No Wave

PREMIERE: The Channels - See No Reason

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Phillipe Roberts

Deeply apocalyptic and hauntingly personal, the no-wave clatter of The Channels will give you the creeps for days on end in the best of ways. Led by guitarist-vocalist Wes Kaplan—whose solo project, The Craters, also released a phenomenal record last year—the band creates roaring rhythmic conversations, locking into hellish, nerve-wracking grooves that call to mind noise pioneers Arab on Radar and DNA and grinding them to pieces with caustic precision. The sounds are metallic and abrasive, courtesy of prepared guitar techniques paired with a minimal use of effects that envelop them in a sleek alien sheen. Even for the initiated, alien is probably the best description of The Channels. On their upcoming album through Drop Medium, Double Negative, an extraterrestrial heart attack with eerie hooks in all the wrong places, their formidable howling is magnified to hypnotic new heights.

Our first taste of Double Negative comes wrapped up in the controlled chaos of “See No Reason,” one of the more straightforward numbers that can’t help but come off as lightly anthemic despite The Channels’ fascination with the grotesque. Kaplan’s distorted guitar sirens square off against the powerful rhythm section of drummer Nick Baker and bassist Ian Kovaks (formerly of Guerilla Toss), weaving a flurry of delayed notes in between their unexpectedly funky backbeat. “Everyone knows it’s a fucked up town,” he chants in the breakdown, yawning with detached slacker coolness, perking up into echoes of “I see no reason / To stick around,” as the track tears off into oblivion. Like sleepwalking through a nightmare, Double Negative dances on the edge of fear with supernatural grace.

Pre-order Double Negative here, out April 13.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Spodee Boy - Electro Spodee

Will Shenton

The charm of Spodee Boy's latest music video, "Electro Spodee," is its simplicity. Deviating a bit from his usual DIY, basement-rock sound, Nashville's Connor Cummins employs a drum machine (hence the name of the song, presumably) to craft a charmingly weird tune that almost wouldn't make sense delivered by anyone other than the puppet featured in the video.

Fresh from a split EP with Datenight on Drop Medium, the video, created by Santiago Cárdenas, is a trip. The vocals are high-pitched and cartoonish, the instrumentals propulsive and hypnotic, as the aforementioned puppet sings against a psychedelic backdrop. Apparent non-sequiturs float by in the background—a shoe, a juice box, various other sock puppets—and we periodically see Spodee Boy himself in profile, eating a floating guitar or staring coolly into the distance.

True to form, "Electro Spodee" is bizarre, catchy, and bit-sized at just over two minutes. In short, a track that's guaranteed to make you hit the replay button.

REVIEW: Birthing Hips - Urge to Merge

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Phillipe Roberts

Leave it to Birthing Hips—a band that’s spent its brief but brilliant lifespan aggressively hacking away at their instruments in search of the latest channel for their absurdist wit—to announce their new record and their demise on the same day. Heartbreaking as it is, it’s somehow fitting that their two-year run would end on such a bittersweet juxtaposition. Their songs are thrilling, violent collisions between contradictory forces, the musical equivalent of a crash test (minus the airbags and seatbelts, of course). Even on stage, you could sense the giddiness radiating off of them as they sent the heads of their devoted audiences flying. For those lucky enough to have witnessed Birthing Hips’ rare, comet-like journey through the universe, as well as those who might have missed the memo, their NNA Tapes debut, Urge to Merge, is as close to a perfect parting gift as they come. Theatrical, uncompromising, frighteningly technical, and majestic, it documents the fierce, innovative spirit of the Boston quartet at the very height of their prowess.

By the time their first, self-released tape came into being, Birthing Hips had long-since planted themselves in bold territory. The aptly titled No Sorry was an unapologetic noise-pop rampage, alternating between winking bubblegum hooks and blocky, dissonant breakdowns. But the newer tracks in their live repertoire had a tempered directness, compacting their ferocious capacity for rocking out into tightly coordinated passages while showcasing an expanded theatricality, courtesy of vocalist Carrie Furniss. Urge to Merge features renditions of these tracks that shimmer with a meticulous, well-deserved clarity that highlights both their technical skills and their easy accessibility.

