September 14, 2003

Semiautomatic "Wolfcentrci"

It’s very common for rock musicians who want to start a band but lack a rhythm section to do early demos of their songs using programmed drums as backup. Nirvana started this way with Kurt Cobain’s “Fecal Matter” demos. The initial lineup of Chavez consisted of two guitarists and a drum machine. The first couple of Jesus Lizard releases used drum programming as well. Usually, though, musicians just use the machines to tide them over until they can find a human drummer. In my opinion, a real drum kit recorded with good microphones gives the music a momentum that even the best drum machines fail to produce. Of course, Big Black utilized drum programming for its entire career, yet managed to rock just as hard as any band with an organic rhythm section. However, Big Black are the exception to the rule, and it must be noted that its founder Steve Albini is also the king of making real drums sound good. Most rock bands wouldn’t go the Big Black route, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, Brooklyn duo Semiautomatic stubborn relies on a drum machine named Orbit for its rhythms. They put a picture of Orbit on the cover of their latest album Wolfcentric, and even credit it as the album’s “executive producer.” It’s obvious that the band is using Orbit as their main gimmick.

Unfortunately, this gimmick is also one of their biggest hindrances. On many of the songs, the musical interplay between guitarists Ropstyle and Akiko is nimble enough to really get a listener’s blood racing if only there was a human drummer backing them up. Unfortunately, Orbit’s rhythms are simply dinky, and they’re often pushed to the back of the mix. It doesn’t help that the mix is extremely over-compressed; as soon as the vocals come in, most of the music seems to disappear. The preset drum programming and mid-fidelity production ensure that even at its best, Wolfcentric sounds like a collection of Bikini Kill demos. The singing alternates between breathy cooing and guttural growling in the same manner that characterizes almost every stereotypical “riot grrl” band of the last ten years. The vocals and instruments are frequently out of tune with each other, and occasionally out of time with the drum machine. How can a musician possibly lose track of a groove laid down by a drum machine? Listen to “30 Seconds for Orbit” and see for yourself.

Another hindrance is that Semiautomatic doesn’t really say much lyrically. “This Place Does Not Exist” tries to evoke an atmosphere of danger and violence through clumsy references to Baghdad and Palestine. The protagonist of “Marion Barry” longs to do drugs in order to escape the harsh reality of impending war. Although the title makes the song sound very anachronistic, Semiautomatic manages to make a much subtler political statement in the lyrics. The high points of the record come when ex-Slits member Ari Up guests on two tracks to do some dancehall-style toasting. To say that her ranting about the “evil system” on “Execution” is cliched would be an understatement, but the personality she injects into the song transcends the cheesy beats and synthesized saxophones that surround her. Ari’s chastisement of cowardly men in “Stushpuss” is funnier, but only half as intelligible. She’s no Bounty Killer (or even Sean Paul), but her contributions to the record keep Wolfcentric from getting monotonous too quickly. However, above-average guest appearances from punk rock legends aren’t enough for me to recommend purchasing this record. I’m just amazed that it took this long for 5 Rue Christine to release an album that I don’t like. Here’s hoping the second Hella album makes up for it.

---Sean Padilla

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