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Interior Clouds: Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons

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Challenging the parameters of genre, the syntax of experimentation, and the capacity of emotional response, Black Dice brings noise ambiance to a state of celestial perfection on Beaches and Canyons.

Interior Clouds: Black Dice's Beaches and Canyons

By the time Beaches and Canyons made its reticent, mosaic-laden appearance in record stores in late September, the album had already assumed the proportions of a full-blown phenomenon. Promotional copies of the Black Dice recording, to be the inaugural full-length for New York-based DFA, circulated throughout the summer. Critics clamored of a new direction for a band already distinguished by its reputation for confrontational noise, visual experimentation, and violent concert tendencies. Veneration is never a foregone conclusion, and the promo sparked a windfall of opinions: fans of hardcore and psyche, respectively but not exclusively, arranged polemical extremes, debating the merit of a record that is, foremost, synthetic – merging technique, genre, and definition in an approach of general disregard of all aforementioned items.

The record was subject to a fairly typified form of underground hype, balanced largely on the swollen feet of New York’s post-punk fixation and the viable success of other mainstays in the Brooklyn-Providence hardcore contingency. To a considerable extent, everyone seemed to have an angle on the record, with the exception of Black Dice themselves, who seemed content to allow the record to speak for itself in distended pitches, modulating atmospherics and, above all, bombast. Encouragingly less interested in social impact than some of its audience, the album’s ethos became a tacit, almost moot point – a portrait of improvisational evolution, framed against the reference of previous recordings and relative to a sound ever-emerging in live context. Beaches and Canyons, in short, is brilliant in its own right. But it is a finite revelation, acknowledging a continued trajectory in performance (recent concerts carry many of the album’s elements, primarily sound collage and tribal syncopation, to an extreme) and studio material (the band just recorded the first side for a 12” project with Boredoms). Tellingly, the album concludes in mid-climax, without even a hint of resolution, a sound that can only ascend and expand, arrival absconded.

That Black Dice is adamant to stay its uncompromised course of development does nothing to belittle the accomplishment of the recording, but rather serves to foreground the type of deliberate scrutiny that precipitated the album’s inception. The source material is a sprawling mass of improvised beauty, testament to the cohesion of the quartet, later tempered by sharp edits and layers of overdubbing. Graced by the touch of Nicholas Vernhes, the Rare Book Room producer who coaxed such lovely sounds out of art-house assholes Fischerspooner, Beaches and Canyons is a rare achievement, a polished affair that suffers nothing in noisy content and intensity. It is also, and more importantly, a culmination of sorts, making good on the promise of previous efforts. There are traces of the electro-acoustic pastiche technique that first surfaced on their split 7” with Erase Errata, and orgiastic feedback in the vein of the Cold Hands LP. There are also new sounds, distinctly ethereal concentrations of tonal and thematic development. Hardly a background dynamic, this is the ambiance of sunlight and seizure, a mediation of violent and sublime forces that abhors, even negates, the notion of compromise.

No matter where this recording takes them, further from the confrontational torpor that characterized their earlier albums and singles, Black Dice remains a conceptual entity. Vague as the “total art” of Wagner and Bertolt Brecht is in the aspirations of contemporary music, Black Dice eschews the drama and still merits the moniker, perhaps the only band in America at present to challenge the disparate notions of sound, vision, and chaos so effectively. Their new LP is a document of sound alone, albeit a template of parameters so vast as to inhale the possibilities of sensory fusion or even ethos in one single sweeping gesture. Rather than elect a purely aural focus, the record demonstrates that sound, cultivated properly and yielded with a singular precision and intensity, can encompass the whole of experience. Beaches and Canyons has the ability to precipitate tunnel vision, suspend olfactory awareness, and draw all tactile inclination to the general area of the loins, less of biological necessity than a near-neuter form of sexual self-consciousness, if this seems possible. If art is capable of withdrawing momentarily from the cycles and plateaus that typify a functional existence, heralding an alternate space both near-tangible and nonexistent, then Beaches and Canyons is the contribution of hardcore/noise-ambient to the realm of removed romantic infinity.

In terms of a more direct analogy, there are records that reorganize a notion of accessible experience, illuminating the undercurrents and possibilities of that which is seen and heard already. Black Dice isn’t interested in subverting this notion of rock transcendence so much as inverting it, channeling focus to an entirely separate, an entirely esoteric, world of volatile confluence. As entirely unprecedented as Beaches and Canyons seems, and in many ways is, innovation will always be defined in relief against traditional media. The nature of this recording has as much to do with the outlying landscape and its periphery, at least so long as shared objectivity and universal experience insist on shades of mediocrity and redundancy in popular music. Though subject to the circumstances, primarily in audience perception, that this landscape entails, Beaches and Canyons does its part to challenge the notion, not so much by destroying the landscape as by circumscribing its own buffer against reality, forging a realm unto itself.

