[6 January 2011]
The Dead C has been at it for a long time. One of the hallmark bands of difficult guitar noise, the New Zealand trio, made up of Bruce Russell and Michael Morley on guitars and Robbie Yeats on drums, has recorded albums since the late ‘80s and reached international recognition in the early ‘90s. Considering such a long and prolific career, you are forced to ask yourself: What makes a noise band grow? Once you’ve demolished all pretensions to songs, to riffs, to hooks, and so forth, how do you continue to develop your sound?
With each album, the Dead C doesn’t so much progress in any kind of logical way, but rather consecrate a specific moment in time. Since you don’t apprehend the music through conventional structure—there is no easy access point—the albums take on a live feel of unpredictability. Maybe that’s really the way to listen to the Dead C, since they don’t usually tour. Each album is like a personal concert.
With all that said, Patience should still be understood as a comment on rock convention. Like many noise albums, Patience undoes the typical pop mix. It gives most space to an empty feedback sound. There’s a whole room between you and the band. They might as well be rocking out down the hall. What you have to contend with is drowning noise: piercing high pitched squall or ambient droning atonality. The album plays on your rock desires but stays tantalizingly out of reach.
Rather than presenting rock and roll as an outlet for pent-up aggression, on Patience the Dead C shoves the tension back down your throat, never allowing release. Where the 2008 release Secret Earth had a similar heaviness, it also had Morley’s vocals to make it sound more like a typical album, though Morley’s singing style consists mainly of incoherent groans and mumbles. Morley saved his singing for his solo release, this year’s Gate album, A Republic of Sadness. There, his groans find their home amidst electronic pulsing soundscapes. What’s left for the Dead C’s Patience is the heavy expectancy of songs that never quite come.
The bookending pieces, “Empire” and “South”, which collectively make up more than half of the album, tantalize you with rock forms that never quite pay off. The album begins with the almost-rocker “Empire.” Though this song takes its time to get into a groove, the dominant theme is heavy: plodding drums and gnarly guitar sounds that even turn into a chugging metal chord pattern. “South” closes out the album with a similarly heavy rock beat and interchanging menacing guitar chords that abruptly end without resonance. The two middle pieces, which seem less significant at least because of their relatively short track time, consolidate this damning of anticipation. “Federation” is all rippling cymbals and eerily delayed scratching noises. “Shaft” never settles into any recognizable tones, though there is a motorik drumbeat that rises in the mix to an intense shuffling rhythm.
All four songs give the impression of improvisation mostly because they don’t have recognizable structure. Careening off touchstones of rock sound, they continually move forward, somewhere else. The Dead C improvises in that now traditional noise-based way that they made great, curving soundscapes around demolished pop tropes. It’s not a matter of technical innovation, but rather a communal construction of space through sound.
What Patience does that is pertinent for today is resituate noise music in live sound. It’s fairly easy to make noise alone on your computer (see Gate again) and that music retains the trace of its origin. It’s always a buildup of looping textures, repeating waves that the sole musician sets down first and then adds to. The Dead C instead gives us the unrepeatable yet droning sound of a live show that takes several different people to construct. The lack of apparent control makes it exciting.
So has the Dead C progressed? I’m not sure. I miss the insistency of their earlier albums, the harsher, more abrasive sounds that still bore the mark of punk anger. In the end, what remains most important about what the Dead C does comes from the least visible but most audible member: drummer Robbie Yeats. In fact, the five minutes of “Shaft” might be the best of the album despite the shorter form, since they showcase the drums so well. There’s nothing like a real non-synthesized drummer. Though Yeats’ drums provide the most accessible, rocky sounds on the album, they also make it vital and important in the midst of so much laptop noise.