Armed with chiming, steely, detuned guitars, Dustdevils are drunken purveyors of a glorious, buzzing fission. If their second-generation NYC dissonance has gotten them labeled a tired, Sonic Youth-derived headache, the band’s long history (stretching back to 1984), its more extensive palette of tempos and its easier-on-the-ears vocals (early on, anyway) render such dismissals unfounded. The Devils developed naturally and independently — they just had the misfortune to customize, expand upon and modify some of the same no wave-and Glenn Branca-derived themes that were SY hallmarks.
The group’s early evolutionary work attests to the Devils’ authenticity and individuality. The ’86-’88 releases date from a period of exile in Leeds, where British guitarist Michael Duane and Australian vocalist/guitarist Jaqi Dulany (aka Jaqui Delaney, aka Jacqui Cohen) had relocated after meeting in New York. At some point, the Wedding Present’s Keith Gregory was drafted to play bass. Seeds in the Spoil and Rhenyards Grin show promise, despite some tame, tentative entries and a dated, glossy sheen that flirts with goth pop. Fierce, urgent strumming and Jaqi’s panic-stricken lullabies (imagine a smacked-out Chrissie Hynde) save the day, as do less syrupy numbers like “Encient,” “False Dawn” and the dazed “In Its Own Light.”
Initially appearing in a toned-down version on a 1987 flexi, “Mother Shipton” was elongated into a treble-frenzied ear-shredder for the A-side of The Dropping Well EP. The deliberate emphasis on volume and harshness also suits the 12-inch’s two less excessive tracks. Gutterlight further dashes inhibitions. Duane’s screeching, alien chords and Jaqi’s slashing-to-soaring voice infuse gorgeous, intricate songs with grit and decay, energy and exhilaration. While Sonic Youth’s clang has always been pure punk rock, the Devils take brittle tumult into more sensual and fragile realms.
Created in England, shelved by Fundamental, mastered from a cassette tape and issued after a return to NYC, Geek Drip tries to duplicate its predecessor, lacking only the material and ideas to do so. The brief album suffers a mite from slow pacing and Jaqi’s increasingly tuneless wail. Nevertheless, “Stripper” rattles away as menacingly as ever, and “Feeding Fat City” and “Mack” unveil daring, labyrinthine arrangements.
In 1989, Duane and Dulany found future Pavement bassist Mark Ibold and reunited with former drummer Reed (né Sam Lohman, who would leave for Japan and join expat Canadian lugs Nimrod). Recorded by Kramer, the smoking, less rigid Teenbeat 7-inch barrels over “Encient,” two from Geek Drip (the revamped “King Woody” will kick your ass) and the all-new “Seen Heat” with an unstoppable, amphetamine rush.
Struggling, Electric and Chemical has Wharton Tiers’ production and another change in percussionists. Jaqi’s voice is totally shot (she speaks hoarsely rather than sings) and a few pointless sound-art experiments waste space, but the LP’s highlights find the Devils in their shining prime. The anthemic intro to “Throw the Bottle Full” and the boiling coda of “The Revenge of Cruiser Gurner” catapult the quartet’s songwriting and rhythmic prowess to a higher plane. A long-overdue interpretation of the Fall’s “Hip Priest” swings with feedback and slop. Were it not marred by so much atmospheric filler, Struggling, Electric and Chemical would surpass Gutterlight as these veterans’ studio apex.
After that notable accomplishment, all hell broke loose. Circle X/Loudspeaker drummer Martin Köb, eventual Ui head Sasha Frere-Jones, Wider leader (and Glenn Branca sideman) Dave Reid, Matador co-honcho Gerard Cosloy, and Uncle Wiggly/Fly Ashtray guitarist James Kavoussi all served time in the Devils between 1990 and ’93. Jaqi and Michael split up, Jaqi split the country and Jackie Nemitz (ex-STP) briefly and inappropriately served as frontperson. Her sawdust-throated replacement, the late Jon Easley (ex-Sorry, Crown Heights), fared only slightly better. From 1984 to the 1993 Extant session, almost 50 people had backed Duane with and without Dulany. Then she returned.
The Extant 7-inch contains two surprisingly great, upbeat shearings, the less dour mood of which recalls an invigorated modernization of the Devils’ Leeds-era outings. The five-track CD appends a pair of weird, useless techno-dance (!!) mixes and a painful Blue Orchids cover. Another falling out with Dulany in the mid-1990s (she reconvened with Gregory in the UK’s Cha Cha Cohen) apparently ended the saga for good. Taken from a ’93 flyer for a gig postponed after Jaqi beat the stuffing out of Michael, a picture inside Extant depicts the terrible twosome as England’s infamous Moors Murderers. That about says it all.