“I Want This Place Impeccable” magnifies the daily drama between a messy roommate (deadpanned to excellent comedic effect by guitarist/vocalist Wendy Eisenberg) and her clean-freak counterpart (played by Furniss with just the right amount of screechy mortification) into a multi-part epic. Funnier and funkier than ever, it’s sure to bust your gut as much from the campy exchanges (“Why don’t I just roll you across the floor and drag your schlubby ass across the dust?”) as from the bone-shattering fills between them from drummer Owen Liza, who strikes a crisp compromise between Brian Chippendale’s frantic sticking and John Bonham’s classic rock stomp.

Make no mistake, the Hips are still firmly locked into noise-rock mode here; these songs tend towards the frayed and frenetic, like on “Shut Up and Leave Me Alone,” where Furniss reclaims her righteous anger “even though I am Midwestern” alongside a jazzy, aquatic groove. “Internet,” meanwhile, features Furniss freaking out in stuttered vocalizations of “You’re ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining, ruining my life!” over titanic riffs that sound like a partially melted Led Zeppelin record. Even when they do drift into calmer waters, the other, heavier shoe is never far from dropping. Closing track “A Wish” is probably the quietest Birthing Hips piece yet, but for all of its '50s pop trappings, they can’t resist a skyward climb into a shrieking post-rock meltdown.

At their very best, Birthing Hips danced with glee on the knife edge between madness and inspired tunefulness, and Urge to Merge delivers both in spades. But even with the coda to their hysterical surrealism in our hands, making peace with and sense of the fractured “defective pop” brilliance that they created is a long time coming.

No Wave or Not, ESG's Legacy is Alive and Well

Cara S. Greene

As a genre, “no wave” is best characterized by what it isn’t, neither affirmative of music’s status quo—mainstream punk, disco and new wave—nor fixed in its method of defiance. Though no wave is a negative categorization, its constituents have some similarities: their music is stripped down, repetitive, clever, and skeptical—in a word, cool. Some no wave is rough and distorted. No New York, the Brian Eno-produced compilation featuring bands James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A. is arguably the genre’s defining album. Other no wave music is more ambient, or centers around jazz-inspired improvisation, like the music of Rhys Chatham or La Monte Young. A possible third camp emphasizes danceability and rhythm, à la Konk, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux. These stylistic motifs rarely occur at the same time—no wave’s cynicism comes through its simplicity.

No wave is also associated with a particular moment in New York’s artistic history, in which a jaded, post-Vietnam underground fostered a cadre of writers, performers, and artists like Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, The Wooster Group, Keith Haring, and Mabou Mines Theater Company, among others. There has been a resurgence of interest in the genre, with young musicians releasing rhythm-driven noise music to audiences of their peers. For a genre that emerged from the secret basement discos, lawless performance art venues, and greasy dives of the '70s and '80s however, no wave’s contemporary offspring are more culturally and aesthetically homogenous than its variegated musical ancestors. Accordingly, my impression of the genre’s aesthetic scope was fairly limited. Then I heard Emerald, Sapphire and Gold, better known as ESG—a post-disco band led by black women.

At first, the band consisted of the four teenage Scroggins sisters and friend Tito Libran, with Reneé on guitar and vocals, Valerie on drums, Deborah on bass, and Marie and Tito on other percussion. The Scroggins family grew up in the projects of the South Bronx, where they taught themselves how to play their instruments and wrote music inspired by the polyrhythmic and percussion-heavy hip-hop and Latin music coming out of their neighborhood. Ed Bahlman, co-creator of short-lived downtown NYC label 99 Records (Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca), discovered the band at a local talent show he was judging. Immediately recognizing their originality and potential, Bahlman became the band’s manager.

