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We know what the little alien guys are going to look like when they get here, and now we know what they’ll be listening to: They’re going to put on Crom-Tech records and think of home, because Crom-Tech speaks their language perfectly.
Crom-Tech’s first 7-inch EP, on Ixor Stix, certainly seemed as if it had dropped from space in 1997. The sleeve was covered with what looked like black-and-white microchip drawings. And inside the grooves lay the oddest sounds to emerge from a D.C. band in years: short, sharp bursts of noise, nine songs in fewer minutes, skinny, tinny guitar solos played blindingly fast, smashing together death metal, improv-punk, and free jazz all at once. A drummer beat the living crap out of a kit behind this din, falling all over and around whatever post-hardcore, post-Boredoms beat there was. On top of it all, an attenuated voice screamed noises and phrases that sounded for all the world like word-perfect Venusian. It was a pretty singular debut.
As it turned out, the players looked like humans, although no one was convinced they were. Mick Barr on guitar and Malcom McDuffie on drums seemed like aliens among us. They had played in other local bands; McDuffie was with the well-regarded Metamatics (a fertile crew; singer Chuck Bettis’ current project is the consistently fascinating All-Scars) and Barr with World War III. But this outfit was something different for both. These blurts owed as much to Coltrane’s landmark free-duo record Interstellar Space as to Japanese noise chaos and a boyhood of skating to the first Bad Brains cassette.
A second record, on the art-punk boutique label Gravity, brought more of the bizarre, wonderful same—12 songs in 13 minutes with titles like “Brammix-Q:49 Face” and “Prux-Norplexoxix.” But the most recent collection, on Slowdime Records, represents a subtle step forward. In 22 minutes and without song titles, Crom-Tech presents a sound ever so slightly more linear, as if, en route from A to B, it no longer has to slay all of the killer robots in 30 seconds, just one or two of them. Barr’s playing is faster than ever on the new set (a guitarist friend, a veteran of several local bands and no technique-slouch himself, confided that he could not imagine ever moving his fingers that quickly), and it’s also more deft. The band has expanded its tonal range and stretched out a bit. Its usual thin wail is broken up by the occasional patch of cleanly plucked note clusters and silence from the drums, a brief respite before the rocket ship continues flying through the cosmos. (If Comedy Central ever decides to change the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast’s “Shonny Sharrock” theme, these are the guys to call.) It’s always been difficult to tell if Crom-Tech songs are composed, improvised, or a combination of both, but the Slowdime record features the closest the band has come to using repeated patterns and shadings. The 22-minute length sounds brief, but compared with the band’s earlier records, this one’s downright epic, and it’s made Crom-Tech more accessible (in a screaming, thrash-jazz sort of way, of course).
This latest Crom-Tech recording is also a triumph for Slowdime Records, which, over the past few years, has sealed its place as possibly the most important and progressive rock label in the Washington area. With Simple Machines long gone and TeenBeat packing up shop for Boston, Slowdime has emerged as the player to watch. (Arlington’s Lovitt Records is also quite good, and home to the remarkable Rah Bras, but that label’s Crom-Tech record is still just a rumor.) Slowdime has stepped up to the task of releasing compelling local records from acts like the aforementioned All-Scars, the Most Secret Method, the Cranium, Golden, and Metamatics, in addition to breaking ground with out-of-town punk acts like Victory at Sea and Three Second Kiss.
Not since its very early days has Dischord released records by out-of-town bands; it’s been a local folk label more than anything else and has done the job quite well. Dischord has been blessed with a remarkable amount of talent drawn simply from people the label heads know, but newer labels have been wise to avoid that particular model. Though it provides invaluable moral and often financial support to all sorts of local musical endeavors—including Slowdime—Dischord will always be charged with documenting bands from a certain time and place.
Slowdime does a great job with a diverse roster, out of which Crom-Tech shines like a new crown jewel. But the rumors of the band’s demise or “hiatus” persist. It would be a shame to see it go, because Barr and McDuffie are well on their way to the D.C. rock hall of fame. Crom-Tech’s yen for maximum blowout from moment to moment seems to have slightly abated, and a rhythmic, Warp 10 lyricism has taken its place. CP