June 27, 2003

Sightings "Absolutes"

Last year, in my review of Deerhoof’s masterpiece Reveille, I asserted that 5 Rue Christine, the label that released it, had placed itself on the cutting edge of independent rock. Since then, though, most of its shining stars have either faltered creatively (Xiu Xiu) or moved on to other labels (Hella, Young People). It seems that another label might steal 5RC’s crown as indie-rock’s leading bastion of compelling art-noise. This year alone, Rhode Island record label Load has released a seemingly unstoppable stream of killer albums. There’s Lightning Bolt, a speed-fueled Ruins whose sophomore album Wonderful Rainbow finally bridged the gap of between their sterile studio recordings and their ferocious live shows. If that didn’t tickle your fancy, there was the ear-piercing synthesizer scree of Neon Hunk’s Smarmymob. Then, there’s Noxagt, a violin-driven sludge-rock trio whose ironically named Turning It Down Since 2001 sounds like a Satanic version of the Dirty Three. Last but not least, there’s the subject of this review: Absolutes, the third album by New York misanthropes Sightings, who take the no-fidelity/no-rehearsal aesthetic of the Dead C to brutal and frightening extremes. Even if it wasn’t mastered so painfully loudly, Absolutes just might be the most abrasive album Load has ever released.

Opener “White Keys” begins with a low rumble that recalls the honking of a tugboat. This honking gives way to screeching feedback, garbage can bashing, and maniacal marble-mouthed screaming. Vocals appear sporadically throughout Absolutes, but they go way beyond unintelligible and into the realm of autism. The sonic undercurrent of “Infinity of Stops” resembles the whir of a helicopter. On top of this whir are various gear-grinding sounds, which are further punctuated by heavy breathing and even more screeching feedback that sounds like a slowly derailing train. “Anna Mae Wong” is a deceptively random assortment of buzzes and percussive interjections. When these interjections have an actual rhythm, they sound like the galloping of a horse; when they don’t, they sound like boxes being thrown down stairs. All of the songs on Absolutes do away with the concept of melody, but “Stops” and “Wong” go even further than that, abandoning meter in favor of pure musique concrete. The echo-drenched “Canadian Money” sounds like a chain gang starting a drum circle at the bottom of a well. The next two songs, “Right Side of the Hall” and “E.E.,” sound like a hardcore punk band practicing in the middle of a tornado. Absolutes’ closer “Reduction” is little more than tick-tock drumming bracketed by indescribable harsh, high-pitched sounds. If Lou Reed didn’t already make an album called Metal Machine Music, Sightings could have used the title for themselves.

Almost everyone reading this review has probably already dismissed Absolutes as unlistenable noise by now, and they’d be right. What makes this album so incredible, though, is the fact that it was created by a guitar/bass/drums trio recording onto a four-track. The guitarist uses pedals and inserts objects into his strings to prepare his noises; the bassist de-tunes his instrument until the strings sound like rubber bands; the drummer augments his kit with various electronic triggers. However, altering their instruments just isn’t enough for Sightings. Through running the recording levels completely into the red, Sightings turns the inevitable hiss and distortion of their four-track into a fourth member of the band. The over-modulation adds overtones that wouldn’t have been possible had they recorded the album in a “professional” studio. Of course, this trick doesn’t always work for Sightings; their last album, Michigan Haters, was a comparatively undistinguished blur. However, when the trick is done well, as it is on Absolutes, the results can be staggering. Regardless of whether one would listen to something like Absolutes for enjoyment --- or even if they would consider it actual “music” of any sort --- the amount of thought and effort that went into making it is palpable upon close listening. The noises assembled here are artfully employed and undeniably evocative.

--Sean Padilla

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