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A noise show can be a lonely place. More often than not, such gigs are devoid of the human contact that usually makes concerts engaging. When you’re standing still in a dark room with a bunch of stoned dudes in black hoodies listening to some basement mystic tune an oscillator, it can be hard not to get lost in your own headspace. Or to get just plain bored. They don’t call the yearly New York City noise-music summit No Fun Fest for nothing.
Raccoo-oo-oon has never played No Fun Fest, but it is surely of the No Fun ilk. In the past two years or so, the Iowa City quartet has put out improv-heavy CD-Rs and cassette tapes with skronky labels like Brooklyn’s Fuck It Tapes and kept the company of ear-bleeding bands like Sword Heaven from Columbus, Ohio. But where some of its peers have trouble escaping their own private noise-metal Idaho, Racoo-oo-oon successfully transcends the droney limitations of improvised skree. Its new CD, Behold Secret Kingdom—a mélange of Sun Ra space-outs, tribal thump, and art-punk buzzing—is actually a pretty good time.
That said, it’s not easy listening. Raccoo-oo-oon has only traveled deeper into the unknowable with each successive release. Its debut album, Is Night People (originally released in 2005 on cassette), established its Sun City GirlsnmeetsnGang Gang Dance ethnorock roots, but it also maintained a certain amount of conventionality. For instance, some of the songs had vocals—in comprehensible English no less. On its second album, 2005’s The Cave of Spirits Forever, that was no longer the case. The speechless wails that opened the record indicated that the band was headed into more expressionistic, Boredoms-inspired territory. That’s also the case with Behold Secret Kingdom, but the record is anything but inscrutable.
For one thing, you can actually move to Raccoo-oo-oon. On “Mirror Blanket” the band frames blasts of buzzing electronics with salvos of syncopated pounding. Two drummers hammer out a primitive beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nonesuch Explorer: Burundi record. It’s herky-jerky, oddly funky, and—if you’re willing to engage in a range of motions not dissimilar to skanking—danceable. The tribal pounding anchors all that ethereal screeching and also gives it a motor.
Lots of noisy bands get trapped in a structural dead end. There’s only one place for them to go, and that place is louder and noisier. Raccoo-oo-oon’s percussionists allow the band to make unexpected exits from situations that often dead-end in a space-rock nowhere. “Diamonds in the Dunes” is one of Secret Kingdom’s prettiest and most meditative moments, with delayed guitars playing patterns reminiscent of African mbiras. It risks floating dreamily into aimlessness but smartly wraps up in fewer than three minutes, and navel-gazers will get a shock as the gears suddenly shift into the gratuitous pounding of the sax-heavy “Invisible Sun.” Raccoo-oo-oon is suddenly mired in stoner riffage so dank you’ll need an entire bottle of Febreze to get the weed scent out of your room. You have to applaud a band that can go from Popol Vuh to Black Sabbath in less than a second.
Or maybe you shouldn’t. One of noise-punk’s greatest burdens is that more often than not, it’s saddled with the joy-killing aesthetics of metal and hardcore. Everything has to be heavy—both musically and emotionally. The grueling distortions of bands like Air Conditioning or Prurient tend to emphasize predictable meathead aggression and played-out self-destruction.
Behold Secret Kingdom is more clever than that. Raccoo-oo-oon makes off with the best of the out-music’s vocabulary of squelches, bleeps, and distorted growls but leaves behind the tired angst. In fact, for all of its noise and squalor, Raccoo-oo-oon hardly ever sounds angry. The indecipherable shouts on “Fangs and Arrows” have more in common with the improvised vocals found on Pharoah Sanders’ spiritual-jazz records like Izipho Zam than they do with Pantera’s quasi-lingual barking.
True, there’s a fine line between shouting in tongues and hardcore yelping—both look strikingly similar (and equally ridiculous) live. But where the first is an attempt to be ecstatic and joyful, the latter is usually an attempt to be angry, confrontational, and kind of a bummer. Behold Secret Kingdom’s brilliance is that it’s never a bummer. Raccoo-oo-oon is unquestionably spooky, over-the-top, and abrasive. But the band’s sublime pounding and mantra-rock antics refuse to allow for lonely self-absorption. With the exception of Lightning Bolt, Raccoo-oo-oon is about as close as New Weird America gets to a party band. It may have been born from the grating and alienating womb of noise-rock, but it’s certainly not No Fun.
Raccoo-oo-oon performs with Civilians and Hugh McElroy at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.