New York's new avant-garde.
Brushing off the tidy punk formalism of the Strokes and the sleek new-wave style of Interpol and the Rapture, a swell of New York bands has rallied behind the idea of messing around. Holed up in Brooklyn lofts and performing in art galleries amenable to musicians chanting over mesmeric drones, they've created a rustling shadow-scene to the skinny-tie "New York rock renaissance." These experiments are not without precedent, but the new sound remains refreshingly hard to do a genealogy for. It's urban and pastoral, electronic and organic, psychedelic without tipping toward the '60s.
Animal Collective have been this scene's bellwether since a series of barely released CDs started getting handed around, samizdat style, in 2000. In their early concerts, the band would flail about in animal masks or play cross-legged before flickering images of desert travels. (One member, who answers to the name Geologist, wears a spelunker's headlamp onstage, to better see his gear.) The group's music has always evoked a ceremonial soundtrack to a cracked naturist's private rituals, but it congeals into something more coherent and approachable on Feels—the first Animal Collective offering to scan asa"rock" album. "The Purple Bottle" cycles through a mad clatter of melody spat out by electric guitar, galloping drums, and voices in various states of ecstatic glee. The parts all sound as though they were sketched with a bluntcrayon, but they come together in dizzyingly intricate ways. The same holds for "Grass," which jams spells of manic screaming into barbershop "ooohs" and comely bird chirps.
Black Dice started out as a notoriously antagonistic punk band with ties to the Rhode Island School of Design. Then, befitting their academic surroundings, they morphed into a headyambient-music project. Some of the antagonism remains—audience tales of bruises received at lights-out mosh sets have been replaced by stories of ear pain endured at unbelievably loud ambient shows. But Broken Ear Record spans lots of beautiful chasms between rises of topographical noise. Black Dice's main focus is texture: Over the course of nine minutes, "Smiling Off" wanders through twitchy electro ripples, ominous low-frequency buzz, and airy pump organ made more human by wisps of voice processed into rhythmic bumps. No track by Black Dice could be called a "song"—they're more like maps of the ideas that transpire while lost in a tangle of wires and electronic gear. "Motorcycle" drifts closest to a stock rock track, as what sounds like slow, slurry surf-guitar settles into a riff at the center. It's only a matter of minutes, though, before any thoughts of waves get wiped out by a marching band stomping in from the distance.
More conventional than their peers, though still skewed in their own way, the Double are a rock band given to lumbering shifts in tone and color. (They also share a love for weird environments, playing a release-party show for Loose in the Air in the rusty bowels of a tugboat docked on the West Side of Manhattan.) Songs like "Icy" suggest the Pixies traipsing through a lazy day at a carnival, but the Double prove difficult to place for a band trafficking in a standard language of guitar, bass, and drums. Some of the earthier songs sound like cubist refractions of Wilco; others have elaborate structures that evoke the grand ambition of old '70s prog-rock. But it's much harder to define a song like "On Our Way," a menacing ballad rooted in tinny strums on an electrified zither.
A gangly group that has employed lots of guys pressing buttons and an experimental dancer who writhes like an arthritic snake, Excepter once played a concert for the Downtown for Democracy activist organization backed by a sign reading "Protest Music." It wasn't clear if it was a label or a provocation, but it's typical of an ambiguous band given to long, discursive spells of electronic mood music. Self Destruction starts in a magisterial mode, flowing over gentle pulses and throbs while a singer makes mouth noises that sound as if they were made by a guy hiding under a blanket with a microphone and a few hours to kill. The first half of the album is as involving or inconsequential as you choose to make it, but its grip grows tighter as the rhythm creeps in. "Interplay: Backroom" shimmies over distracted tambourine and beats culled from house music; the sequel "Interplay: Your House" amplifies all the parts and pulls in a stirring synthesizer melody. It's as though someone were walking through the woods, trying to remember what electronic dance music sounds like.
Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Wire, Spin, the National, and more.
Audio excerpts from Feels © 2005 FatCat; Broken Ear Record © 2005 Astralwerks/DFA; Loose in the Air ©2005 Matador; Self Destruction © 2005 Fusetron; Hillulah © 2005 The Social Registry. All rights reserved.