If only to create a context for the ethos the new Dice record heralds, the aforementioned musical reality merits its own comparative attention. Most evidently, there is the harmonic conveyance of conversation, invective, etc. that is the lyric – only vaguely distinguishable from muzak or woodland chatter at a time when the radio medium aspires to an escapist common denominator. In ideal circumstances, the lyricist faces the formidable and poetic challenge to level imagination on language, to derive significance and artistry from preexisting constructions. The function of language is cohesion, allowing and facilitating expression by confining the range of vocal possibility to a specific definition. The efforts of the songwriter are limited to the function of these selected words and the potential for interplay surrounding them; the audience, conversely, is limited to it own response mechanism, subjective, but still fettered by preconception and the nature of balladry.

With the experimental proclivities of noteworthy contemporary music, many of these organizational possibilities have developed to what would seem to be a logical extreme. Namely, abstraction has evolved to pure improvisation. Lyrically, the proponents range from the heavy-flow stylistics of hip hop to the free associations of No Wave descendants. The recent electronic lexicon, particularly plunderphonics and chance agency, has taken to a similar improvisational restructuring of recognizable sounds. Still, in both instances, the fact that elements are at all recognizable limits the response of the transient, rogue mentality born of media accessibility and general over-exposure, over-stimulation, and the exhaustion of compositional techniques. The call for new sounds, structures, and experiences is not itself new; every artistic manifesto for over a century, ever since the fin-de-siecle that evidently never arrived, has heralded “new forms,” but generally in the form of technology, linguistic innovation, or some obscure resource abandoned by history.

Somehow, the question of measure has never been part of the dialogue of aesthetic revolution. The maximalist ethos of hardcore and noise agit-prop remained fettered to the rock template, and occasionally a self-defeating political agenda. Seminal outfits like Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle reveled in abrasive textures, and yet every measure of chaotic revelry was matched by the contextual demands of confrontation. Even drone and new music compositions, while free of structural and sociological confinement, proceeded from an academic background and, as such, sustained a certain hermetic veneer. Like their musical forebears, Black Dice’s point of entry is a matter of volume and intensity. But rather than a call for blood, or an effort to pasteurize the fluids at hand, Black Dice instills a voice in the blood itself, inspires a celebration in the vitality of organic chaos, derived here from tape loops, feedback, and devastating live percussion. The end result is an ocean of sound that lacks the stereotypes of psych, a violence that loses the inculcated animosity of metal and hardcore, seething of its own accord and motivation. In relation to other contemporary accomplishments, Beaches and Canyons is sufficiently broad as to provide a platform for any notion of influence, or even none at all, simultaneously precluding and validating conjecture.

Still, much of the recording’s strength exists in its form as composite, no so much of influence but of respective contribution. Perhaps Eric Copeland was pondering the aforementioned linguistic inadequacy when he laid down these vocal tracks; perhaps he was devastated, or ecstatic, or even distracted. His cathartic delivery is the single component of untempered humanity on the album, subtly juxtaposed to the instrumental fury, which itself suggests a glacier comprised of writhing machines, circuits and wires: a synthetic fury that is no longer distinguishable from its natural source. Copeland utilizes vocal exercise as a melodic device, never articulating a single word, engaging all manner of exhortative moaning and shrill, unnerving pitch, but likewise never screaming for the sake of effect. His vocals are an element of continuity in a field of shifting textures, an analog contraption in their own right; still, they ultimately succumb to the same degree of decomposition, whereby mechanical means meet animal ends in a sort of violent unity.

Copeland’s delivery overlays and infuses the instrumental fulcrum, the elements that only in combination achieve innovation. The occasional vocals are as integral as the tape loops, synth textures, and guitar feedback that comprise the melodic body of each composition. Meanwhile, Hisham Bharoocha drops percussion like a man possessed, underpinning the whole affair in some extreme form of pop sensibility. The two essential modes of the material, tribal elation and mounting ambiance, are charted by Hisham’s versatility on drums, vacillating between moments visceral and ephemeral. The aesthetic contrast between “Things’ll Never Be the Same” and “The Dream is Going Down,” the former lilting and aerie, the latter grunting and static, are the two expressive filters of the Black Dice compendium, fleeting and collapsing, respectively. With “The Big Drop,” the album’s culminating opus, the two worlds collide with unfathomable density. Noise doesn’t become ambiance so much as the two, conflated, become catharsis. The only track on Beaches and Canyons to foreground the rock framework of guitar, bass, and drums, it arrives at a moment when the listener is entirely desensitized to the possibility of a recognizable precedent, compelled to interact with the sensory onslaught by nerve endings alone. “The Big Drop” seethes for better than 16 minutes: elements swell and recede, double back on one another, and then engage their relative movements once again, stretching far beyond the arbitrary moment when someone turned the recorder off.

Beaches and Canyons offers no pretense of philosophy. Like anything other than living itself, it is distraction; yet, as unmediated emotion transferred straight to compact disc, it ranks among the more worthwhile means of bypassing certain issues. Spend your time confronting solitary anguish, wanton desire, an emotional synapse, et al, or just allow Black Dice to resolve the whole conundrum for you, if only for an hour, in sheer primordial splendor.

By Tom Roberts

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