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).