There are records music critics absolutely adore and records that they totally hate. A Proposed Method for Determining Sanding Fitness is somehow both of them. What do we mean? Well, all too often, the cultural gate-keepers in contemporary America sample the tried and true and attack it for a lack of adventurousness or derring-do, calling it safe and staid in the opuses they write. But what happens when they are presented with something truly weird, something BEYOND adventurousness?
Enter Stella Research Committee, a Cincinnati/Columbus, all-Ohio trio releasing their fifth LP on 12 March. The group bill themselves as purveyors of strange sounds sitting at the intersection of noise-rock and no wave but, of course, it’s all a little bit more complicated than that. The band’s sound is frequently more NOISE than ROCK – no AmRep or Touch and Go deals here – despite the somewhat conventional three-piece line-up. And, yes, the no-wave trappings, that notion of anti-art and urban decay so neatly crystallized in late 1970s New York City, are digested here. But nowhere will you hear the anthems of Richard Hell, the live-wire attack of Suicide, or the bizarre hypnotisms of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. Stella Research Committee, instead, are a little more fixated on deconstruction and entropy. So be it. Take “Nails”, the second track, where guitar squalor cuts in and out of time with a free-jazz snare, and Tony Squeri’s Horror House noise-arpeggios are frequently not even in the same key as the rest of the band. Indeed.
There is an unusual science or mysticism, however, at work here. The excellent closer, “River Rd”, throws glass shards of the electric guitar at an oddly nuanced drum and electronic lurch – to some significant effect, at times. “Sauerkraut” is a bipolar kraut-rock freakout featuring strains of Steel Pole Bath Tub and maybe Throbbing Gristle at their most obtuse and experimental. The fact that, here, frontman Kevin Hall’s laments are often lost in a cataclysm of noise isn’t beside the point – it is the point. “Hanging in My Screamer” has some wonderful descents (maybe they’re ascents) into complete and utter madness. The timid ear need not apply.
Elsewhere, it’s tough to buy into the brand of mania these guys are doling out for the listener. (Hearing it live must be either a complete revelation or boring as shit.) “Dustkop” has some inviting percussive thrust but the rest of the band doesn’t live up to the Armageddon-at-11 frenzy. “Sanding” has lulls that demand a better editor. “The Blast Cabinet Conference” follows many of the increasingly familiar patterns of the songs around it, and Hall’s mono-prismic delivery here, in particular, feels rather dusty. (Can he sing/speak in any other key?) “Murdurd”, the opener, is enticing but could’ve done the job just as well in half the time.
This is a challenging record and Stella probably realize 99 out of 100 people who listen to it will disregard it as senseless nonsense. There are arguments for that, for sure. But what Stella Research Committee cook up is a record that will make you question your expectations of art-rock… maybe even rock-art. This Ohio trio are cooking with open powder kegs and passing around matches. It’s not a great record – far from it; very far from it at points. But, if you’re looking for something adventurous and something to stretch the borders of your mind, Stella’s got your number.