You could be forgiven for thinking of New Zealand as one of those pastoral spots where the sun always shines and the natives are given to the creation of cordial jangle-pop. Every stretch of terra firma has its less-illuminated stretches, however, and few Kiwis have probed their homeland’s darker side more effectively than this prolific (yet shadowy) combo. Formed in 1987 by Bruce Russell (founder of the influential Xpressway label), avant-noise veteran Michael Morley and former Verlaines drummer Robbie Yeats, the Dead C has created an uncompromising (some might say undifferentiated) corpus of work that exists in the shadowlands between hell-spawned noise and fallen-angel beauty.
The trio’s earliest work was issued in micro-mini editions on cassette only — an appropriate state, given the grit-encrusted lo-fi recordings. By the time DR503 saw the light of day, there had been a moderate upgrade, but not so much as to frighten off unreconstructed Luddites: “Sun Stabbed” (which turns up in a longer version on the subsequent EP) is carried by a skittering, highly caffeinated rhythm overlaid by harsh guitar scrapings, while “Angel” buries whatever structure might be present under brittle sheets of electronic discord. A brutal prologue. Trapdoor Fucking Exit launches in similarly severe fashion with the practice-space-quality “Heaven,” a song that chisels Brit-folk vocals into a bottom-heavy vein of Ubuesque skronk, while its evil adjunct “Hell Is Now Love” pushes Morley’s “singing” to the fore, as Yeats summons a rhythmic paroxysm from what sounds like a single snare drum. The album’s true killer, however, is the fisheyed “Bone,” which laces a gymnastic fret run around a slo-mo incantation that makes sex dirty all over again.
Helen Said This allows the band to explore plenty of blind alleys, given that its two side-long songs can be timed with a sundial. Still, the dark, oscillating tumult that emanates from both the title track and “Bury (Refutatio Omnium Haeresium)” brings to mind the earliest, most experimental days of the Velvet Underground — back when a 45-minute “Sister Ray” was likely to be the most, er, “accessible” thing in earshot. (Siltbreeze later issued Helen Said This and Trapdoor Fucking Exit, originally a tape-only release on Morley’s label, on a single CD under the latter’s title.) Eusa Kills, which was recorded in 1988, is ever so slightly more digestible, at times redolent of the unfettered sonic discharge of the early Fall: an almost-unrecognizable cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution” is the disc’s most malevolent moment.
The double-LP Harsh ’70s Reality is incontrovertibly the Dead C’s masterwork, spanning 80-odd minutes of purposefully mulched guitar harmonics and furtive tape manipulations. The apex, in terms of pure excess, is the abrasive, side-long “Driver U.F.O.,” but there are moments of concord that verge on radiance: “Sea Is Violet” glides somberly across opalescent layers of manipulated sound, while the largely acoustic “Hope” could well be a newly discovered outtake from Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. A thorough document of the splendor of squalor. Wittily packaged in a faux-Fall graphic style, the no-fi live Clyma Est Mort (a bootleg given an official rerelease) provides an interesting (though hardly indispensable) companion piece, proving that the trio can be every bit as reckless and indistinct onstage as in the studio.
The trio dives headlong into improv on The Operation of the Sun, concentrating on gentle swells rather than overt rock surges and de-emphasizing the role of feedback. Songs like “Mordant Heaven” roll out a carpet of analog synth that Can’s various members would be exceedingly comfortable walking across. The concurrently released World Peace Hope et al. compiles fourteen odds and ends, spanning five years’ worth of particularly noisy moments: not surprisingly, the title isn’t a desire for mankind, merely three of the record’s song titles. (Completists should note the presence of four short, electrifying tracks originally released in conjunction with Bananafish magazine.) The White House reestablishes a link to terra firma with a handful of unusually organic mid-tempo songs (and that word is appropriate for a change) that sound like they could have been recorded at a Velvets jam session — on a day when Lou Reed called in sick. Utterly bewitching.
Russell uses the moniker A Handful of Dust to transmit his more academic treatises on sound in all its permutations. Cleaving his ever-present array of jerry-rigged frequency-generating appliances with “real” instruments played by associates like Alastair Galbraith (who provides the sumptuous violin lines that vein “God’s Love to His People Israel,” the 30-minute centerpiece of The Philosophick Mercury). Anyone with a fondness for modern classical music might want to mull these over.
Gate is Morley’s solo project, its output often issued on singles that he presses in editions as small as 25 copies. On those, as well as on a wide array of more fleshed-out albums, he sculpts feedback and oscillating tape noise into remarkably three-dimensional forms. Live in Boston, NYC 1994 documents two East Coast improvised performances, one by Morley and Lee Ranaldo (a frequent Gate participant), the other with Zeena Parkins joining them. A decade earlier (1980-1985), Morley made a slightly more rock-embracing attempt to do the same with Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos, a duo well represented by Ajax’s posthumous River Falling Love compilation.