In 1988, when the Gordons’ long out-of-print Future Shock EP was re-released on 12-inch to coincide with Bailter Space’s emergence, the New Zealand trio was retrospectively praised with frequent comparisons to Sonic Youth. But back in 1980, when the 7-inch first appeared, there simply were no precedents. Renowned locally for punishingly loud and relentless live shows, the Gordons’ vinyl matched progressive punk songwriting and aggression with an uncategorizably deliberate yet extreme wall of flailing sheetmetal guitar.
The eponymous seven-song follow-up, recorded and mixed in 22 hours, almost entirely relinquishes the band’s punk genetics in favor of spatial control and mood dynamics; still harsh and as heavy as anvil jewelry, the pace is less the point, with jagged chords and evocative song structures edging the vocals into far less prominence. (The Gordons CD appends Future Shock‘s contents.) With simpler riff-plus-chorus constructions elevated mainly by John Halvorsen’s manic-depressive guitar-maiming, Vol. 2 comes surprisingly close to user-friendliness.
In 1987, Halvorsen reunited with the Gordons’ other guitarist, Alister Parker, to form Bailter Space, lining up drummer Hamish Kilgour (also concurrently involved in a Clean reunion and backing Chris Knox) as well. With ex-Gordon drummer Brent McLaughlin as engineer, and far more expansive production than the former band, Nelsh quite naturally sounds like the Gordons several years on: songs more familiarly structured, vocals still subservient and weak, guitar still inventive (albeit less abrasive), keyboards now filling spaces formerly occupied by feedback and overdrive.
The more confident and considered Tanker, an LP of well-constructed songs displaying varied intentions and style, lacks the old recklessness but substitutes a heretofore hidden morose pop skill, as well as vocals no more melodic nor less arresting than those of Ian Curtis. Add a sharpened instrumental prowess — reflective of Sonic Youth (of all things) — and you wind up with an excellent time-capsule condensation of 1988 independent music at its apex. (The spin-off EP is curiously Gordonized, with appropriately B-side material.)
Thermos, with McLaughlin reclaiming drum chores to complete the tail-biting cycle, actually ups both the discordance and pop quotient for, at its frequent best, a monumentally alluring weave of soothing smooth and seething dysphonia.
(A dissimilar Boston band calling themselves the Gordons issued an indie album entitled 100 Holidays in ’88, creating some potential confusion for overzealous mail-order consumers.)