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Cracking the Open Channels: Some Thoughts on the Dead C.

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Michael Crumsho reflects on the Dead C. in all their muddy glory on the occasion of Ba Da Bing's double CD career retrospective Vain, Erudite and Stupid: Selected Works 1987 - 2005.

Cracking the Open Channels: Some Thoughts on the Dead C.

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a shitwater ‘burb that had little going for it aside from a bubble gum factory and some land of horrible toxicity that would eventually become an EPA Superfund clean-up site. I spent a lot of time staring at cinder block walls in my friend’s garage and piecing together hardcore and punk from whatever dubbed tapes we could get our fat paws on. Pre-internet ubiquity, we relied on older kids with better record collections to lay things on us, and so it went that my knowledge of any good stuff outside of Flipper and Black Flag came from those kind souls who copied LPs at our insistence.

Nowadays if you wanted to know about the Dead C., you’d just type “The Dead C.” in the search bar of the browser you’re using to read this very article and in 15 minutes you’d be a textbook authority on them. But in that grey area before all this stuff was readily available, the grainy copy of Harsh Seventies Reality that fell into my lap did so like manna from up on high. What I knew about the band was hilariously brief – they were from Dunedin, New Zealand, there were three of them, and they had put out some stuff on the same label as the Clean. Factoids didn’t matter much, though, as this record was a gateway into some alien landscape that began to terraform anew my whole outlook on rock music.

The Dead C. have had the type of career over the past 18 years that most people wouldn’t be too terribly enthused to call their own – virtually ignored for much of their existence in their home country with only a small but rabidly dedicated clutch of international followers. They tour infrequently (at best) and to date have made it to America but twice. As it stands now, the bulk of their catalogue is in print only sporadically, and the sheer number of releases they managed to crank out during their fertile middle period makes being a completist a daunting and self-defeating effort. But such is the mark these three dirt-rockers made that almost two decades on, those with any real sense still speak of this band with a justly deserved reverence.

If you listen back to the first batch of releases upon which New Zealand indie and punk staked its claim to fame, it’s not quite as easy to see just how much of a departure the Dead C. presented when guitarists Michael Morley and Bruce Russell, and drummer Robbie Yeats debuted in the mid-1980s. The band’s debut wasn’t actually that far removed from the spirit and style of early Flying Nun releases. Prior to their ascent, the New Zealand sound was marked by a first and foremost emphasis on the craft of song – as Nick Cain points out in his liner notes to Ba Da Bing!’s very necessary Dead C. retrospective Vain, Erudite and Stupid, this was a focus that often put the structure ahead of the actual sound, making the final product almost secondary to the nature of its construction. Though they weren’t wedded to pop by any stretch of the imagination, there’s still a stark similarity between the tracks that make up the various incarnations of DR503's distant textures and the low fidelity, scattershot inaugural releases from bands like the Clean. But whereas that band attached a lifeline to hooks and choruses, the Dead C. presented a deep chasm, pounding slams of distortion and muffled drums that began to alienate any common reference points.

What the band thus posited was almost a simple reversal – the sound itself became primary, the construction thereof a series of exercises designed to showcase exactly how three people sounded playing together in a room, an accurate reflection of moments, gear, and mentalities at a specific point in time. No matter what the circumstances, none of their pieces could be recreated in the same way twice, a notion that gave the music the same fleeting grace and immediate primacy that came out of free jazz and the fieriest of improvisations. If the group’s relationship to the rock maxim was tangential at best to begin with, their approach of post-punk was more an instinctual grab for freedom as grim-toothed splendor rather than a rigidly dogmatic series of lock-steps. The Dead C. recorded simply on few tracks, not because that was all they could afford or had access to, but because the minimal tracking and spare overdubs gave a truer image of what the band actually sounded like. As opposed to making records that reflected optimal conditions that could never be an honest representation, the Dead C. chose a pared down form of audio verite.

In a sense, this notion returned the band to the punk roots that much of the rest of New Zealand’s underground musicians had strayed away from. And despite those early Flying Nun connections, their initial impetus was stand-offish with regards to that label’s continuing evolution. At a time when New Zealand’s indie flagship was ceding control of its operations, the Dead C. spit back a venomous gristle of white noise and muddy tape hiss that communicated their professed desire to do only what they saw fit, regardless of any lack of commercial potential.

