ARAB ON RADAR TWO-FER

Arab on Radar: Queen Hygiene II (Heparin, 1997) and Yahweh or the Highway (Skin Graft, 2001)

Between 1994 and 1997, I spent many nights at the Bug Jar, the one reliably stable punk/indie club in Rochester. (At the time, there was a pretty strong underground scene and a number of punks holding shows in houses and dorm rooms, but not many “official” places to play/see shows — venues opened and closed erratically, and/or would decide to “change formats” with no notice.) At least half the time, the touring acts who played there were “no-name” bands; it was a testament to the local scene (and, sure, the fact that there wasn’t much else to do) that they’d almost always get at least a couple dozen folks, even on an off night. I seem to remember Arab on Radar playing there, for the first time, on a Wednesday or Thursday, with maybe 30 or 40 people in the audience… but holy shit, they TORE IT UP. Totally unhinged and confrontational noise, with a crazed singer who, between shouting out his lines alternate between staring down audience members, climbing around on stuff, and shoving various objects down his pants.

These records — their first and last (think they disbanded in 2002, after the infamous Oops! Tour w/Lightning Bolt and others)— bring back memories of that show and the 3 or 4 other times I saw ‘em. Musically, this is freaking great stuff — v. much in line with other “neo-no-wave” bands of the era, but better in lots of ways. Queen Hygiene II is the more straight-ahead of the two, blaring its PiL influences proudly — mostly-one-riff rockers featuring pummeling distort-bass + rudimentary but grooving drums topped off with shrieking, trebly twin-guitar lines that shake around each other in a pleasantly tinnitus-inducing fashion. Yahweh or the Highway (excellent title) is frequently quite abstracted — aside from the first and last songs (that last one, “Birth Control Blues,” is prolly my fave AOR jam), the songs mostly eschew definite tempos and predictable patterns w/r/t both micro and macro structure, and having lost their bassist some time before, they’re much heavier on the high-end.

Over it all, Eric Paul (aka Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, aka Mr. Potty Mouth) rants and moans about sex: transgressive sex, sexual dysfunction/inadequacy, everyday encounters reimagined as sexual encounters, household objects metaphorically transformed into genitalia, you name it. You can’t actually make much of that out, so each record helpfully includes a lyric sheet. It’s patently offensive, and I have to acknowledge that, at 45, I’m not 100% comfy with some of the themes here. That said, it’s so over the top that I wanna believe that he’s being mostly ironic — and anyhoo, it pairs logically with the musical style as an overall confrontational gesture.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

1. I sometimes wonder if there is a genetic predisposition toward weird stuff. As a music student and then a teacher, I engaged in conversations and efforts around helping my peers/students “appreciate” difficult music. But as a music fan, I didn’t have to go through that acclimation process. When I first heard No New York in 1986, my pleasure centers immediately lit up, and I’ve had the same experience with countless other “first times” (including AOR).

2. It says something about my background that I’m just now actually playing attention to the lyrics on these albums. The same could be said of a huge swatch of my collection, esp. the stuff I collected in the 1990s — i.e., I really couldn’t tell you much, AT ALL, about the words on ‘em. With a lot of the bands I cared most about in that time period, the lyrics just weren’t all that important. Often, they sounded like a complete afterthought, were mumbled/screamed inaudibly, and, while possibly serving to provide some overall impression, fell completely apart on closer examination — like, the band knew they were supposed to fulfill some expectation of having a “singer” up front, but really wished that didn’t have to bother with that crap. (Many of favorite math-rock and post-rock bands, in fact, didn’t bother with it at all, going full instro.) In a lot of cases, this seemed to be about being more concerned with instrumental texture and compositional complexity than vocals; in others, it seemed to have to do with wanting to reject a specific rock archetype; in yet others, it likely was about no one in the band wanting to be the “frontman” (gendered noun on purpose, natch). I expect someone’s written a dissertation on this.

