite band" for those who
like "Lightning Bolt, Sunn 0))), Wolf Eyes and Growing." Not only do
these bands sound nothing like The Dead C., but the oldest band in the
group has existed for only half as long. The Dead C.'s sound is
steeped more in the smart, philosophically-driven sounds of post-punk
and free jazz than modern, rock-based experimentalism. The band's most
engaging output relies on gritty, live-in-the-studio (or on 4 track)
recording techniques. They sometimes layer their recordings by
employing a trick they learned from The Fall, improvising the song
atop the original recording without listening to the recording. The
modern "out" music enthusiast may be thrown by the close listening
required to absorb the band's textural brilliance.

But, if I judge the album by its cover sticker, I become a part of the
very same problem that limited The Dead C.'s audience for so many
years. If the sticker succeeds in selling more records, the band will,
ultimately, gain more listeners. When placed in the player, Vain,
Erudite and Stupid's genius speaks for itself. The hazed, almost folky
sonic attack of "Max Harris" begins the double disc splendor with a
whirlwind of ambience and freeform fury à la Bad Mood Rising. From
there, the anthology guides the listener through The Dead C.'s
stunning career.

Disc one follows the band from 1988's DR503 LP to 1994's odds and ends
collection World Peace, Hope, et al. This disc showcases the band's
evolution from lo-fi revisionists of '70s post-punk to free-jazzers
guised as a post-punk outfit. Most of the songs have lyrics and follow
some sort of structure, albeit not verse-chorus-verse. Almost all the
songs close out with open-ended jams seeping from the basic structure
of the tune and sifting through vast deserts of avant-garde stylings,
from ambience to drone to harsh noise. The band more closely surveys
these textures on disc two, which chronicles the period from 1994's
The Operation of the Sonne to 2003's The Damned. In this period, the
band traveled further away from conventional song structure, until the
majority of their tunes could be classified as compositions.

There will surely be some dispute over the anthology's track choices,
as the band had to summarize their 20 years of work with two 70-minute
discs. The tracks selected from the band's landmark double album Harsh
70s Reality, "Constellation" and "T is Never Over Pt. I & II," were
lumped off the CD version due to time constraints, and are not
necessarily the best representatives of the album's sheer glory. The
tracklist also features no real rarities or hard-to-find tunes. The
past six years of the band's career, which yielded a double album, two
LPs, and a split 12" with Konono No. 1, are represented by six songs.
Thus, those listeners getting their first dose of the mighty Dead C.
from Vain, Erudite and Stupid learn little about what terrain the band
is shredding these days. The three post-millennial albums by The Dead
C. are, by strides, brilliant and intriguing, but I'd side with
Siltbreeze Records head honcho Tom Lax's liners and label the band's
years on the Siltbreeze imprint as their best.

Of course, their Flying Nun and Xpressway output is equally
impressive. The majority of this material finds the band exploring
ways to showcase their sonic diversity within the constraints of
actual song structure. During this period, the band's indebtedness to
post-punk heathens like Throbbing Gristle and This Heat is apparent,
but the band's voice, albeit embryonic, dampens any critical "clone"

"3 Years" is exemplary of this period, with its forceful, disjointed
dueling guitars. Mike Morely investigates the exuberance found in
applying Mark E. Smith's "repetition, repetition, repetition"
aesthetic to his rhythm guitar line, alternately slowing down the
tempo and revving it up and stressing certain chords in the
progression. Bruce Russell adds interstellar atmosphere with
excursions into drone, feedback, and Godz-style skronk, while Morley's
singing, which is close to an outback version of Lou Reed's sing-talk,
is gentle and rhythmic, providing the melody where the guitar lines
leave gaps. Robbie Yeats' militaristic drumming builds the dark mood,
melting it all down into an exciting bad acid feedback fuzz fight that
hints at what was to come in the band's career.

