If there was a moment where it became evident that the latest alt-rock craze, (call it dance punk, post punk revival, or no wave) had reached its oversaturation point, it was this past spring. While Bloc Party and Thunderbirds Are Now! continued to bring some excitement to the sound, it seems the strong albums have been overshadowed by singles so incessantly catchy, so devoid of originality that they border on novelty. Hot Hot Heat’s grating bubblegum tune “Goodnight Goodnight”, The Bravery’s “An Honest Mistake”, and The Kaiser Chiefs’ so-goofy-it’s-great “I Predict a Riot” are what’s capturing people’s attention these days, making many wonder if the dancepunk trend is now past its high water mark. Thanks to the debut album by Durham, North Carolina’s The Nein, however, we can rest easy in the fact that there’s still plenty of life left in the post punk fad.
The Nein’s eponymous debut EP, originally released in 2003, and re-released last year by Sonic Unyon, was a very encouraging first effort, a throwback to both the jarring sounds of Wire and Gang of Four, as well as the vintage American indie rock sounds of North Carolina faves Superchunk (right down to the nasal voice of guitarist Finn Cohen, who bears a strong resemblance to Superchunk’s Mac MacCaughan). A blend of incessant hooks and more ambient excursions, not to mention the fiery “War is on the Stereo”, it would be anybody’s guess which direction the band would head in on its first full-length record.
The inclusion of sound manipulator Dale Flattum was all the indication we needed, as the modest indie rock trio has been transformed into a post punk-infused art rock outfit on Wrath of Circuits. Not only does Flattum’s sampling and tape manipulation add a new dimension to the band, but it also pushes the band’s trendier sounds into the background. As a result, the album is much more “skronk”, and far less “dance” than many had expected, sounding like a violent collision between Fugazi and Gang of Four. “Foreign Friendster” is a good example, as Casey Burns’s grooving bass carries the tune, with Flattum adding his own atmospheric samples, the drumming alternating between organic and electronic, everything bursting into a full-on blast of disparate sounds two thirds of the way through.
That blend of dissonance and danceability dominates Wrath of Circuits. “The Vibe” is bolstered by several catchy sample hooks that act as a counterpoint to Cohen’s vocals, while the cacophonous, aggressive “Heatseeker” shifts from a propulsive, jarring performance, to an Indian-themed vocal sample, then back to a breakdown dominated by layered percussion and saxophone screeches. On the brooding “Jim Morrison in Desert”, the band’s creativity knows no bounds, as the quartet incorporates a sinister piano riff that strides alongside the lugubrious bassline, as woodwind instruments come and go, while waves of guitar noise ebb and flow in the background, before eventually segueing into the much more volatile title track. It’s the type of forward-thinking composition that the post punk revival desperately needs more of.
It’s not all noise and experimentation, though, as Wrath of Circuits has several more melodically inclined, warmer-sounding moments. “Faint Sounds” is straightforward dance punk, as the original trio of Cohen, Burns, and Biggers launch into a workmanlike, yet highly effective Gang of Four homage, highlighted by Cohen’s guitar chords, which slice across the dance-fueled rhythm section. Separate guitar and bass melodies offset each other on “Courtesy Bows to New Wave”, a disarming sound that converges neatly one minute into the song. By far the best of the gentler songs, “Conjugated Reverb” matches anything off Bloc Party’s superb Silent Alarm album, starting off languidly, but quickly winding itself tighter and tighter, culminating in a concluding breakdown of insistent drumming, sinewy guitar licks, and screeching samples.
Wrath of Circuits is an odd record upon first listen, in that it has a chilliness to it that some might find unsettling, but the interplay between trendy and arty, between organic and electronic, soon becomes fascinating, as the metamorphosis of The Nein from a mildly impressive indie outfit to a wickedly creative band is the most lasting impression we get. So while the more pop-oriented acts get all the attention by bluntly aping a 20-year-old formula, it’s encouraging to know that there are acts like The Nein who are brave enough to push indie rock’s boundaries even further.