ISSUE #13 - 1999

Trans Am   -- The Surveillance     Thrill Jockey Hovercraft -- Experiment Below     Mute

Both Trans Am and Hovercraft sound like bands trying desperately to slalom around the endless car wrecks of indie rock, hoping that the flames from Bob Mould's tour van or Soundgarden's Greyhound don't leap onto the roof. In going instrumental and featuring hi-techlexperimental "themes", both bands acknowledge that the sentimental days of wine and roses are over for indie rock, and that the immediate future lies in the juncture of sound, music and technology as opposed to sentimentality, good intentions and fading humanist values. Most indie rock is mired in nostalgia, maudlinism, misguided notions of integrity, depression, ennui, rampant cerebralism, tiny ambitions and clinging-to-the-raft fear. As a result, today's "independent" music is as suffocating and paradoxically antithetical to the human spirit of joyful invention as the mainstream music of the seventies that punk originally tried to destroy. Indie/alternative/postpunk/college rock will always have a higher level of bourgeois/middle-class sentiment than, say, metal or the myriad forms of techno, but at this point and time indie rock has decided that it's going to be the reactionary flame-bearer of ye olde tyme humanism in reaction to the crass commercial music being made in every other quarter. Punk and its various subgenres have always carried the torch of the human spirit in opposition to those who would try to crush it with idiocy, banality, stupidity, lies, manipulation and force. At the same time, punk was, for the longest time, the cutting edge of music, sound and aesthetics. Once punk split into postpunk, industrial, experimental, hardcore, etc., the race was on to see who could come up with the most fucked-up shit imaginable. This ceaseless spirit of invention, exploding after the first wave of UK punk, was both human and anti-human. Or, rather, while the sounds were bizarre and radical and harsh, the spirit behind them concerned itself with the preservation of the spirit of human freedom, independence and joy in the face of a homogenous culture that sought (and seeks) to regulate all creative, human impulses. We currently live in a more confusing era, when the demarcation lines between "underground" and "mainstream" have been hopelessly blurred. Currently, the most inventive music is coming from house, techno, drum 'n bass, jungle and various forms of metal and hardcore. At the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgment made that the players in these genres, regardless of their stature, are all concerned with blowing up, getting paid and being famous. Thus, formal avant-garde exploration has finally come out of the closet, and is now openly and shamelessly mating with capitalism, advertising and niche-marketing. So what to do when you're an angry pseudo-Marxist indie rocker who can see plain as day that people are only experimenting with different sounds not for artistic or personal gain, but merely to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace? I'm sure it all becomes so dark and dim that all you can do is crawl to the stereo and give that Cat Power record one more spin. Fuck that shit, Bucky. Indie rock needs some of the balls of postpunk circa early-'80s, when nobody guessed that they would ever get paid jack shit for their music, and ugly young suburbanites turned from polite society to craft sonic wreckage because they had nothing better to do. You think Thurston Moore in 1983 thought he would be on DGC someday? Impossible, and literally unthinkable within that mainstream climate. The fact that almost nobody cared about postpunk was in fact a great source of comfort and strength, in the sense that there was no one to answer to, no looking over one's shoulder, no financial temptation. People just took whatever music they had lying around and built jerry-rigged contraptions the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Many of the players in the '80s postpunk scene were suburbanites raised on AC/DC and Black Sabbath who stumbled onto a Dead Kennedys or Black Flag or Neubauten record and then proceeded to build art-rock weirdness out of the whole mess. There didn't exist the contemporary, pervasive sense of victimization that seems to have trickled down from academia into the impressionable heads of our youths. Working with limited resources in the face of total indifference was a given, and no one seemed to give it a second thought. If independent music is ever going to matter again in this country, it needs to embrace a similar pioneer spirit. There are some "indie" bands dabbling in drum 'n bass and electronica, but not in an aggressive, predatory fashion. Art is sometimes just another word for war, and it's not enough for indie musicians to be timidly appropriating some drum 'n bass. For indie rock to get props, it has to earn respect, and the only