A Look at the Noise Producers Using Classic Rock Tropes to Create a New, Uncanny Americana
Free Radicals: Recent releases from Black Dice, Wolf Eyes, and a host of others look to 70s rock structures to shape their unsettling ooze.
Wolf Eyes, noise vets and one of America's great rock bands. Photo by Alivia Zivich.
Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
They took a long and loopy route to get there, but Black Dice finally made their move toward the club earlier this year. Awash in a current climate that finds nearly every noise producer with a table full of analog oscillators and busted electronics twisting their tortured static into club constructions—a genre that critics have been calling "technoise"—it seemed almost inevitable that the long-running experimental outfit would start doing the same, if given a little more time.
This summer, Black Dice ostensibly fulfilled their long-running interest in more standard dance music with a 12" single on L.I.E.S. composed of tracks called "Big Deal" and "Last Laugh." But the EP's 11-minutes or so of music aren't what you'd expect from either a noise band or a label venerated for its loony dancefloor excursions. Instead, two lengthy guitar-driven instrumentals deliver fried sonics that sound more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than anything you'd hear banging out in a darkened club. The EP was a delicious piece of misdirection from the dominant narrative established by other noise bands diving into techno—instead of blistered 4/4 beats, it was a sloppy, sleepy, and otherworldly collage of mussed-up, off-kilter rock riffs. It's the sort of unpredictability that Black Dice diehards have come to expect, but it also highlights a strange underbelly that's become uncovered as the rest of the noise scene ventures into clubland.
Seemingly sick of the dancefloor dalliances, some of North America's noise greats have, in recent years, begun shaping their static into more traditional band arrangements, taking influence from the industrial runoff of several decades of classic rock radio. Bands like Black Dice, Wolf Eyes, and Alex Moskos (formerly of the strangely named AIDS Wolf, but now recording as Drainolith) are reapplying their experimental tendencies toward traditional instruments and song structures. Wrangling freaked-out riffs from electric guitars and sputtering saxophones, these acid-fried nods to the long history of populist rock music creates a version of noise-rock (or maybe in this case, rock-noise) that better reflects the unsettling political state of the United States—a new, uncanny Americana.
A number of less visible acts have also adopted some of the same sounds and tropes. Moskos suggested in his latest album Hysteria that a rock revision was part of the aim; its press materials stated that the goal was to "extract the skeleton out of 'rock,' inserting it into a newer, much weirder, humanoid skin." Container's Ren Schofield dedicated some time earlier this year to his band Form A Log, which rearranges the syntax of rock music into unintelligible garbles of chintzy guitars, piercing static, and reassembled drum parts. Their side of a split with Moth Cock released back in March played something like sending a Guitar Bible tablature book through a shredder and trying to piece the results back together.
These bands, unsettling as they are, feel like a necessary corrective to the state of rock music. There are, of course, bands today who capably evoke the music that populates the typical classic rock radio playlist. A few, like Philadelphia's Sheer Mag, even manage to subvert the heterosexism that's inherent to the form and create songs that speak to today's social ills. But it's hard to not hear something so straightforward as a twin-guitar harmony and process it as mere nostalgia, a rose-colored vision of better days—six-string escapism, only dressed up as rebellion. On the other hand acts like Black Dice, Moskos, and Wolf Eyes reduce the high-flying riffery to sickly guitar puddles, a suggestion that nothing's as good as you remember it—and that now's even worse.
Black Dice formed in Providence, Rhode Island in 1997 as a quartet influenced by hardcore. Shows were short and intense and legendarily ended in injuries for both crowd and band alike. So in a loose sense, the DNA of rock music has been intertwined with their own from the very beginning. But they'd soon go in another direction, taking shelter from those early sets in abstracted noise and sighing cosmic ambience on their first proper album, 2002's Beaches and Canyons.
As they crystallized into the current lineup of Aaron Warren and brothers Bjorn and Eric Copeland after their 2004 album Creature Comforts, they quickly established themselves at the vanguard of the American noise scene, notching warbly and weird electronic albums for the primarily dance-minded label DFA and opening tours for the psych-crossover weirdos in Animal Collective across the mid and late 00s. They aligned themselves, intentionally or not, with the electronic scene, blasting out noisy beats that culminated in their 2012 album Mr. Impossible. Its jittery half-steps made it a minor effort in the eyes some critics, but it was the apex of the more rhythmically focused strand of their work, the teeth-chattering, eyes-bugged noise bleats that felt something like the sonic manifestation of Aphex Twin's unsettling grin. Eric Copeland, meanwhile, was rattling off a veritable torrent of solo releases under his own name, edging endearingly and awkwardly toward the dancefloor with winning compositions for DFA, L.I.E.S., and Animal Collective's Paw Tracks. An interview Copeland gave to a Chicago blog around the time of Creature Comforts underscored their unspoken ethos: "It doesn't have to sound like music to be music."