"Helen Said This," the band's first Siltbreeze release, is a
masterwork. It marks the moment when the band used their influences as
a launching pad, rather than an anchor. Included on the anthology in
its entire 11-minute splendor, the song is a jagged shard of lo-fi
post-punk. The song begins with a sort of art-punk guitar take on the
Wild West gunner showdown anthems of Ennio Morricone before whittling
down to give way to the lackadaisical, almost tandem dual vocal
delivery. Throughout the song, the disjointed vocal lines and stern
rhythm guitar allow the band to explore far out regions in each bridge
while remaining grounded in the basic song structure. With each
repeated verse, the band gains mountainous intensity until they
combust with fuzz guitar mayhem. As the explosion simmers down, the
guitar lines slow down and the band delves into industrial textures,
until the song wades in an ambient cooling pool. A beautiful
call-and-response results with slowly blossoming chords and chiming,
machine gun strums being accentuated by guitars played like percussion

Many of The Dead C.'s songs follow a similar formula. "Power" uses the
whistles, moans, and hums of feedback derived from a fervently
strummed guitar in place of the customary rock guitar solo.
"Constellation" virtually recycles the "Mighty" riff but lets each
chord bleed in droning distortion. By this time, coming up with a new
riff seems less important to the band than examining the possibilities
of the riff itself and seeing how much they can skew a song structure.
After five minutes of Morely's singing and the purring riff, a
different recording is spliced into the song. Psychotic yelling
replaces Morely's usual delivery. The distortion that once provided a
tourniquet, allowing the guitar fuzz to linger, gives way, and the
resonating notes end with sharp feedback shanks.

"T is Never Over Pt. I and II" is a four-minute supernova of
inter-spliced ideas. Beginning with a 30-second foray into isolating
minimal industrial soundscapes, the song is an exploration of the
formlessness of ideas coming to fruition. While a guitarist tries to
conceive a riff in the background, sharp dissonant guitar infusions
and what sounds like a Ham radio transmission overlaps the jam. Pot
and pan percussion and wavering, formless guitar sound chunks blot out
the background session, and the song becomes a metaphor for The Dead
C.'s future recordings. The idea trumps the song, and in the end, the
shapeless sound is more interesting and absorbing than it would be if
it were fully realized.

Eventually, The Dead C. threw any sort of song structure out of the
window of a moving car and recorded the results. "The Marriage of
Reason and Squalor," from 1994's high-water mark three-piece drone
suite The Operation of the Sonne, is a 14-minute void wherein sci-fi
B-movie synth effects, amplifiers humming white noise, and jagged
guitar lines heighten a spoken philosophical treatise. Words have now
been pushed to the background in favor of droning electronic
interactions. When the words fade out, one is able to stare into a
meditative infinitude with the resulting sound clash.

Save for the thrash 'n' clang noise rock of The White House's
"Bitcher," much of disc two operates on a similar plane, sacrificing
lyrics and melody for sound design. "Repent IV," off 1997's
sound-collage Repent, sounds like a spaceship flying over a no-wave
band practice. "Head," from 1997's rock-based Tusk, jitters with an
overlay of scary post-psychedelic guitar noise, while Yeats keeps a
steady drum beat and Morley conjures a dark, angular boogie.

The centerpiece on disc two is "Tuba is Funny (Slight Return)" from
2000's double disc The Dead C.. Many other selections from the double
disc are steeped in industrical, electronic soundmaking rather than
The Dead C.'s usual guitar excursions. On "Tuba..." the band chooses
to create a groove akin to something off Miles Davis' On the Corner.
The chords of the repetitious bass/brass line are forceful and sly,
but they give the band enough leeway to delve into a pit-of-hell
guitar assault underneath the groove. As a bonus, Robbie Yeats' tribal
percussion lends an even more occult feel to the song. When the tape
finally shorts out and the song is sucked into infinity, the magic of
The Dead C. is apparent. Here is a band that can do virtually anything
and draw little or no attention to themselves. They create layers of
sound but record it on primitive equipment using primitive techniques,
effectively hiding their glory from inattentive listeners. Vain,
Erudite and Stupid suggests that perhaps the band is not overlooked
and underappreciated, just hidden in plain sight.

by S. Kobak

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