The New Zealand trio the Dead C is a 25-plus-year institution of strangeness, taking rock instruments and using them to tear a hole in the fabric of the universe, shivering and shaking all the way. Since 1986 they’ve been busy ripping apart songforms for champions of underground music like Flying Nun, Stiltbreeze and Ba Da Bing!
Ben Goldberg of the latter label has been, with Simon Joyner, one of the proprietors of the vinyl-only specialty label Grapefruit Record Club, which is sadly coming to end (before getting to release a few of the releases they announced for 2014, including a new Kath Bloom LP that I was waiting with bated breath for). It seems a fitting end for their final release to be this massive set from the Dead C.
The Twelfth Spectacle is four records — each with its own title, each an improvised live recording from a different time and place (2002 Los Angeles; 2006 London; 2008 New York; 2013 Brussels). Taken together, it’s a devastating three-hour journey through the artistic vision (anti-artistic non-vision) of The Dead C.
Arena is the most recent recording. A roaring, churning beast built of two guitars, with the drummer sometimes propelling them along and sometimes stopping to bask in the fray. Side A steps forward more bracingly than Side B, which lurks in the shadows threatening us, then slowly pulls us back in. It’s akin to their metal side, with them slowly thrashing, but it wouldn’t fit most people’s definition of metal.
If Permanent LSD as a title suggests to you flowers and trippy sunshine, it should instead suggest the terror involved in being in that state all of the time. The first of four tracks starts with electronics gentle enough for you to wonder if this is meant to be purposely relaxing? Oh no. Doom and gloom is what’s on offer. Each of the four tracks starts slow, tentative but ominous, before attacking.
This Century Sucks equals a junkyard of animal and factory sounds. The first song’s scrapings are like we’re hearing the inner workings of something, while weirdly also resembling ritualistic folk music and, momentarily, pop music (that no one else probably hears as such). As is their wont, the music builds into a larger, grinding beast when the drums enter. In the last third they unleash the fury. The other half of This Century Sucks is more muted, a stop and start variation on the same.
The Year of the Rat seems a bit more withdrawn at first, like they’re building a platform for something. Then vocals come in, mumbling, writhing, perhaps saying something about the year of the rat but mostly stupefying listeners that try to follow along. Soon enough our attention goes back to the glorious noise band behind. The music then mutates into an extended whir/twisted cry for a good 10 minutes.
The second side of the record pummels, until it daydreams and like everything else in the Dead C universe it breaks down into fragments. As a three-hour experience, The Twelfth Spectacle is exhausting, as we want it to be. Grapefruit themselves said it best: this is “the band at their most dynamic, oblique, challenging and consuming.”