Friday, July 8, 2022

Making No Waves [Weekly Mixtape 27]

Neu! • Joy Division • Sol Invictus • Sonic Youth • Robert Rental • Killing Joke
Live Skull • Glenn Branca • Jarboe • Swans • Loop • Faust • Blind Idiot God

Direct Download [right click + "Save As"]

Neu!: "E-Musik"
taken from the album "Neu! '75"

Joy Division: "Shadowplay"
taken from the album "Unknown Pleasures"

Sol Invictus: "Summer Ends"
taken from the album "Sol Veritas Lux"

Sonic Youth: "Star Power"
taken from the album "Evol"

Robert Rental: "On Location"
taken from the "Double Heart" 7"

Killing Joke: "Complications"
taken from the album "Killing Joke" [1980]

Live Skull: "(X) w/ the Light"
taken from the album "Dusted"

Glenn Branca: "Light Field (In Consonance)"
taken from the album "The Ascension"

Jarboe: "Caché Toi"
taken from the album "Sacrificial Cake"

Swans: "Celebrity Lifestyle"
taken from the album "The Great Annihilator"

Loop: "Pulse"
taken from the album "Fade Out"

Faust: "Mamie Is Blue"
taken from the album "So Far"

Blind Idiot God: "Raining Dub"
taken from the album "Blind Idiot God"

Centered around the art punk scene that emerged from the Lower East Side of Manhatan, "No Wave" was one of many movements that splintered off from the general idea of "punk rock" (among them: post-punk, hardcore, goth/death rock, and neo-folk). The name was a playful reference to another genre that emerged in punk's wake, as well as a commentary on the fact that the bands associated with No Wave were in no way as commercial/popular as Flock of Seagulls or Duran Duran (though one band that emerged from the scene did end up getting featured regularly on MTV). As bands like Blondie and Talking Heads attained mainstream recognition, and CBGB's became home to a new generation of "hardcore" punk that embraced uniformity (in terms of both sound and appearance), the bands associated with No Wave kept the chaotic spirit and inventiveness of punk rock's early years alive.

Like virtually every scene that has a name attached to it, few of the bands labeled "No Wave" embraced the term willingly; indeed, there's little similarity to be found between them. Blind Idiot God were a reggae/dub influenced instrumental band; Swans founder Michael Gira was a high school dropout and drug dealer with little musical experience when he founded the band; Sonic Youth, on the other hand, had an esteemed experimental rock pedigree (guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had spent time in Glenn Branca's ensemble, performing on albums that created the template for "post rock"). If there was a thread connecting No Wave musicians, it was that a good number of them were also visual artists, making it more likely for them to rub shoulders with Keith Haring than Joey Ramone. It's probably not a coincidence that these bands found a home in lower Manhattan at the same time art galleries started sprouting throughout the area.

Sonically and visually, Britain's goth rock scene had death rock bands like Christian Death and Samhain as their American counterparts; similarly, No Wave was in many respects New York's answer to British post punk. Both scenes used the punk sound of the mid-to-late Seventies as a starting point, but veered in wildly different directions. Joy Division, Killing Joke, and Public Image Limited maintained punk's musical simplicity, adding jagged rhythms and danceable beats; No Wave eschewed punk's dogmatic approach to song structure while escalating its antimusical unpleasantness. [Take it from someone who knows: a Swans gig can be overwhelming; bring ear plugs, and maybe NSAIDs.]

Aside from geography, the bands that comprised No Wave had only a tenuous connection to the NY punks that preceded them (and the hardcore kids that took the old punks' place). In intent and execution, No Wave had more in common with Krautrock - another experimental movement with an unwanted label and a proclivity for discordance and unorthodox song structures. In building tension through dogged repetition, as well as its minimalism, the music of Blind Idiot God and Swans has too many similarities to the likes of Neu! and Faust to be coincidental.

Ultimately, the scene's hipness was its downfall. In the guise of "alternative" (a genre discriptor with even less meaning than "No Wave"), the mainstream co-opted No Wave's underground cool and sandblasted off its personality. Nirvana's breakout success meant that any good-looking twentysomethings with a vaguely "alternative" sound had a chance to be rock stars. It wasn't long before Sonic Youth were on MTV, joining Blondie and Talking Heads as artists that traded in fame for credibility.

Most of the bands from the No Wave era broke up in the Nineties, but returned in some capacity in the last decade or so. Gira resurrected Swans in 2010, releasing album after stellar album before being waylaid by sexual abuse allegations in 2016. The most recent Swans album, Leaving Meaning, might be their last. Blind Idiot God resurfaced in recent years, as did Live Skull (initially performing as "New Old Skull" on a tribute to producer Martin Bisi, before ultimately reclaiming their old name). Sonic Youth broke up in 2016 as the marriage between Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore acrimoniously dissolved. Allegations that Moore was having an affair with his decades-younger book editor aren't surprising, considering he made a career out of jumping on every hot new thing in front of him (from hardcore to shoegaze to alternative); to that end, he also became part of the black metal supergroup Twilight as "hipster black metal" became popular with Pitchfork types. That partnership also fell apart, and Moore claimed that "black metal is music made by pussies of the lowest order" once it did.

Surfing A No Wave:

catching up with
an interview with
New Old Skull
an interview
with Blind Idiot God