For 15 years, Boston’s Cul de Sac have been one of the most consistent and intriguing experiments in a genre susceptible to over-indulgence, complacency, and idea fatigue. Though they themselves would shun the sloppy, inadequate classification of post-rock, it’s a shame. Their imaginative and innovative sound should be the ideal; they deserve it far more than the crescendo-heavy melodrama which seems to epitomize the genre these days.
Led by Glenn Jones and Robin Amos, Cul de Sac have been bending genres and exploring the possibilities of instrumental music with an astounding level of success. The inspirations are wide and varied, with rich, melodic passages butting up against severe paroxysms of noise and electronics. Their dalliances with American Primitivism led to a longstanding relationship with folk legend John Fahey. Their collaborative album, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, is a tremendous effort, stretching the quiet, minimalist Fahey beyond his typical comfort zone and into new and often unsettling realms, light-years apart from his solo explorations. Jones’ own solo effort, This is the Wind That Blows It Out, follows in Fahey’s footsteps, as both a tribute to and a continuation of his work. The strong influence of krautrock in their music led to a stint as Damo Suzuki’s backing band, chronicled on the fiery and unpredictable Abhayamudra. Even in such towering company, Cul de Sac manage to maintain their identity and help create something new and exciting.
Their debut album, 1991’s ECIM, is a prefiguration of all these pursuits, rescued from out-of-print status by Strange Attractors’ Resurrection Series. The seeds of all the subsequent releases in Cul de Sac’s prodigious catalog can be found here, ready for contemporary listeners to discover in a much more welcoming climate than when they were first planted. The foreboding first bars of “Death Kit Train” are more post-punk than post-rock, with a surging bass-line and Jones’ jittery, scraping guitar evoking Andy Gill. Slowly, Jones spirals out little sonic eddies in the guitar wash, looping melodies that ascend Middle Eastern scales and add color to the otherwise stark and mechanical piece. The tightly wound rhythm section of Chris Fujiwara and Chris Guttmacher propels the song as Amos swoops in a slices it to pieces with torrents of spasmodic electronic bursts. It’s a relatively accessible introduction to the group, the bottom of a graceful incline that slowly begins to rearrange the listener’s perception of what a song should be and sound like.
ECIM, like many Cul de Sac albums, is a work of contrast. It is replete with wild dualities between the countervailing forces of Jones’ delicate melodies and Amos’ visceral washes, between the workmanlike consistency of Fujiwara and Guttmacher and the outré inclinations of Jones and Amos, and perhaps most of all, the struggle between the band’s traditionalist influences and desire for transgressive progress. These conflicts create the fire which fuels the album, and emerge most obviously at its very heart.
“The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” is the first sign of Cul de Sac’s Fahey-worship, and begins simply enough with Jones’ straightforward, albeit electrified, take on the original’s arrangement. The pastoral melody begins to draw sharp and pointed stabs of static from the surroundings, elaborating on the sense of industry hinted at by the title. Whereas Fahey’s original seems to dwell in the external surroundings and landscape which is enhanced by the presence of the man made structure, Cul de Sac’s version is three-dimensional. Not merely a panoramic, wide-angle view, the new arrangement moves within the tableau, through the stark edifice until it seems that all the brightness and wonder of the original is entirely undone by overhanging steel and the fog of cement dust hanging in the air. “Nico’s Dream” follows, and uses snippets of the singer’s voice pasted throughout a gargling thicket of sound to achieve a ghostly, ethereal feeling. Arranged here by guest Phil Milstein, the band would later use this method with more obscure source material on 2003’s Death of the Sun. It’s quite stirring, the fractured words of a familiar voice failing to communicate, a fading signal drowned out by a rising wave of rushing sound that ultimately overtakes it.
Three bonus tracks have been appended to ECIM: “Cul de Sade”, which is every bit as gleefully punishing as the name implies; “The Bee Who Would Not Work”, and “Negligee”, an abbreviated jam with an abrupt stop. They’re nice additions, but the incentive with this reissue is not the expanded extras. It’s an opportunity to view, in hindsight, the nascent stages of a true musical force, something that hasn’t been possible in quite some time. While it’s a rougher and more turbulent form of Cul de Sac than exists today, it’s unmistakably driven by the same zeal for adventure and discovery that makes their music so remarkable today.
// Notes from the Road
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