way to earn respect is to blaze a new path. Current hardcore jungle is loud, fast, intricate and dark, and indie needs to glom onto that energy, that spirit, that aggression, but at the same time, put it through its own aesthetic and its own history. Indie players seem intimidated by the go-go techno world, which is currently extremely fast-moving, very show-biz, relentlessly cut-throat and enormously fickle. Due to indie rock's inherently humanist outlook, such a world looks distasteful and even immoral and possibly just silly in the same way that the fashion world is often silly. But just as punk rock snatched rock music from the hands of those who would murder its spirit with crassness and banality, so too can indie rock snatch jungle, techno, drum 'n bass, metal and hardcore from those who conspire to turn these genres into repositories of pure fucking commercial dreck. Furthermore, much techno actually owes considerable debts to such early postpunk pioneers as Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire, Foetus, Throbbing Gristle, This Heat, SPK, Chrome, Swans, Test Dept., Severed Heads, early New Order, etc. Meanwhile, indie musicians are sheepishly adding a tiny little dollop of drum 'n bass to their recordings and calling it a day, when in fact they have a claim on the whole fucking thing. Know your roots, man, and snatch that candy out of the hands of these young upstarts who think electronic music begins with Orbital and ends with Roni Size. The same with metal. When I listen to VOD, I hear Laughing Hyenas, Die Kreuzen, Scratch Acid, early Unsane, early Prong, and the bleatings of every fly-by-night scum rock outfit that ever put song to wax from '85-'89. In the hysterical, bombastic mooings of Korn, I hear everything from Big Black to the Birthday Party. So why doesn't indie rock return the favor? You like Sepultura's guitar sound or the drive of Machine Head? Steal it, and fuck those toads. Indie rock is currently intoxicated with saintly notions of goodness and integrity, like a young child over-eager to please. Indie rock needs to reclaim its domain and fuck some shit up again. When almost everyone agrees that indie rock is over, and people feel completely confident in dumping on the once-proud collective genre, well, you know the time for change is now. In the meantime, Trans Am and Hovercraft have put out transitional CDs that point the way towards the future without quite arriving there.
    Trans Am are tuned into the future to the degree that they embrace both metalinflected rock and electronica, but unfortunately they don't really have much of a vision for the music. The Surveillance is miles better than the putrid and downer Surrender To The Night, which was a long, jerkoff exercise in pointless and overly-cerebral electronica. The Surveillance alternates between soundtrack-style rock/instrumental rave-ups and soundtrack-style moody electronic pieces, and on the whole the record feels somewhat empty and incomplete, which is, I suspect, at least part of the intention. The Surveillance is a "theme" record that attempts to capture the feelings of paranoia, violence and creepy electronic invasiveness, and may or may not be the band's attempt at creating a type of music that might actually "accompany" a video surveillance film. Regardless, there's a postmod thesis for some desperate grad student in here somewhere, and it's clear that Trans Am are a bunch of overeducated smarty-pants who would be well advised to spend more time on the music and less time on the overarching concepts. Musically, the record is much better than Surrender, precisely because of the new-found prominence of rock instrumentals, which, though decent, are still a bit stiff and pointless. "Armed Response" is the big hit from the record, and it's definitely the strongest step in the right direction, a high-strung surflmetal instrumental that manages to effectively disguise its flat-footed robo-rhythms as nervousness and paranoia. Trans Am, unfortunately, can't swing for shit, and they sound like they've spent too much time learning at the feet of Steve Albini. The liner notes don't mention a producer, but the production is Albini-esque all the way, right down to the patented, stiff, techno-tronic guitar/bass/drums synching that seems to squash all of the actual rhythmic interplay out the music. Albini, of course, is a complete control freak who has all but sold his soul to the techno revolution while perversely and hypocritically clinging to the notion that he's still interested in making rock music. Trans Am are actually the missing link between Shellac and techno, dabbling as they do in both minimalist rock and krautrock-esque electro. Though The Surveillance is a much better record than Terraform, and ultimately a much more honest record, it still suffers from an overly-cerebral approach that leaves one with the feeling that Trans Am are better theoreticians than they