It was no surprise that the music of the ‘80s would come back. The only question was what form the return would take—which of that decade’s eclectic styles would come to define it for those who did not live through it. The Flin Flon show at Northsix afforded an opportunity to answer that question, as all the bands performing seemed inspired by similar ‘80s sounds.
The Forms’ main claim to fame, in their own minds anyway, is that they managed to get Steve Albini to record them a few years ago. The drummer was sure to announce this “success” during one of their many extended tuning sessions, none of which seemed to enliven their stymied, featureless two-guitar approach. Capoing the bass for a song didn’t help either. Their songs were full of Fugazi-like tempo changes and stop-time breaks, but while Fugazi made such devices seem dramatic and dynamic, the Forms made them seem pretentious and arbitrary. Where the Forms were clearly indebted to the ‘80s was in their vocal approach. Few of their songs seemed to have words; instead they featured a histrionic yodel that seemed derived from listening to late-period Simple Minds records. The singer’s unrestrained yelp suggested especially impassioned karaoke renderings of U2’s early hits. The lead guitarist’s fondness for Edge-style harmonics and atmospherics only contributed to this impression.
Plus/Minus profited immensely from following the Forms, as they pursued basically the same musical course, only with greater success. Using the same format, and drawing on similar influences, Plus/Minus were able to make their songs emotionally resonant where the Forms fell flat. The crucial differences lay in Plus/Minus’s instrumental skill and songwriting craft: when they layered dissonant guitar figures, the result was provocative and complex; when James Baluyut (ex-Versus) launched into his wordless vocals, the pitch and timbre were appropriate to their context; when the band shifted between incongruous musical passages, the variation was compelling rather than confusing. Plus/Minus is fond of building texture by adding guitar arpeggios to some fast-strummed chords, generating a sound reminiscent of ‘80s Brit new-wavers Icicle Works, while the precision and intricacy of Chris Deaner’s drumming evoked memories of Stewart Copeland’s heyday. On a few songs Baluyut attempted a Midge Ure croon, which he managed to pull off without completely embarrassing himself.
At this point, the leading features of ‘80s revivalism were beginning to coalesce for me. First, guitarists must purge all folk and blues influences from their playing, and replace them with an emphasis on rhythmic strumming and minimal melodies. Second, singers must invest their vocals with such exaggerated emotional strain that an audience can’t possibly tell how serious they are. There should be no traces of the overt irony of ‘90s alternative music. Finally, the drumming should be as complex as that of any King Crimson record, but should be played on as few drums and cymbals as possible.
Flin Flon did little to unseat these impressions, but they added the essential fascination with Joy Division’s rhythm section to complete the ‘80s revival picture. Flin Flon limit themselves extremely. Bassist Nattles played only staccato quarter notes, and rarely afforded herself the luxury of syncopation. Matt Datesman’s drum kit conspicuously lacked any cymbals save a high-hat, practically forcing him to reprise vintage Joy Division beats. And true to the form established in Unrest and Air Miami, Mark Robinson sang in a pinched, constipated whine that seemed an unnatural constriction of his potential vocal range. This musical philosophy of privation may be praised for its austerity, but it has the unfortunate effect of producing a body of work that is relentlessly uniform. On some songs Robinson doubled Nettles’ basslines, on others he played terse guitar, but neither did much to vary their basic sound. Flin Flon never transcends their fetishization of the Young Marble Giants sound, despite choosing to play in slightly faster tempos with livelier drumming. Robinson broke out some mechanical man moves, while Nettles chewed gum in time. It was interesting, too, to watch Datesman give his high-hat and snare a rigorous work-out, but none of this ultimately could disguise the repetitiveness of their music. Even the serious fans in the audience seemed to be unable to differentiate one song from another, but that didn’t deter their appreciation. They must have came expecting one specific sound, and they received nothing but that, exactly that.
Flin Flon’s music would be incomprehensible without a knowledge of the influences to which they are so faithful. Their stylistic choices would come off as willfully bizarre, aggressively obtuse. Perhaps an audience ignorant of those influences would experience the same thrill Robinson must have had when he first heard Movement, or Second Edition, or Colossal Youth, the exciting discovery that there is a completely different way for music to sound. But for those already familiar with that radically different sound, it just sounds like the same old thing.