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A Hole Is True
The No-Neck Blues Band
5 Rue Christine
To some folks, rock was always noise. To Lester Bangs, rock was “horrible noise” since at least the latter half of the ’60s, when arty bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges began embracing dissonance and chaos. To Japan’s Merzbow, rock was never really noise—at least not until he came along. Arguably the most famous of all noise musicians, the man also known as Masami Akita defined his aesthetic best in a 1997 interview with The Wire: “I felt there were no records which solely consisted of the guitar-destroying part of the Who or Jimi Hendrix, the ending noise coda of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’…the violent knife performance of Keith Emerson.”
Of late, American bands that subscribe to Merzbow’s catharsis-only model—hyped upstarts such as Wolf Eyes, Magik Markers, and Mouthus—have coalesced around New York’s annual No Fun Fest, a three-day event that was given its self-critical moniker by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Ominous buzz ’n’ thrum outfit Double Leopards is both a No Fun staple and the beneficiary of Moore’s enthusiastic mentoring, which has resulted in the group’s taking trips to Sonic Youth– and Moore-curated rock and jazz festivals in Canada and the United Kingdom.
As a tastemaker, Moore has always had a keen sense of where fringe elements from different genres might overlap. So it isn’t surprising that Double Leopards, a punk- and metal-sympathetic group that doesn’t sound a million miles away from free jazz, could operate in multiple contexts. What is surprising, however, is just how un-noisy this noise act can be. Murky new full-length A Hole Is True, the Brooklyn band’s first release with any kind of significant distribution, begins not with guitar-on-fire feedback or some similar variety of skronk, but with a watery dose of drone reminiscent of nothing so much as my dishwasher in rinse mode.
According to a friend who’s witnessed Double Leopards in action, the somewhat mysterious quartet focuses much of its physical energy on the knobs of its effects pedals. One show review posted on the Internet mentions the presence of a rare circa-1972 synthesizer. Several others report band members simply hunched over onstage, moaning and groaning into mikes. “Chemical Wedding,” the second of Hole’s three tracks, might verify the vocal schtick: The eight-minute cut kicks off with a male Leopard mumbling inaudibly under a veil of static. Elsewhere, though, “Wedding” brings to mind the sound of several guitars propped against amps, simmering warmly without ever boiling over.
Signal sources aside, only album-closer “White Cadillacs” comes anywhere close to stridency. The first half of the side-long cut (even the CD of Hole is divided into, according to the track listing, an A and a B) is more or less a piling-on of ghostly voices, marching feet, and the clanking of metal on metal. Yet even that stretch of unpleasantness is something that could be dialed down into just another part of the urban ambience. Besides, if “White Cadillacs” commences in hell, it ends in heaven: About halfway through, the track’s jackbooted percussion gives way to low-tide waves and well-fed birds chirping contentedly by the shore.
So what is Hole? A noise album that’s seldom noisy? A rock album that never really rocks? Or a New Age album that’s a little too edgy to put one at ease? Double Leopards’ latest is all of these and less: recorded sound that’s interesting only until you realize that the band never makes a commitment to full-on catharsis, much less anything else. As a noise-qua-noise record, Hole is listenable enough. It’s even easy on the ears, as it were—which may or may not be the sole innovation that this latest generation of noisemakers has to offer. Of course, if that’s the case, then what in the name of Merzbow is the point?
The No-Neck Blues Band, a Double Leopards fave, is another abstraction-pushing, Gotham-based act that’s just released its first widely available, nonlimited full-length—never mind that the group has been around since the early ’90s. The ever-evolving collective, which also goes by the abbreviation NNCK, is known, if at all, for an impossible-to-track discography, shambolic performances at its Harlem commune, and the occasional open-air guerilla concert. One of the last reportedly resulted in an exodus of patrons from a nearby cafe, as well as in a scuffle between NNCK member and a noise-offended restaurateur.
The new Qvaris is more accessible than previous NNCK albums—it says “rock” right there on the stylized-script cover—but it still contains plenty that would unsettle most latte sippers. Like their progressive-minded forebears in the free-jazz, avant-classical, and art-rock scenes, NNCK members frequently doodle on synths (“Qvaris Theme”), squawk on fiddle and horn (“The Black Pope”), and bray into mikes as if they were zombies in heat (“Dark Equus”). Naturally, none of the freaky results are burdened by even the slightest hint of rhythm.
More noteworthy is Qvaris’ “rock” stuff, which boasts steady, if slightly stoned-sounding, drumming and song structures that are—shock and awe—almost traditional. The former is evident from the get-go: Haunting album-opener “The Doon” is propelled by a boom-boom-bap pulse that smacks of prototypical metal, and No. 2 track “Live Your Myth in Grease” lets loose a decidedly non-drum-circle sort of tribalism. The songwriting, by contrast, verges on the subliminal: Chord progressions and motifs—yes, they’re there, improv’d or not—are seldom explicit on first listen. It’s not until mid-disc that NNCK unleashes a true hook writ large, the rambling, Link Wray–informed guitar riff that gives “Boreal Gluts”—and the whole of Qvaris—its center of gravity.
Few Americans this side of a Kennedy Center subscription are oblivious to rock ’n’ roll, and these are hardly naive musicians. Nevertheless, there’s an ex nihilo vibe here—an un-self-consciousness that implies that the band members are just as surprised as we are at what they can do. Perhaps the best example of this, “Qvaris Theme (WOHIHB),” evolves from tentative guitar-and-kitchen-sink clatter into something that suggests jam-band music without actually being jam-band music. As the tune progresses, NNCK sounds less like a group finding a familiar groove than one making up a genre right there on the spot. It’s almost charming.
The No-Neck Blues Band is, of course, much older than any act in the No Fun clique, so it’s possible that the group has simply outgrown its most unstructured tendencies. Or it might be that Qvaris is simply the band’s attempt to distinguish itself in a newly crowded field. Given the opportunity to hear it, much of the record-buying populace would likely find even its most tuneful tracks to be horrible noise. But there’s quite a distance between the Velvet Underground and total cochlear abuse. That NNCK’s latest has edged the band closer to the Velvets camp offers one important lesson: When it comes to noise, a little bit of rock goes a long way. CP