A simple survey of the various bands to which East West Blast Test’s two members have contributed sets up inevitable expectations. Dave Witte, metal drummer extraordinaire, has smashed kits into submission for several grindcore and thrash legends, from Discordance Axis and Human Remains to Burnt by the Sun and Municipal Waste. Guitarist Chris Dodge, meanwhile, has strummed for journeyman punk outfit No Use For a Name and plucked the bass for the appropriately-named Spazz, among others. All told, this constitutes a plethora of noisy aggression.
East West Blast Test seems to exist for the express purpose of denying whatever expectations those lineages suggest. The 23 tracks on Popular Music for Unpopular People, the duo’s second aural excursion, include a fair smattering of aggro pummeling but more often stroll onto smoother terrain, delving into jazz, funk, and a veritable smorgasbord of avant-garde tomfoolery. The album offers a fair share of befuddling moments but matches them with frequent bursts of inspiration, and its short 32-minute length precludes any overstaying of its welcome. Witte and Dodge seem to have approached it as a formal problem, like Lars von Trier and his obstructions for filmmaker Jorgen Leth. The band’s name stems from the fact that the two live on opposite coasts, Witte in New Jersey and Dodge in California. Witte laid down the drum tracks solo and sent them to Dodge, who was then responsible for devising guitar and other sounds to fill out the songs.
While not unprecedented (artists from Peter Gabriel to Hella have commenced songwriting with the percussion), this approach can prove complicated, especially with a drummer as manic as Witte: how does one find the groove in an endless blastbeat? Fortunately, Witte reins in his extremist fervor, showing influences that go well beyond Slayer’s Dave Lombardo; there’s some Rashied Ali here, as well as video-game blipping that sounds like a parody of the Buggles or their low-budget new wave ilk. It’s still all complicated, marked by off-kilter rhythms and shifting time signatures, but Dodge rises to the occasion with tight riffage and inspired picking, riding out Witte’s change-ups without being held captive to them. He also enlists some allies to provide everything from sax to didgeridoo, and the result is a consistently engaging set of short experiments, hindered only by the audible lack of actual interaction between its key participants. Dodge’s parts react to Witte’s, but the nature of the project keep Witte from following any of Dodge’s leads.
“Kind of Black and Blue” opens the album, but the Miles Davis reference is a feint: the track sounds like a metal Looney Tunes theme. Payoff comes shortly, though, with “The Fathership Invasion,” which recalls On the Corner-era Davis (even as its title invokes a gender-inverted P-Funk) with its cold, wah-pedaled guitar. Jazz and funk elements recur throughout the album, though no style dominates the eclectic mix; sometimes they work (the sax on “Unwanted Inches”), other times they’re squandered (a funky bassline on “Soft Robotics” is for naught, as Dodge uses it as a foundation over which he aimlessly fiddles with various guitar effects pedals).
Other songs range from tribal chanting in a thunderstorm to closer “Welcome to Geelong (Now Go Home),” a slow drone that marks the album’s first and only breaking of the three-minute barrier (most songs hover around 90 seconds). At one point Popular Music verges on going grindcore, with two brief bursts of fury in a row, but before it can settle into form it throws out more funk, followed by a two-minute family German lesson (useful phrases like “She has a toothache” and “We are ill”). When it returns to aggression near the end (the 21-second “Long in the Tooth”) the album sounds less like actual grindcore than John Zorn’s detached take on the genre. Though most tracks are instrumental, vocals appear sporadically. The spoof-metal yelping on “Anne R. Kaye” is mildly amusing, but “Lithe” is the album’s highlight, with guest Lydia Paweski’s feral vocals. Literally feral: her “rawr"s sound like Catwoman fronting a nightclub band, and delightfully so.
East West Blast Test fits well on the Ipecac roster. Label chief Mike Patton is the man of a thousand bands, from Faith No More to the Fantomas, and he’s also indulged in a bit of tape-trading composition on his semi-successful General Patton vs. the X-ecutioners album. Various other bands on the label participate in similar avant-aggro styles. Most of those bands develop their music more organically, though. In East West Blast Test, Dodge and Witte display rigor and skill in abundance, but the band lacks the dialectics of spontaneity that come from playing off one another. Popular Music for Unpopular People provides an engaging diversion, clever to the hilt and too brisk to ever drag. But its formal constraints prevent it from taking the more vivid shape it clearly could in the hands of its talented ringmasters. In the end, it’s too much calibration, not enough chemistry.