Taking all this into consideration, anthologizing the Dead C. could never be an easy task – there are too many recordings and far too many little nuances to document and map out. Though some clods would probably argue otherwise, they’re one of the few bands whose entire discography is worth tracking down. The two disc collection Vain, Erudite, and Stupid helps that cause, drawing a sketch of the band at their most abrasive, pulling in over two hours worth of material that finds the band ripping gaping maws out of speaker cones and tapping faint rhythms in the vain hope of preventing the seams from splitting. Though every track is a keeper, this image is still a little lopsided. Beginning with an edit of “Max Harris” and pulsing past “Angel” and across the desolation bleat of “3 Years,” the three tracks nabbed from the various incarnations of DR503 (all successive collections of early material), the compilation forsakes the homespun tunefulness of tracks “Crazy I Know” or “Speed Kills” in favor of much darker stuff. But then again, the gentle strummed coda of “Max Harris” seems almost better viewed in this context as a kiss-off, a backwards glance at the surrounding scene that spawned the Dead C. as they began to negotiate choppier waters.

Indeed, the martial drumbeat that lines “Maggot” and its tar pit guitars and stabbing vocals waves sentimentality away in seven minutes. And yet, “Helen Said This,” a track that’s turned up on numerous Dead C. records, and “Hell Is Now Love” both hold off on that dismissal briefly, the former capping its spiraling clamor with beautiful chords mapped along sparse topography while the latter pulls discord into faint blues echoes. “Power” is another track that’s turned up in quite a few places (with a recently issued seven-inch documenting the “Fallujah Version”), here building to a destructive conclusion that adequately mirrors the song’s war-mongering lyrical concerns.

The end of the retrospective’s first disc ushers in a look at the Dead C.’s well-known and highly productive Siltbreeze era. Tom Lax documents his discovery of the band in humorous detail in his liner notes, and the music itself speaks volumes on how the label and the band became so intertwined. It’s a shame that the entirety of Harsh Seventies Reality couldn’t be documented here, but so it goes. In its place the burrowing fury of “Constellation” and the majestically tilted drones and scrapes of “T is Never Over Pt I & II” more than convey the brilliance of a band locking into its prime.

The first half of disc two captures the remainder of the band’s Siltbreeze residency in all its turbulent glory. “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor” feels weightless throughout its fifteen minutes, droning skyward but never once torpid. The two tracks plucked from the insanely great The White House are some of the band’s finest moments, with driving drums urging the phased guitars of “Bitcher” into one of the Dead C.’s most overtly rockist moments. Repent and Tusk would be the two final records the band cut for the Philadelphia label, and here they come in full force, “Repent IV” a live cut documenting steadily widening canyons of guitar bombast and “Head” all uneasy groove against catastrophic maelstrom.

The band took three years off in between Tusk and their next full-length, a self-titled double disc set that collected pieces recorded over a number of years. Here the band had begun mucking around with computers and tape loops, emerging with pieces that nevertheless still bore the hallmarks of classic Dead C. barrage. New Electric Music’s “Repulsion” almost sounds like a willfully low-tech AMM, and all throughout the band’s modern period it’s become apparent just how much they’ve hotwired the basic configurations of rock music for their own sinister purposes. Closing with a blast of “Truth” from 2003s The Damned, the thumping backbeat and upfront vocals almost manage to bring the entire set full circle. Die hard fans will notice that there are exactly zero surprises on this collection – no outtakes or lost treasures. Still, it performs an near impossible task for the as of yet initiated, giving a sharp and concise overview of a wealth of facets of the band’s career.

There was something about the Dead C. that always burrowed into my chest like a goddamned Buick. Their music wasn’t necessarily aggressive, although the cavernous waves of stinging distortion and eviscerated guitars could never be mistaken for lullabies. It wasn’t deliberately sloppy, but it lacked the pristine sheen that much of the indie rock I’d heard had. Theirs was a music that supposed simple truth in sound and an embrace of chance. They didn’t really seem to give two shits whether anyone heard and/or loved their songs or not, and their acknowledgement of that attitude freed the tracks from any real self-consciousness that plagued people too obsessed on making friends and moving units. I knew dick about improvisation or noise at that time, but there it was all mapped out before me. The Dead C. took basic rock structures and frustrated those boundaries – verse and chorus were left in the cold, given over instead to pure tones and abstract explorations of simple sound, the result of three guys jamming out on overloaded equipment that anyone could have bought on the cheap. It took the parts I loved from old Velvets and early Fall and dosed it with grit and grime and a naggingly distant sense of rhythm. They were ominous and bleak, but then they’d cover something like T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution” to prove that not only did they have somewhat of a reference point, but they had a sense of humor as well.

Without the Dead C. the face and sound of modern noise and experimental music would be unfathomably different. Had most rock bands any real guts to eviscerate, the Dead C. would have done that ten times over. In the absence thereof, however, they’ve simply pointed how hollow some other bodies of work truly are, creating a cavernous sound that ricochets around in that area just below the stomach.

By Michael Crumsho

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