Punch-Drunk Love

Your favorite song has delivered everything you wanted, and now it expects something in return. The lyrics will tell you: It needs you to lose yourself in the music, the moment. To have sex so good you'll say blah blah blah. To run through the halls of your high school, screaming at the top of your lungs. To fight the power. Spend your money. Talk to Jesus. Dump your boyfriend. And when you're through, it asks that you sing its chorus until its name drops off the Billboard charts and into the part of your brain that occasionally spits out lyrics without knowing where the hell they came from. It needs you to promise you'll never forget it.


But when your preferred music is more squall than song--when its meaning stretches like an elastic band, snaps back on your synapses, disintegrates--it requests that you actively do nothing at all. That's the anti-demand of New York's other music scene: Avey Tare and Panda Bear, Gang Gang Dance, Flux Information Sciences, and, perhaps most visibly, Black Dice. For Black Dice, vocals are less a slogan-spewing device than a microphone for the id. There are no words. Band members' larynxes produce noise packets that explode with the ahhh of a gospel choir, the shhh of Pop Rocks granules, the yip of a zoo animal poked one too many times through its cage. Distortion pedals twist the guitar and bass until they whir and crackle like televisions in a bathtub. Feedback loops chirp like mechanical birds. Drums pound "pow wow" in Morse code. And when the sound finally diminishes to silence again, it leaves your mind as meditatively clean as it was before you turned on the stereo.

That is, if you listen to Black Dice on the stereo. When you listen to them live, that same Zen emptiness will leave your head caved in like a rotting pumpkin. Formed in 1997 in Rhode Island's Fort Thunder loft space (birthplace of panic-rock acts such as Lightning Bolt and Arab on Radar), Black Dice became notorious for using their abrasive music to force their audience to experience the physicality of performance. In other words, they beat people up. And in return, they let the crowd throw a few punches at them.

"It was a natural response to the music for us, a conscious effort to take control over an environment and force people to reconsider what their role in the performance was," guitarist Bjorn Copeland explains from New York during a recent phone conversation. (We get it--our role is Angry Frat Boy.) But not long after a late-'90s Minneapolis house party where a mob of skinheads slashed Black Dice's tour-van tires and pummeled the band to a bloody mess, that practice started to change. "Once an expectation was established, we would have been pretending if we kept [fighting] every time," he explains.

Somehow, Black Dice's split 7-inches go well with split lips. On the group's first full-length CD, Beaches and Canyons (released on celebrated NYC label DFA Records), the music creates a physical mysticism for those who can reach nirvana as easily through DT Suzuki as Kurt Cobain. Each of the five Boredoms-like songs is longer than the last, as if all these interwoven narrative instrumentals could form fully realized subplots from a Hayao Miyazaki film. Even the titles evoke something grotesque and fantastical: "Things'll Never Be the Same" rises and falls, a low hum eroding beneath it. "The Dream Is Going Down" is a sort of siren song, like an Emergency Alert System test projected through the Pacific Ocean. "Endless Happiness" fuses video game blips with new age tribalism, allowing the two worlds to collide into some Jungian archetype. And at the end of the album, when every firecracker note has hiccuped, gulped, or imploded, something screeches and falls silent. You can't call it a loud noise. You call it the Big Bang.

As Nick Catucci once pointed out in the Village Voice, it's hard to make music out of psychodrama. Those who search noisecore for the emperor's new clothes will sometimes end up watching some naked guy bash a microphone against a dead chicken. But Black Dice are not just out to produce pure sound: They're looping, bending, and refracting frequencies to create new expectations for the genre--or rather, to let the genre create new expectations for you. Beaches and Canyons wants to fill your ears with a narcotic din that makes the real world sound positively loud when you pay attention to it. When the CD is over and your ears are still ringing, it requests that you do something else: Listen.

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