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Billy Bao - Dialectics of Shit

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Artist: Billy Bao

Album: Dialectics of Shit

Label: Parts Unknown

Review date: Aug. 14, 2008

YouTube evidence seems to indicate that Billy Bao, ostensibly a four piece led by a Nigerian expatriate currently residing in Spain, is in fact fronted by improv-provocateur Mattin. Though a juicy narrative exists in the public version – Bao as third-world rage channeled through sloppy sludge protest-punk – the (perhaps) true story is undeniably the more interesting one.

Mattin’s work hits at odd angles, but is ultimately generous. Whether exploring sheer noise or deconstructing singer-songwriter conventions, he trusts his audience to receive and judge the work appropriately. It couldn’t be otherwise, really. The work is predicated upon audience interaction. This can sometimes be obvious: in performance, Mattin may record the sound of the audience and play it back live or may set up a pure inquisition to prod attendees’ motivation for bothering to show up at a concert of his sort. These might sound like stunts, and they may be, but they’re far from apolitical; if we’re to believe Mattin’s assertion that ease of exploitation constitutes a major flaw of “experimental” music (commoditization of its breakthroughs), shifting the focus from the product/producer to the site of reception allows for a more direct negotiation, not to mention an increased focus on the world outside of the art itself.

If Mattin really believes this, how and why does he incorporate the Bao bluff? Even if the Bao tale is true, it’s still being employed for Mattin’s ends; he hosts the Bao website, for Pete’s sake. Is his philosophy by itself not enough to engender action (assumedly the goal of political art)? Punk rock certainly doesn’t have much to brag about anymore. The young child listening to the Vulpess 7” on the album cover might co-sign that group’s feminist message, but did Vulpess change the world? To that end, has Mattin? Punk has undeniably been exploited and has arguably hit a political dead-end. Mattin is marginal. Dead-on philosophy or dead-on punk purity: either way, we’re fucked. Put them in conversation with each other? Dialectics of shit.

Dialectics of Shit can’t not be a frustrating experience. I don’t really buy the above nihilism, and I don’t think Mattin does, either. It’s a despair that an artist with his leanings and thoughts would necessarily encounter, and he can’t really be blamed for wanting to change the site of reception, even if a tired punk-rock sneer must go in tandem. Fortunately, Mattin compensates for simple attitude. Speaker channels fizzle and die throughout, static gradually overpowers a few songs, bits are looped to suggest a skipping record, and the album eventually devolves into junk noise. If anything, the record gets your attention.

Billy Bao hit all the bases that Pissed Jeans do, but the difference is that Mattin isn’t joking. Like sonic brethren Brainbombs, he actually has the courage of punk convictions, even if the Bao alias turns out to be a hedge. I’m a Pissed Jeans fan, but if the lyrics of “My Life Is Shit” (My life is shit, / your life is shit / and you don’t do / anything / Just / drink / fuck / sleep / and get killed / by a system / that only wants you as a / working corpse) were theirs, I probably wouldn’t be able to shake the feeling that they got a beer after recording the track. Bao keeps the straightjacket drums and dirty fuzz riffs, but recognize that the child listening on the cover deserves better. I’m not fully convinced that the Vulpess or Minor Threat tack isn’t the more honest or effective one, but Dialectics of Shit is to be applauded for putting the ball firmly in the listener’s court.

By Brad LaBonte

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