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The Marriage of Reason and Squalor

The Dead C’s Greatest Hits--Or Something Like That

Alex Fine

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/6/2006

Let's call, if only for the moment, New Zealand outfit the Dead C a rock band, simply for lack of a better term. Formed in 1986 in Dunedin, a South Island coastal city, this trio of guitarist/vocalist Michael Morley, guitarist Bruce Russell, and drummer Robbie Yeats has steadily pounded out electric, propulsive music that is still at least a distant kin to that beast known as rock 'n' roll.

The Dead C, though, has never operated like a rock band. Interviews and the like are infrequent, owing to the band's underground purview, location on the other side of the world, and relative lack of interest in the entire rock ordeal. The Dead C isn't a brand-name manufacturer of posters or T-shirts or stickers or any of that other rubbish that touring bands so often consent to in order to turn fandom into marketing. You will never come across a member of the Dead C's "street team."

In fact, the Dead C tours the U.S. only slightly more frequently than Halley's Comet buzzes the planet--twice in its entire history. For the most part, its entire musical existence is contained on five cassettes, six LPs, seven 7-inches, six CDs (including reissues/compilations of its previous releases), a split LP, and 11 tracks on compilations. Save two cassettes--whose, like, 20 greedy owners never see fit to sell through the various usual record-scum channels--I own everything this band has ever pinched into this world.

As in, I already own every single song on the band's new two-CD retrospective, Perform Vain, Erudite, and Stupid: Selected Works 1987-2005 (Ba Da Bing), and yet online ordering commenced about a nanosecond after finding out it was available for purchase. Not most of it, all: the martial throb and helium ribbon flagellating through "Maggot," the world-ending calamity sculpted by the 1992 Clyma est Mort version of "Power," the menacing buzz haunting 1995's "Bitcher," the electrical-storm barometric pressure drop of 2001's "Repulsion." This frayed-at-every-seam outfit was the gateway drug leading to a lifetime jones for all things insouciantly kiwi and aggressively amorphous. The Dead C is bested only by the need to breathe.

Somewhere along the way, though, critics, record stores, and music snobs filed the Dead C into some folders in which it never quite fit: noise, lo-fi, psychedelic, post-whatever (rock, history, some such shit), experimental, and the dreaded avant-garde. Yes, the Dead C records inexpensively and on less than posh equipment. Yes, the Dead C does occasionally hammer out something like a pneumatic drill bickering with an electric bone saw. And, yes, the Dead C does operate entirely outside of song structures and never shies away from inspired improvisation.

Such taxonomies, though, consider only the surface of the Dead C's music without letting its reverberating waves pass through the ears, over the cerebellum, and through the body. It is very, very easy to listen to the Dead C's caustic, even ugly ruckus--its rusty guitar tones, impudent percussion thunder, and vaguely apocalyptic worldview--only with the brain, consigning the band to a branch in the constantly twisting tree of experimental-rock dorkage. But it is far more rewarding to permit its crumbling, contagious energy to ripple though every cell of the body until its witty dissonance and gorgeous abrasiveness resonate as lusciously as a favorite painting. Quite simply, the Dead C makes beautiful, sensuously alive music. It only sounds like broken instruments being played through a broken PA by some seriously broke-minded blokes.

And if you need the backstory to how they got there, simply stroll through Vain, Erudite, and Stupid's liner notes. Bananafish magazine's Seymour Glass provides the headspace-calibrating intro, starting off with an imaginative death-faking narrative involving messieurs Morley, Russell, and Yeats before traipsing off into his usual sort of discursive high modernism. ("Standing on a platform with Helen. Tunnels in all directions, curved. Very limited visibility." You know--the sort of ardent preciousness aimed at guys who all have the same records in their collections.) More informative are the amusing musings of Philadelphia's Tom Lax, the Siltbreeze Records majordomo who put out some of the Dead C's best known slabs; a context-providing New Zealand scene overview from Opprobrium zine honcho Nick Cain; and a gloriously blunt track-by-track breakdown from Russell. (On "Bitcher": "Almost succeeds in rehabilitating that cod-psychedelic phased guitar sound no one should ever use.")

But, really now, such inside-baseball factoids appeal primarily to blow-hards. Vain's most valuable asset is its comprehensive overview of the indelible body of work created by a band that never tried to do the same thing twice. From grating textures quilting 1988's "Angel" into an oddly plush lullaby to buzzing sputters and fiery emissions rhythmically feedbacking throughout 2000's "Tuba Is Funny (Slight Return)," Vain offers a précis entryway into the Dead C's singular universe.

It wisely includes the closest things the band has to "hits"--the tracks that between, say, 1990 and '94, showed up on homemade mixtapes, tracks whose engulfing force holds up a decade-plus later. This string of pseudosongs--as Russell's notes confess, the Dead C was never that into "songwriting," per se--includes "Constellation" off the 1992 behemoth Harsh '70s Reality, 1991 7-inch single "Hell Is Now Love," those one-word monoliths "Mighty" and "Power," and 1990's 10-minute-long opened-vein drain "Helen Said This." The Dead C outlined the core tenets of its profundities in these years: the way Morley's voice always sounds likes he's trapped at the bottom of a well and can't see what's breathing hot and wet on the back of his neck. The way every guitar sound sounds like a physical workout. The way Yeats drums simultaneously with piston precision and a disintegrating sprawl.

These two CDs might not turn somebody into a Dead C fan if she or he doesn't already have a taste for pretty cacophony, but as a single artifact that captures a band's entire worldview, it has few rivals. The span of output, the mix of instrumental catharsis and ambient ooze and thunderous peals, the deadpan sense of humor, the almost archeological aesthetics, the righteously blatant disregard for careerism--Vain, Erudite, and Stupid is as close as you'll ever get to a Dead C hard sell without having to sit down with a die-hard fan, a bong, and an entire weekend to kill.

Do be warned, though--the Dead C is not cool. And it's not cool in that way that turns people from ordinary, casual music listeners into people who write some 1,100 words about a double CD full of songs they already have. Like the guitarist who self-burns box sets of Eddie Hazel and Pete Cosey's greatest hits, like the Fugazi fan who constantly edits a mix CD of live versions of "Glue Man" in his head, and, yes, like the Beefheart wing nut eternally convinced you just need to hear one more album to get it, Vain, Erudite, and Stupid may just turn you into one of those people.

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