Formed as an outgrowth of New Zealand noise-exploration trio the Gordons, Bailter Space was, in the late ’80s, doing something similar to what Sonic Youth sold in the ’90s — hard, droning, unforgiving guitar music with occasional lapses into verse/chorus regularity. Only Bailter Space wasn’t quite as interested in accessibility. Right from the band’s debut EP, Nelsh, guitarist John Halvorsen specialized in an abrasive, almost pitchless assault that could feel as polished and smooth as sheet metal, and his foils — ex-Gordons guitarist Alister Parker, Clean drummer Hamish Kilgour (later replaced by Gordons drummer Brent McLachlan when Kilgour settled in the New York area and formed the Mad Scene) — worked to feed that sound, contributing feedback gales and arty, disjointed backbeats that never felt fully settled.
Tanker takes baby steps toward convention. The songs have recognizable forms, and there are times when the disaffected vocals actually penetrate, revealing Bailter Space as unexpectedly subversive students of pop. This aspect of the band’s personality is evident on some subsequent projects, and curiously missing from others: it’s there on the hooky 1988 EP Grader Spader and in spots on the morose and dissonant Thermos, but absent from the curiously cold Robot World. (B•E•I•P pairs up two songs from Robot World with “X” and “Projects” from the same sessions.)
The Aim marks the first time these divergent strains unite. The result is music that has distinct melodic character atop a supple and more listener-friendly sheen of noise. This balance defines Bailter Space’s later works. Never lapsing into imitation, the group’s muddy and apologetic vocals and multi-layered guitar textures manage to wink at everything from the Velvet Underground to the Beatles without subordinating mood-setting skills all its own.
Vortura leans toward the Velvets, with slow dirges and moping medium tempos that conjure languid, late-afternoon reveries. There are more extroverted single- note guitar statements, and the vocals are no longer buried in the mix; still, the shape-shifting instrumental play is much more interesting than the compositions. The pseudo-concept-album Wammo lurches back toward accessibility: despite the art-school conceit of the sleeve note that seven of the ten songs “were originally entitled Wammo,” Bailter Space flirts with power chords and pop hooks. On the uncharacteristically catchy “Retro” as well as “Splat” and “At Five We Drive,” it’s possible to hear Halvorsen searching for a way to personalize the post-Nirvana punk-pop crunch. Just as often, though, the band is happy brooding, finding new ways to link the conventional with open-ended exploration.