No Age: Nouns

[29 June 2008]

By John Dover

No Age take their name from a compilation released on legendary hardcore label SST. It is a phrase that suggests a punkish desire to not be associated with any particular time, a desire to step outside any perceived lineage, as well as a sly nod to the short-lived New York-based No Wave scene. However, Nouns, No Age’s first album proper after last year’s EP and singles collection, Weirdo Rippers, is a record steeped in the history of the last 30 years of alternative guitar music. What is astonishing is just how much of it they manage to pack into the album’s giddily explosive 30 minutes. What is even more astonishing is the fact that they generate such an intense and heady din (think early hardcore played by My Bloody Valentine with a bit of help from Hüsker Dü) when you consider that there are only two of them: (the splendidly monickered) guitarist/vocalist Randy Randall and drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt—a fact I kept having to remind myself of as the music crashed out of the speakers.

Already touted by the mainstream US media, who can’t resist the allure of any nascent local scene (No Age are one of a number of bands operating out of LA live “performance” space the Smell), for their initial collection, Nouns finds the duo making great strides in terms of loops, effects pedals, and studio techniques. Though the songs transmit the energy of the live experience, they are slathered in rich fuzzy waves of distortion, a layering effect which means there is always a tremendous amount going on. “Things I Did When I Was Dead”, for example, carries a throbbing percussive loop over layers of acoustic guitar and what sounds like a sample from Bernard Herrman’s Psycho score, to which they add slightly processed vocals that recall the Butthole Surfers’ eerie cover version of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. “Miner” seems to derive its tempo from a sample of the workings of an enormous piece of industrial machinery.

They may have their roots in the skate-punk scene, but there is an experimental drive apparent here which seems to be taking them in the direction of becoming a more concise, sample-deploying cousin of Sonic Youth. “Impossible Bouquet” is a slab of ambient, effects-heavy guitar drone. Wordless and drumless, it’s also a brief paean to the possibilities of guitar chords strummed, looped, and distorted over and over until they become almost hypnotic. This is not something to listen to but something to get lost in. At two minutes long, this idea never outstays its welcome. The same goes for the slightly more sinister Albini-esque chainsaw guitar sounds of “Errand Boy” and the dreamy narcotic haze of “Keechie”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Dave Pajo’s Papa M. albums.

Such is the energy apparent on some of the album’s more high-octane tracks, though Nouns at times feels like a physical workout for the two of them as much as a listening experience for the audience. “Sleeper Hold”, “Cappo”, and “Miner” feature Spunt smashing away at his drums like a wind-up toy that’s gone berserk while Randall thrashes furiously, David Gedge-style at his guitar. The breathlessness of all this frantic activity is apparent in their voices, which struggle to emerge from the squall,  resembling the sound of people singing while spinning around in a hurricane. This frenetic quality actually enhances the feel of the record: it would have been easy to equalise all the sound levels but it’s much more compelling to hear the component parts all struggling to make themselves heard.

As the 12 songs pass by in 31 minutes, the overall effect is nothing short of exhilarating. While their musical antecedents are clearly apparent, at no stage does Nouns feel in any way derivative or familiar. Despite the occasional bout of lyrical nihilism, it mostly sounds like two people having about as much fun as is possible with a guitar, drums, and some studio effects. No Age provide a brash, gutsy antidote to much of the wan, colorless conservatism that passes for alternative music these days. It doesn’t happen very often, but this time it would seem that all the hype is entirely justified.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/no-age-nouns/