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Over the course of the ’90s, the residual effects of punk rock on mainstream culture have been pervasive. Rock critics dubbed 1993 the Year Punk Broke, and 1995 the Year Punk Went Broke. But some people declared it dead on arrival 25 years ago. In any case, in 1998, the music and its various accompanying movements have been, like most avant-garde forms, thoroughly co-opted. Gertrude Stein first put her finger on the phenomenon in her 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation,” in which she observed, “For a long time everybody refuses, and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts…the rapidity of the change is always startling.”
While punk rock is now almost universally accepted and its fire suitably doused, I’m happy to report that 1998 was the year in which the indie-punk-emo-hardcore-underground-post-rock scene officially outlived the usefulness of its terms. Ten wildly experimental independent bands took many different routes to bring marginalized music to a higher level in ’98:
What Burns Never Returns
Touch and Go
In the age-old debate about man vs. machine, Don Caballero drummer Damon Che is all the evidence you need to condemn electronic beats. A computer can be programmed to do a great many things, but Che’s all-too-human brand of complex, reckless pounding is artistry you can’t synthesize. Che’s equation for chaos-theory rock is equal parts metal, jazz, and hardcore, imaginatively composed on the fly with all the confidence of Max Roach. The rest of the band follows Che’s lead through brilliantly edgy instrumental tracks such as “Delivering the Groceries at 138 Beats per Minute,” “The World in Perforated Lines,” and “Slice Where You Live Like Pie.” It’s the only record of the year to have profoundly challenged the way I think about music.
How Memory Works
Joan of Arc
If this year’s two-disc Analphabetapolothology collection from defunct and less-than-prolific CaP’n Jazz seems unnecessary, consider the band in light of the old cliché about the Velvet Undergroundrelatively few people listened to them when they were together, but everybody who did started a band because of it. Frontman Tim Kinsella, prone to rhyming for the sake of nonsense, wrote lyrics like a slurred e.e. cummings and emoted his sentimental abstractions to the tune of bouncy hardcore as if they were therapeutic tantrums. While countless bands under the CaP’n Jazz influenceincluding CaP’n Jazz spinoff the Promise Ringhave pushed the band’s poppier elements and cute-guy shtick, poet punk Kinsella went for thoughtful musical experiment instead. His structurally sparse sophomore album with Joan of Arc swaps punk convention for absolute subtlety, creating contemplative spaces that wouldn’t quite fit together without the strange vocal tics that constitute his lyrics.
An incredible misnomer for this spasmodic quartet. Known for shaking crowds into uncontrollable fits and occasionally falling down onstage in the excitement, this hardcore band went where others had gone before, did it best, and quit while it was ahead. The posthumous CD discography includes the band’s three vinyl singles, a vinyl-only LP, and an unreleased live set recorded in Germany. Splinter groups Mile Marker, Engine Down, and the Rah Bras will all be doing great things in ’99.
I personally loved Fugazi’s End Hits (which was summarily dissed in these pages), but the reigning champs of the local scene were outdone this year by lesser-known locals Kerosene 454. The overlooked and underrated band called it quits at the end of a tour in Japan early this year after cranking out its third and best album. For At Zero, the band trimmed out excess noise and mayhem and rethought the pace of its previous albums in order to emphasize densely layered song structures. The effect: Darren Zentek’s ace drumming comes to the fore, Erik Denno’s shifts between soft singing and unnerving growl become seamless, the interplay between bass and guitars emerges, and the effects of studious practice and perpetual touring as a band become apparent.
of Naked Hostility
Men’s Recovery Project
The millennial experiment gets really weird and well nigh unlistenable with way-out-there wiseass Sam McPheeters at the dials. Sixty tracks on one CD chronicle more musical madness than you’ll ever need, brought to you by the extreme leftists from Born Against. McPheeters flaunts his belligerent disregard for musical taste and tradition by occasionally insulting the intelligence of his audience between slips of nearly accidental genius. Someone left the gates to the punk-rock asylum unlocked.
Usonian Dream Sequence
Bold, forward-looking aural experiments are nowhere to be found on this album, but Geoff Farina’s understated odes lull me straight into tomorrow. Shrugging off several decades of politicized subcultural punk and folk-music traditions, Farina’s sleepy, sullen songwriting turns only inward, with astute lines such as those on “Eventually”: “Nothing in this body, and this house works too well/Leaky back windows and a back shot to hell/It takes so much time to make it go like it should/But it’s all for you, and I still wonder if you would, if it were you.” With three ’98 releases (the others with Karate and the Secret Stars), Farina became near-prolific this year with his sleepy, sullen songwriting. On the solo album, he’s at his most convincing.
Who Put Out the Fire
Touch and Go
Of all my favorite records this year, this one bears the clearest markings of early punk. Chris Thomson’s bratty, nasal voice spits out paranoid lyrics over fast, chugging songs that play sneering homage to the band’s predecessors. Monorchid songs are set up as claustrophobic post-punk exercises similar to the music of Thomson’s previous bands Circus Lupus and Las Mordidas, but the band can’t seem to keep the furious rock spasms and old-school punk vibes from seeping through. Another fine band that didn’t make it out of ’98 aliveinstead, look for Thomson and guitarist Andy Coronado’s newer and crazier project Skull Control.
Arches and Aisles
My fixation on drummers this year displaced a previous predilection for bassists, and shortly behind Damon Che and Darren Zentek on my list of all-time faves is Spinanes’ drummer Scott Plouf. My dismay upon learning of Plouf’s absence on Arches and Aisles was mitigated only by Rebecca Gates’ choice of fine local sticks man Jerry Busher as a replacement. The new version of the Spinanes, formerly a spectacularly sparse two-piece band, includes a full (and fully unnecessary) studio lineup for the record as well as an excellent touring roster. Gates responds to the changes with increasingly confident exploration of her vocal talents, crafting riskier and more difficult structures for her bittersweet songs. Busher, incidentally, also became an occasional fifth member of Fugazi in ’98, and handles most of the drumming duties for the All-Scars. Which brings us to….
Easily the most interesting music created on the local landscape this year came from the All-Scars, a glorified side project with Busher on drums; Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty on guitar, keyboard, and occasional dueling drums; Dug Birdzell on bass (a slot alternately filled by Make-Up guitarist James Canty); and ex-Metamatics freestyler Chuck Bettis. Jazzy and improvisational post-hardcore, the All-Scars’ album is essentially two uncut sets of the band members doing what they do best: making it up as they go along. The subsequent 7-inch is even better.
“Litany Against Fear”
With “Ya Hya Chouhada”
The best local band you never heard this year: Kwisatz Haderach. The volatile hardcore band never made it to the Metro Cafe or the Black Cat before its untimely dissolution, lurking instead at basement shows, where it performed trim, seven-minute sets of exhaustively manipulated noise. Screamed bilingual male/female vocals meshed with brutally loud bass and guitars and faster, more complex stop-start drumming than any one man should be physically capable of. Whereas other bands merely burned the candle at both ends, Kwisatz Haderach ignited one big tangled wick and exploded spectacularlyleaving as shrapnel two songs on one side of a willfully obscure split 45 with Encyclopedia of American Traitors, plus several basements full of bemusedly blown minds. CP