Try this: take your two sweaty palms and see how many quick, peppy, cacophonous songs you can forcefully shove into a 31-minute record. If the final tally is 16 tracks, then you’ve managed a feat of compression matched only by the amount of distortion, feedback, and vocal chants Ohio trio Times New Viking is able to squeeze into their rude, trebley sound—a sound so small and tinny you might mistake it for a dime.
Rip It Off, Times New Viking’s 16-track/31-minute ode to poor impulse control is their third record, but their first for Matador, and a glowing example of how joyous and inclusive a theoretically repellent noise rock sound can be. Their loosely-followed formula is ADHD to the final letter, and it calls for messy servings of tart songs short enough to soundtrack a Sesame Street skit. First, they start with a less-than-skeletal outline for a mug-clinking happy hour sing-along—basically, they throw down a few scattered and seemingly unrelated non sequiturs that, by themselves, could pass for a climactic moment. Next, the band wraps the mismatched bones in a sinewy layer of fuzzy guitars, tape delay, swooning if unidentifiable keyboard, and crashing, ear-piercing drums, cymbals mostly. Occasionally, an anthemic lyrical moment will climb up through that gargling menace, like a water bug trying to crawl out from a garbage disposal, only to be sucked back down below.
The end result is a sound that’s going to send a lot of first-time listeners looking for the refund button on the iTunes music store, but a sound that’s most compelling for what isn’t there, namely, bass. Almost all of the sonic information on Rip It Off has been compacted into that harsh, nasally bandwidth you’d normally associate with a walkie talkie conversation or a busted pair of drug store headphones—which makes Rip It Off a sort of Made-For-Cell-Phone-Speakers record, in which distorted guitars and sibilant vocals spar violently for a cramped, narrow spot on the frequency totem pole.
That kind of sonic turf war is not just some happy-drunk accident, to be expected when Jim Bean, three reckless hipsters, and a spaghetti mound of recording equipment all find their way into the same basement. It’s the wonderfully illogical, deliberate approach of a band that names itself after a computer font then hammers out its press releases on a typewriter. Really, the ideal listening environment for this record would be to stab your MacBook speakers with a pair of screwdrivers, wield two flaming matches as Q-Tips, then spit on your own dog in disgust.
Yet underneath the avante garde dissonance that roars out of this record like it has some place to be, Rip It Off is sentimental beast, a rock lover’s rock record, so slightly colored by past-worship. For all their hard, edgy sound, Times New Roman are trying to reclaim the visceral, communal feel that they and their press releases read into the late ‘70s punk scene. It’s that collective spirit, much more than their trashy aesthetic, that makes them a radical and refreshing addition to the Matador roster.
Lyrically, Rip It Off loosely bashes around the first person plural perspective, with a charming emphasis on ‘we’ and ‘us’. For instance, “Faces on Fire”, an up-tempo, cheery tune, kicks off with what could be the band’s rallying cry: “Let’s do something that hasn’t been done yet”. From there, keyboardist-vocalist Beth Murphy calls for the companionship of those birds of her feather who listen to records but find that “nothing feels real”. “I can’t hear you!” she cajoles, leaving a pause for the kind of rowdy response that could make for an electric live set. She concludes the hook with some singer-to-audience flattery, “I just can’t wait to be near you”, a come-on which conveys some titillating hint of romantic intent, even if being near Beth Murphy probably means flipping through the same crate of vinyls.
What adds to the energy is the sense that all this calamity we are hearing is being laid down in real-time, the visceral handiwork of a trio that prefers hot-wiring electrical instruments to buying up pansy computer effects. This is, of course, a bit of a myth. Most of their sound is probably achieved after the fact, maybe even on computers, through the meticulous and merciless application of compressors and equalizers that suck away the bass, and create a thrashing push-pull dynamic. Without those extra-musical influences, Rip It Off would be a pretty consistent, hum-like collage of noise. But from the lively spirit of the songs, from their chanting, and their gleefully destructive ethos, one almost gets the sense that Rip It Off is an act of haphazard creation. You can almost hear them trying to coax feedback out of, say, the coffee machine—or maybe that’s the sound of them trying to coax coffee out of the feedback pedal.
The joke here is the time and place. In a day and age where Times New Viking could record Windex-clean, sparkling records for a few thousand dollars—chump change Matador flushes away on postcards—they want to fire up the tape delay, shoot for a battered four-track sound, and pretend that computers, synthesizer pads, Pro Tools, and Interpol never happened. But if that digital world hadn’t come to be, would anyone, Times New Roman included, have thought to push tactile, bolts-and-wires instruments to such defiant extremes? If a tree falls onto a distortion pedal, what kind of feedback does it make?