3. I don’t have time to get into a whole thing here about lyrics and their function in music — esp. when said lyrics are, at face value, kinda reprehensible. But I expect that’ll come up again, so just leaving this here for later consideration (but please start a convo below if that piques yr interest).

AN ANTHOLOGY OF NOISE & ELECTRONIC MUSIC / FIRST A-CHRONOLOGY (VOLUME #1) (SUB ROSA, 2001)

The 8-or-so-year span around the turn of the millennium — let’s say 1995 to 2003 — was kind of an extraordinary, magical time to be a participant in the musical underground, especially (for me) in the crossover between the experimental wings of both “popular” and “classical” worlds. (Scare quotes because, well, you know.) I attribute a lot of this to Tortoise and other so-called “post-rock” bands, who were citing Cage, Reich, Xenakis, and other art-music types as influences on their approach to song-craft, as well as to an increasing number of young conservatory-trained musicians finding long-assumed value differentials b/t art and pop totally baseless. Whatever: it meant that, at a certain point, I wasn’t remotely surprised when, flipping through the new-release bin at Durham, NC’s Radio Free Records — a short-lived but much-loved shop serving the rekkid-gripping needs of local punx — I came across this gem.

Sub Rosa’s aesthetic encapsulates the pan-genre ideology of the time, and this release distills it nicely. It includes landmark early examples of musique concrète and “pure” electronic music (Pierre Schaeffer’s Cinq Etudes de Bruits, Edgard Varèse’s Poème Electronique, Iannis Xenakis’s Concret PH), alongside deeper cuts by folks both well-known (John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Henri Pousseur) and less so (Walter Ruttman, Gordon Mumma, Konrad Boehmer). But it also digs heavily into areas that would usually elude anthologies of “art music” electronica — and in the process, illustrates how that distinction is pretty meaningless. Sonic Youth’s Audience is usefully juxtaposed with Cage’s Rozart Mix, highlighting their overlapping approach to “non-musical” sound as compositional material; Einstürzende Neubauten’s Ragout: Küchen Rezept sits nicely against Boehmer’s Aspekt, both highly complex and detailed arrangements of noise and texture. A few things aren’t great representations of their creators’ best work, but even those are interesting for being otherwise unreleased. The biggest revelation is a recording from an event by Survival Research Laboratories, a Bay Area collective who create self-destructing spectacles of noise and violence with robots and explosives; the biggest letdown is the first cut, an at-the-time VERY rare document of Luigi Russolo’s notorious intoarumori (noise instruments) —unfortunately, represented in a pretty lame composition by the composer’s brother Antonio. On the whole, though, this is an awesome reminder of the range of sonic possibilities available since the onset of recording technology, as well as the extent to which artists across genre boundaries have influenced one another irrespective of those artificial divisions.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. Radio Free Records was SO awesome, and SO short-lived. In retrospect, it was so clearly doomed to fail, with e-commerce and Napster and all that. Still, I haver such excellent memories of both the store and the community it fostered…
  2. This is some serious old-man shit, I know, but boy, do I miss my record-store heyday. We are blessed with some really great ones here in the Asheville area, and I frequent them when I can — but with responsibility comes a loss of that special feeling of freedom to spend hours thumbing through vinyl, chatting with clerks, and not really thinking twice about spending too much money.
  3. It is interesting to consider how revolutionary (like, in a crazy-person way) the intermingling of genres seemed in those pre-YouTube days. I don’t, in any way, feel nostalgia for what came before (i.e., the feeling I had, while at Eastman, of harboring a dirty secret in my love for punk and indie rock). Still, I do wonder how the experience of coming of age in music today differs — like, do young musicians still hold some sense of some types of music being more value-laden than others? (My students give me varying stories on that front.) And in the end, does it make any difference whether they truly understand how intensely those “battle-lines” were drawn? Idle thoughts, maybe.

No full-length posting. Here’s the catalog page if you wanna look for individual pieces, and a couple teasers.