After a Wednesday gig at Hurrah nightclub in 1980, Tony Wilson of the UK’s Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order) approached ESG and asked if they wanted to make a record. The first two songs on the EP, “Moody" and “You’re No Good,” were finished in one take. With the three remaining minutes on the master tape, Renée suggested they fill the time with their tune “UFO,” a bizarre number that would eventually become one of the most prevalent samples in hip-hop. These songs, along with a three-track live recording from a Hurrah gig, made up the 7" EP ESG (1981), released through 99 Records, followed by a 7” of “You’re No Good,” the EP ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody (1982), and their first LP, Come Away with ESG (1983), released by Factory in the UK.

The 1981 EP’s opening track, “Moody,” consists simply of percussion, bass and vocals, and lasts a brusque two-and-a-half minutes. A danceable, 130bpm breakbeat is consistent throughout the song—a 16th note hi-hat groove with accented hits, some sparse kick drum, and a snare with slap-back delay. The bass pattern is constant, too. A syncopated single note, vacillating from the root to the third, breaking only for the pre-chorus congas and the occasional octave slide. Candid and nonchalant, Renée sings, "I was feelin’ very mellow / Walkin’ down the street / See, I’m goin’ to see my baby / And it makes me feel moody / Like this / We can go to see my baby / He can make you feel moody / He can make you feel high, feel low / Feeling, feel like / Like this.” In spite of its heavy repetition and compositional modesty, the song is big, and the bassline thumps deep below the energetic snare and hi-hat. These two conduits drive the song forward, but the vocals lift the entire composition slightly off the ground; "Moody" is as agile as it is focused.

When I attempt to categorize ESG’s sound, I tend to fall back on no wave because it situates their music in the experimental milieu with which they were most closely associated. At the same time, Renée herself puts it best: in an interview with Melissa Steiner from The Quietus, she said, “Another term that I don't particularly care for is “no wave,” what does that mean? You know? I really don't define ESG, but if I really had to put a label on it, we consider it to be music that makes you dance. Not dance music, but music that makes you dance.” While ESG helped the genre take shape, their music stands out from the pack.

ESG’s music is like a high-five between punk and funk that shatters both genres. “Moody” is too listenable to be avant-garde, and too edgy to be commercial. While the familiarity of the song’s components makes it accessible, it’s simplicity is conscientious enough to keep it clever. “Moody” is a lively conversation between contradictions: the coy, cheeky lyrics, the span between treble and bass, the hum of the guitar cut by the textural congas... the song contains its own foil. In a lecture at New York's School of Visual Arts, pioneering sound artist Alan Licht explained that the difference between sound art and popular music is that sound art has no boundaries or conventions. It has broken through the confines of music’s form. While “Moody” is far from ambient or concrete, the song’s layering of juxtaposing musical conventions from punk and funk creates something new.

To encounter this determinate-indeterminate synthesis in ESG’s sound is like spotting a newly illuminated blip on a scatterplot map of the world at night: the quality of the music speaks to its significance in the vast lattice of music history. The band’s legacy has been written about at length over the years, due in no small part to the fact that the music they made—and are still making—is, as Pitchfork reviewer Joe Tangari declared, “near perfect.” In spite of ESG’s esteem amongst a small crowd of music aficionados, beatniks and post-punks, though, the band remains unfamiliar to mainstream audiences in the USA.

And yet, many listeners have indeed heard ESG, without recognizing them by name. According to whosampled.com, their track “UFO”—distinguished by its bizarre looped backtrack (rusty cymbal? alien sex?)—has been sampled by 427 artists over the years, including Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, Nas, The Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails, DJ Shadow, Liars, and literally hundreds more., many of whom have yet to pay royalties to ESG for the use of their song. Even though there isn’t necessarily a causal relation between financial compensation and a musical group’s exposure or impact, decision makers in the popular music industry have manufactured and sold a consistently formulaic assemblage of rock bands that ESG—a black female rock-funk band—had a hard time fitting into. In this case, the direct appropriation of artistic material without due diligence capitalized on the novelty of a body of work that hadn’t gotten the credit it deserved in the first place… effectively leaving out a crucial chapter of the story of what no wave is and who made it.

 

Get tickets to see ESG live at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn on 9/18