October 13, 2004

Black Dice "Creature Comforts"/Wolf Eyes "Burned Mind"

I’m certain that to the average music fan, Luigi Russolo might as well be a minor character on The Sopranos, Stockhausen and Merzbow are probably German automobile companies, and John Cage is related to that guy from Gone in 60 Seconds. This isn’t a condescending judgment call. Over the last century, no experimental composer has stood a chance of registering high on the pop culture radar…unless, of course, the composer was fortunate enough to marry a Beatle. This makes it doubly surprising that Black Dice gets to release records on a label owned by a production duo who has worked with Britney Spears, while the even weirder Wolf Eyes signs with the label that spearheaded grunge and gets asked to play Lollapalooza. I’m not suggesting that teenage girls across America are about to start dancing to the Emergency Broadcast System like it’s the latest Southern “crunk” jam. However, you know that the times are changing when Black Dice and Wolf Eyes are popular enough to prove to people outside of the halls of academia that noise, when given a deliberate and definite order and structure, can be just as evocative and compelling as “real” music.

Both Black Dice and Wolf Eyes spent their embryonic stages pushing the boundaries of hardcore punk, eventually blossoming into avant-garde noisemakers. They’ve even collaborated with each other on the full-length album The Lord Helps You, which has become a highly sought collector’s item since its release. (You know they wouldn’t truly be “avant-garde” if all of their releases were widely available for public consumption.) However, the similarities might end there, as their latest albums find the bands positioning themselves as near polar opposites of each other. The cover of Black Dice’s Creature Comforts is a meticulously arranged, pastel-drenched array of squares, with various facial features and architectural designs embedded therein. Wolf Eyes’ Burned Mind is a messy brown-and-gray drawing of a scrawny bird pecking and clawing at two circular mounds that might be either rocks or skulls. The music on both albums follows suit: whereas Comforts sounds like nature and life refracted through a mechanical yet fractured lens, Burned sounds like decay and death viewed up close with your very own eyes.

“Treetops,” the second track of Creature Comforts, begins with a rhythm reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” on top of which various laser-gun squiggles duel with each other across the stereo spectrum. This duel is interrupted by a loop of cleanly played guitar, which is then adorned by what sounds like the chopped-up cooing of a baby. These coos slowly drop in pitch and become increasingly over-modulated; by the end of the track, they sound more like honking car horns than human voices. The second half of the appropriately named “Creature” sounds like a fight between animals recreated by machines. The ominous drumming is nearly overtaken by an array of high-pitched squeaks and squawks. It’s amazing how accurately the band imitates the calls of distressed animals with little more than expertly manipulated feedback. “Creature” comes closest to expanding upon the Boredoms-like tribal trance of Black Dice’s previous album Beaches and Canyons; the rest of Creature Comforts, though, is comparatively arrhythmic. At least half of the 15-minute “Skeleton” consists of two guitar chords blurring into each other until the proceedings take on an iridescence worthy of the best “shoegaze” bands. In a case of expert sequencing, the album lets its longer, more expansive songs be followed by brief palate cleansers that restate the other songs’ main ideas. The 90-second “Live Loop” is a foreshadowing of the more static moments on “Skeleton,” and the car-horn orchestra that closed “Treetops” makes a slight return on the two-minute “Schwip Schwap.”

Most of Creature Comforts could be described as playful, or even pretty. Wolf Eyes, on the other hand, are having none of that. The track listing of Burned Mind is pure truth-in-advertising: “Dead in a Boat,” “Stabbed in the Face,” and “Reaper’s Gong” sound exactly like their titles. “Dead” begins in near-silence, but as the track progresses you can hear the creaking of the boat, the flow of the water, and increasingly louder footsteps. At the 43-second mark, an unexpected squeal of feedback announces a sonic onslaught so overbearing and indistinct that I can’t tell whether it’s a collage of distorted voices or just pure white noise. The noise makes me feel as if I’ve stepped inside the head of a man who has just been snatched up by a bloodthirsty stranger and knows that he’s about to die, no matter how much he fights…and I’m only 90 seconds into a 42-minute album.

The rhythm of “Stabbed in the Face” is a hissing, insistent blip that sounds like, well…a subwoofer being stabbed in the face! Even if vocalist Nate Young wasn’t growling through a megaphone like an angry gremlin, the track would be a tough listen: the “bass line” sounds like a engine revving itself up, and the mix is crammed with screaming women and flatulent tape manipulations. Strangely, the most ominous moment of “Stabbed in the Face” comes when the noise stops for a few seconds halfway through, leaving nothing more than a single footstep keeping time. This is where the genius of Burned Mind lies: not in the terror of its harshest moments, but in the suspense of its quieter, more textured moments. When everything else drops out, and a sound is left to linger in isolation for a while, you know that something even more terrible is about to come next.

For instance, the brief interlude “Urine Burn” sounds like little more than the impatient gurgling of a radio that’s been stuck in between frequencies for too long. It doesn’t hit you upside the head with noise, but it sets things up perfectly for the next track: with its slowly undulating synthesizers and hissing-sprinkler loops, “Rattlesnake Shake” seems explicitly designed to make its listeners seasick and nauseous. On the title track, a swarm of bowel-loosening, detuned guitars suddenly drop out of the mix, leaving a single strand of feedback to pierce the listener’s ears for 43 seconds; the minimal coda ends up being even more irritating than the denser cacophony that preceded it. “Black Vomit,” the album’s “final” song, is one long eight-minute tension/release exercise. If the eight songs that came before it don’t scare the crap out of you, THIS one will, as its stops and starts are too unpredictable to handle even after multiple listens. (Skip past the three blank tracks and you’ll find an even scarier piece, if you can believe it.)

Neither Creature Comforts nor Burned Mind have anything remotely resembling a danceable beat, a catchy tune or an intelligible lyric, which will probably make these albums difficult listens for even the average indie-rock fan. (It has to be said, though, that at least Black Dice’s music has the advantage of not being the soundtrack to a nightmare.) Nonetheless, they’re done artfully and unpretentiously enough to appeal to people who don’t have a Ph.D in electronic composition. Black Dice and Wolf Eyes might be as close as John and Jane Doe get in this lifetime to discovering that you really CAN make “music” out of anything.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.blackdice.com
Label Website: http://www.dfarecords.com
Label Website: http://www.subpop.com

No comments: