Static Crash, Ashrae Fax’s 2003 record, is basically the dictionary definition of underground. This was a record first released on spray-painted CD-Rs by the band, then briefly as a cassette in 2005 and eventually as a short vinyl run on North Carolina label Hot Releases. These few scarce artifacts were all that remained of the Greensboro, North Carolina, band, at least until now as Mexican Summer has reissued the album and the band has announced new live dates and recordings to come. Ashrae Fax is back, and revisiting Static Crash is a perfect way to introduce yourself to the band.
One of the interesting things about the reissue of this album is how a new context gives the album a fresh angle on its sound. In 2003, the industrial electro-pop experiments of Renee Mendoza, Alex Chesney and company were downright anachronistic, but now – in the wide-open age of digital music – they feel of the moment, fittingly reverential to shoegaze and industro-pop sounds of the late ‘70s and ‘80s while still giving those sounds a new experimental bent. Ashrae Fax took their influences and twisted them, distorted them, made them their own.
At the heart of all these experiments are pure pop gems. “Daddy Stitch” has a krautrock insistence, but the melodies soar under all its fuzz. “Pointbreak” is a more drifting tune, but no less tight in its hooks. Wandering, soulful verses lead us to an earworm chorus, the most immediately striking moment on the record. That effortless catchiness is given a cool edge on “Armpit” and then smudged into blurry pop focus on “Dynamite Dust”. Each song is infectious in its own way, and within them you can hear the elements building foundations. Guitars chug out chords far in the background, the drums are simple yet lively and propulsive, the organs pulse with life.
But these are merely well built skeletons, the frames in which they layer the music’s more impressionistic parts, transforming things that sound like perfectly built pop songs into something more alien, something less recognizable and more exciting. “Daddy Stitch” is knocked off kilter by wobbling, horror-film-soundtrack synth lines. “Point Break” glows with the formless neon surge of keys and synths that pile on each other, highlighting and obscuring the melody at the same time, breaking from the steady key line that drives the song ahead. “Armpit” is much more spacious compared to these, its guitar work clarion clear, rippling in the way surf-rock would if it were played on overcast days. But there’s also the way they overlap the lyrics, one line jamming up the next. Or the faint intake of breath that gets sampled and peppered throughout the song. Or the single buzzing note that keeps its pace in the background. They’re fairly simple elements, but the combination of them is haunting, subtle yet distinct.
It also helps that in the middle of all these surprising sounds—which make their biggest explosions on closer “Ectome”—surround the stunning voice of Renee Mendoza (who later fronted the excellent rock outfit Filthybird). Her voice is treated with reverb and other effects here, but it never feels unnatural and its organic range never quite meshes with the industrial sounds around it. It’s an interesting clash (or crash?) that creates the main tension in the music, the human blood-and-bone presence that both runs parallel to and tries to break from the constructed sounds around it. That they can both work together and seem to create a furious call and response with one another is at the center of Static Crash‘s appeal.
This is an album of subtle distortions, of careful and considered twisting of pop structures and conventions. So there are still moments—in particular the not-at-all-there intro “Unndp” and the chaotic scraping mid-album experiment “Uprlxrq”—that feel too forced. These are moments that seem to shed light on the band’s more experimental tendencies, but they seem unnecessary next to the deft hand the band shows weaving those experiments into their fully formed songs. Static Crash is a beautiful combination of pop sensibility and daring exploration, the kind that may have been overlooked at the time, but now a decade on has proven itself timeless. So forget underground, let’s shine all the light on this record we can.