Life After Rock

In a controversial article in the Village Voice last year, British music writer Simon Reynolds made a sweeping assertion that rock had lost its creative power. Rock’s not dead: a quick glance at the pop charts shows that. But we may have to look elsewhere for true inspiration.

Where we should look, according to Reynolds, is at “post-rock,” bands that still use rock instrumentation but have abandoned much of the language–riffs, vocals, and familiar rhythms–and incorporated digital technology and analog synthesizers. Many of these bands have also dumped standard rock song structures in favor of more liquid, less restrictive forms.

Reynolds suggested that these post-rockers comprise a self-aware and unified movement, but only a British writer could make such a claim: the U.S. bands he mentioned operate in striking isolation.

Chicago’s Tortoise was held up as a proud exemplar of the post-rock ethos, but the band resists any sort of pigeonholing. Tortoise records for Thrill Jockey Records, which soon will release work by the young Chicago trio Rome and the experimental German trio Oval. Both these bands exude a certain glee about leaving rock in the dust, and they intentionally “misuse” recording technology to produce new sounds. The musical connection between them is tenuous at best, but as the dominant sound of alternative rock continues to calcify, Rome and Oval stand together, intentionally or not, in fierce response to rock’s stasis.

While Rome retains some vestige of rock’s visceral machinery, namely the occasional timekeeping of Elliot Dicks’s drumming and the rumbling lows of Richard Warfield’s bass playing, its approach and sound are miles from the old hook-laced four/four throttle. Adam Greul breaks with orthodoxy by recycling Warfield’s live bass signal through the condenser mike on a cheap old Yamaha sampler–originally designed as a toy to mess with short vocal phrases–and then feeding the line through various effects such as delay. The results are gorgeously amorphous soundscapes undergirded by the familiar muscle of dublike bass lines.

Like a growing legion of experimenters Rome has jettisoned many of rock’s restrictive trademarks–vocals, verse-chorus-verse structure, conventional melodicism–to investigate the possibilities of texture-based music. By lightly shadowing the music with the rhythmic essence of dub, however, Rome avoids creating something shapeless and creates something challenging instead.

Last February Warfield returned from a year and a half abroad, where he’d become infatuated with the bass-heavy Jamaican music played at British sound-system parties, a sound that has fueled the revived Rome. Previously Greul had played edgy experimental rock in Condeucent, and years ago Warfield and Dicks both played in the Moonmen. Dicks has also been visible as the house soundman at the Fireside Bowl, while, as DJ Rik Shaw, Warfield leads the team of dancehall and jungle DJs who hold court weekly at the Empty Bottle under the moniker Deadly Dragon Sound System.

While the music on Rome’s debut album, due out July 30, doesn’t sound anything like dance music, the forthcoming 12-inch Beware Soul Snatchers, out June 1, intimates that Rome is amenable to visiting the land of the beat. “We wouldn’t want to become a dance band,” says Greul. “But I think we’d all like to experiment with dance rhythms.” In the meantime the three are concentrating on bringing their live gigs up to the level of sophistication they’ve achieved in the studio, where, Warfield says, the band is more comfortable. He explains, “There’s a real excitement and energy that comes from playing live, which unfortunately doesn’t happen in the studio. When it works it works great, but when it fails we fall flat on our faces.” They’ll try to iron out some of the kinks when they play Metro May 8.

Berlin’s Oval–the trio of Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz, and Frank Metzger–betray little connection to rock in either their radical methods or their music. One of their primary achievements is a vibrant critique of modern music’s mechanical means of production and the alienation they produce in the consumer. Popp has claimed he doesn’t even like music, but Oval delivers compelling textures of undeniable beauty.

Oval’s music is the sound of messed-with CDs. They paint and scratch them, then use the stuttering electronic clicks of the faulty discs as the foundation for a strangely soothing, dreamy sound. On Systemisch, a hard-to-find 1994 German release, these seemingly random rhythmic and textural patterns occupy the music’s foreground, while serene washes of sound–the same clicks heavily treated by electronic devices–coast through the background.

By focusing on glitches in a genuinely abstract electronic medium, Oval offers a fascinating commentary on how far music production has drifted from the physicality of everyday life. The skips and surface noise on vinyl records are tactile interferences that can be felt and understood, while CD defects occur mysteriously in an electronic black box. On June 18 Thrill Jockey rereleases Systemisch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.