Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Long Hundred 004/100: OLD - Formula which one of Earache's least popular albums might also be one of their best.

[This is part of a series of posts dedicated to 100 albums I feel lucky to have heard. The full list and a more detailed explanation of the series can be found here.]

The Old Lady Drivers were an early Earache signing that performed grindcore as a form of stand up comedy, along the lines of Anal Cunt and Sore Throat. Their music was solid, but their presence on the Earache Records' roster probably had more to do with how thin the grindcore field was in the late 80's than anything special about their music.

What elevated Old Lady Drivers (soon to be known by the acronym O.L.D., and eventually just as Old) over the likes of Lawnmower Deth was guitarist James Plotkin. A textbook example of an early adopter, Plotkin took Old from a forgettable grindcore act to one of the most unique bands to emerge from the genre, introducing programmed drums and synths on the band's second album and even roping in John Zorn along the way.

Plotkin's growing interest in electronic music dovetailed with that of Earache founder Digby Pearson. The Earache roster was already starting to swell with industrial bands - some interesting (Scorn, early Pitch Shifter), some unlistenable (Ultraviolence, later Pitchshifter). Old themselves could be both interesting and unlistenable. My only knowledge of them prior to Formula was a song on the Brainscan soundtrack - a bizarre psychedelic episode called "Freak Now" that seemed assembled and recorded by accident; epilepsy as interpreted by synth guitars. I was a 16 year old who had only started getting dirt from the underground beneath my nails, and my brain was not ready to go in all the directions Old was trying to take it.

Old's sound has been compared to both Rush and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark; certain aspects are reminiscent of Today is the Day. Their music is "industrial" in the loosest sense of the word (being music made by and reminiscent of machines), and their guitars are processed so heavily as to be unrecognizable. Perhaps the closest comparison to be found on the Earache roster was Scorn, if only because Mick Harris went through a similar mutation from grindcore to experimental/electronica music.

I couldn't tell you now why I took a chance on Formula. All I know is that the CD was cheap enough for me to take a chance on it. But nothing - not my previous experience with the band, not the album's cryptic title, certainly not the cover art - led me to believe that I would find the music to my liking. And yet, I bought it anyways. And have grown to love it.

Formula is a bizarre album. Having very little knowledge of electronic music, I don't have the depth of field or a frame of reference to begin describing it; but even if I did, I doubt that it would fit easily into any categorization. For the most part, Formula is a mishmash of incongruence; it's an electronic album that can hardly be called danceable, and an ambient album that suddenly breaks into black metal dissonance (more on that later).

Maybe most comparisons fall short because Formula is simply incomparable. Even 15 years after I first heard the album, I don't know quite what to make of it. I can only describe the feelings it elicits, which are elation and discomfort in equal measures. But the fifth song of the album convinced me that the album was a work of sublime (if inscrutable) genius. "Thug" starts off as a dark EDM track before cutting suddenly into the rawest rehearsal quality black metal...and then melds the two together beautifully. It's a collision of disparate genres that shouldn't work but somehow does - a synecdoche of the album as a whole.

Old was put to rest soon after Formula was released, and Plotkin would go on to greater acclaim. He has remained amazing prolific, both as a producer and a recording artist. Perhaps his best known project is the sludge act Khanate, which saw him collaborating once again with Old vocalist Alan Dubin. It's hard to say how influential Old, and Formula in particular, has been - it's rumoured to be the poorest selling album in Earache's history. When asked about re-issuing the Old discography, Pearson seemed irritated by the idea (though he did take the time to call Formula "a forgotten gem of a record"). Eventually, though, Earache made the Old discography available in toto on Bandcamp.

Old were outliers whose interests outgrew the narrow genre they started in, and whose vision found them both without peer and seemingly without an audience. These days, it's not unheard of for bands to cross over from metal to electronic music - Ulver, who emerged from black metal's second wave, have the bulk of their releases solidly in the ambient/electronic genre. But no one has ever put out an album quite like Formula, and I doubt I'll ever hear one like it again.