are musicians. Even at its best, the music is rather empty and tepid and cold to the point where it doesn't even make for an effective driving/fucking/staring soundtrack. Music without words doesn't have to be "empty" or "incomplete" at all, but Trans Am seem to have taken their overarching "surveillance"/"futurist"/"robo-world" concepts a little too seriously, and the result is inadvertently silly/dull music that wouldn't be out of place on the Sleeper soundtrack. I applaud Trans Am for attempting to break out of the indie bog of roots rock and nostalgic bullshit, but the bottom line is that their rock is still too technoid and empty, and their electro is just plain boring. And as for their theoretical ideas about paranoia, privacy and the police state, just about any Napalm Death record blows Trans Am away in terms of presenting cold, bleak, driving, technoid music. There are days when I'm so fucking fed up with everything bureaucratic that I don't even want to think about Napalm Death, so machine-like and cold and infused with a soot-stained vision of a bleak-o-rama future are they. Trans Am are mere dabblers in this regard, and they'd be wise to start listening to music outside of their narrow circle. Compared to, say, Diatribes, or even Inside The Torn Apart, The Surveillance feels showy and theatrical in its paranoia, whereas Napalm Death always manage to sound like they've been up all night bingeing on speed and fear. Still, if Trans Am concentrate on their driving instrumentals, they could eventually blossom into a powerful near-psych band that manages to organically integrate the techno future with the humanist will-to-freedom. Trans Am have the potential to be great if they step up their musical intensity and take it in the right direction. Of course, the next record will probably be the great Trans Am roots-rock record consisting of drunken crying over pong beats and banjos, but still, there's always hope.
    Hovercraft have also put together a "theme" record, their theme being old-time scientific exploration. Or, rather, they've decided to equate improv psych with science, which is an interesting and probably necessary step. Right now, the big theme in drum 'n bass is the metaphor of scientific exploration, and it's good to see an "indie" band taking the fucking reins and laying a claim to some of the avant exploration that's going on. The music on Experiment Below sounds both crafted and improvised, but it's difficult to tell the degree to which either is in effect at any given moment. Hovercraft have put together a retro-futurist mix of early Sonic Youth and F/i to generally decent effect at a time when bands need to be reclaiming such seminal, aggressive and formalist influences. It's my contention that the stark, alien and near-industrial guitar-based atmospherics of early SY have not yet been assimilated, and furthermore are ripe for resurrection. Eddie Vedder's wife, the bass player, seems infatuated with Kim Gordon's bass playing circa '83, and in fact every other bass riff seems to reference either "Inhuman" or some other song from Confusion Is Sex, which of course is not a bad thing at all. The guitarist, meanwhile, lays his psych-spazz noodlings on top of the rhythm section, and while the whole package isn't quite top-tier, it's still pretty damn fine considering its vanity-project origins and label affiliation. The record is worth your time for such blast-off excursions as "Phantom Limb", and rest assured, unless you're a collector of psych obscurities, you haven't heard new music like this in quite some time. Experiment Below isn't the finest psych record you'll ever here (it doesn't even touch the finest moments of the similar F/i), but Hovercraft's uncanny presentation of old-music-that-sounds-new is an important beacon of light for down-and-out indie rock. People have been moaning and groaning so loudly that guitar music is passe and tired that they haven't noticed that nobody's even attempting to make interestinglextended guitar music. Granted, improv/jazz/free-noise jerkoffs are a dime a dozen, but there have been few willing or capable artists committed to making structured psych rock. In the early-nineties, psych rock looked like it was ready for the big takeover (at least via Forced Exposure), but then a rather decadent and defeatist strain of free noiselimprov pushed its way to the front and ruined everyone's interest in guitar theatrics through excessive masturbation. Hovercraft aren't an unleashed force of nature and won't save your life from complete banality, but they give hope and direction to an otherwise decimated scene that doesn't seem to know which way is up. The music is a little on the passive side, perhaps due to its improv tendencies, but as a bridge to better days, you can't go wrong. Drop some of this science and open your own laboratory, pronto.
   -J. Marlowe


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