But now, Black Dice are sounding something like classic rock, or at least a funhouse mirror reflection of it. Like much of what populated Mr. Impossible, "Big Deal" relies on several intersecting guitar lines and Eric Copeland's pitch-warped gabbing and stuttering. But here there's a wooziness (and bluesiness) that recalls the long dazed nights of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Thin Lizzy more than their experimental contemporaries (that some of the abstract noise has the familiar twanging timbre of a slide guitar only aids in this). Even Copeland's solo material, once the home for his more club-oriented efforts of his more, is skewing toward more traditional instrumentation and rock-shaped compositions. In addition to "Big Deal," July also saw the release of his latest DFA album Black Bubblegum, a sticky collection of guitars, bass, and drums organized into a haphazard, harrowing collection of melted down rock tropes. Whether or not the classic rock reference points are by design, it feels structured in the same way—a series of guitar riffs scorching a sneering vocal, all of it designed to provoke lighters-in-the-air abandon.
The silhouette of "Big Deal" is more legible than anything Black Dice has released to date. It's like looking far off in the distance and instead of seeing an amorphous blob on the horizon, there's a six-string slinging dude, maybe wearing a cowboy hat and slugging back the last two sips of a bottle of cheap beer that he'll repurpose as a slide in just a few moments. Look closer though, and things are a little off, the riffs are still just asynchronous enough to be unsettling, and Copeland's vocals—though somewhat clearer—are still relatively indistinct, chattered and gabbed endlessly in an ungrounded stream of formants and phonemes.
Their approach scans as critique. You get closer and realize that something about the guy in the distance is not quite right—that he's machine-like, or his teeth are rotting, or he's otherwise ill-at-ease—a deliberately uncanny reflection of the Great American Rock Song that's fitting for an era that feels a whole lot more confusing (what with the robot death strikes, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theorism, and widespread acceptance of political demagoguery) than even the post-Vietnam era that initially birthed these sounds.
Though I did once see a few kids crowd surf at a Black Dice gig, there were no such theatrics at May's inaugural Trip Metal Fest in Detroit (apart from a fight that involved at least one Juggalo). But the festival, organized by Wolf Eyes' Nate Young, underscored the slow ooze of this absurdist Americana across the country. The bill was meant to highlight the diversity and interconnectivity of all of modern experimental communities various forms—legendary synth composer Morton Subotnick played one night, Hieroglyphic Being collaborated with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra on another. But in addition to a whole host of noise performers wrangling pedals and electronics, a surprising amount of performers also picked up traditional instruments, slinging the sort of hazy but very recognizably rock riffs that Black Dice would soon release on L.I.E.S..
When John Olson—saxophonist and electronics torturer for Wolf Eyes—coined the genre Trip Metal in a 2014 interview, it seemed a flippant joke (especially since he's now favoring the term Psychojazz on Twitter). But the fact that he felt the need to distinguish the current version of Wolf Eyes from the broader noise scene is indicative of their own push into rock structures. 2015's I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces, with needly guitar lines provided by Jim Baljo and distorted electronics care of Olson and Young, is the only recorded document of the era, but live sets, both at Trip Metal Fest and elsewhere, have gone to affirm Wolf Eyes as one of the United States' great rock bands.
Their droney, seeping instrumentals have started to coalesce and take shape, revealing a taste for rock 'n' roll (or at least the blues) somewhere beneath the slime. As Young chatters away on songs like "Cynthia Vortex aka Trip Memory Illness," Baljo is given room to solo listlessly like a lost bluesman. Though often droney and atonal, Olson's sax blasts can trigger future-past memories of an interdimensional Clarence Clemons solos. Young is occasionally given to feverish vocals that sound like they're interrogating God and the American South. Like the Trip Metal memes that proliferated for a while on a very specific corner of Twitter, Wolf Eyes music is a surreal and hallucinatory take on familiar forms—something designed to make you laugh and gag at the same time.
In slyly shirking the dancefloor, Black Dice and their contemporaries have managed to create a scummy reflection of the state of things. They invoke America's great artistic contribution—rock 'n' roll—but present it twisted, broken, deliberately fucked up beyond recognition. It's a suggestion that if we really take a deep look in the mirror, we probably won't like what we see.
Colin Joyce is THUMP's Managing Editor. He's very scared and he's also on Twitter.