Universalists presents a bold new idea for what to do with rock: treat your own band noise like other people’s samples and weave it into something bigger. Gat, late of Tel Aviv’s Monotonix and now based in New York, spends a lot of this record kicking up clouds of guitar dust with drummer Gal Lazer and bassist Sergio Sayeg. But a nearly equal amount of space is taken up by vocals, either sampled or courtesy of Rhode Island’s Eastern Medicine Singers. All of this is treated as a single slab of sound for Gat to slice and dice in the studio, and the surface of this terrifically organic music is rearranged electronically in unpredictable ways that suggest Teo Macero, DJ Screw, Yeezus-era Kanye, but not much else in rock music.
It’s almost like the
Grey Album with Gat playing both Jay-Z and the Beatles. Maybe that’s an album you haven’t thought about in a long time, and indeed the Universalists philosophy is closer to something you might encounter in the post-mp3, pre-Pandora days when the limitlessness of the Internet threatened to end the tyranny of genres and po-mo pranksters like Girl Talk, DJ/rupture, and M.I.A. ruled the world. In this weary, dystopian age of the Web, the Internet is valued more in electronic music for its dehumanizing qualities than its potential to break down musical and cultural barriers, and the heedless optimism with which Gat rearranges genres is almost anachronistic.
Italian folk choirs. Native American drum music. Avant-garde noise from the academy. Surf rock, itself one of rock’s most polyglot traditions, informed as much by Middle Eastern and Mexican music as early rock ‘n’ roll. There’s some sensitive Trump-era blather on the Bandcamp about breaking down the borders between cultures in these fraught, divisive times. But Gat clearly likes smashing all this stuff together for the artistic fun of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even when fancy words like “collage” or “bricolage” come to mind, the album is anchored by the animal brain of Gat’s band and feels as often like three guys jamming as an attempt to envision brave new worlds.
So much of why
Universalists works so well is that it simply rocks. This isn’t the throwback surf-camp the John Waters-schooled ironists on Burger Records crank out. It’s music alive with rhythm and physical force, and it relies less on throwback cues than astute awareness of the forward motion that makes surf rock so thrilling, the feeling of being tossed around by the elements. Gat doesn’t even play notes for much of the album, using his guitar simply and purely to generate sound, and the effect at times is as much like Dick Dale as one of those Editions Mego joints where avant-garde vets get together to jam like greenhorn garage punks.
The use of vocal samples is audacious, and Gat’s band sounds lively and free. The problems start when the two elements mash together. Gat simply doesn’t know what to do over the Eastern Medicine Singers’ five-minute turn on “Medicine” and noodles sheepishly. The vocal sample on “Cue the Machines” is annoying and stalls the momentum generated by Gat and his band. And these are really more experiments than songs or compositions, meaning the album can feel rudderless as it goes on. Even one robust pop song might have helped the album hang together a lot more. This isn’t a great album, but it’s a visionary one, and rock would be in a healthier creative state if there were more records like it.