If ever a band realized the potential of pre-punk “underground” noise rock, MX-80 is it. This weird post-metal art band, which originated in Bloomington, Indiana (from the same scene that spawned the goofy Gizmos), centered around Bruce Anderson’s slashing, trebly guitar riffing and Rich Stim’s deadpan, often indecipherable, mumble. As a five-piece (with two drummers), they twice released Big Hits, a seven-song 7-inch EP (subtitled “Hard Pop From the Hoosiers”), on local labels, impressing Island Records enough to sign them. But the resulting Hard Attack never came out in the States and attracted little attention aside from some critical raves. (The reissue on Atavistic pairs Hard Attack with Big Hits, adding a bonus outtake from the Hard Attack sessions.)
Most of the 20 tracks on Live at the Library come from a 1977 performance at the Monroe Public Library (!) in Bloomington; three date from the following year at the same location, just before the group left Indiana. About half the songs come from Big Hits or Hard Attack; previously unreleased numbers include the incipiently poppy “Fascination,” the groove-oriented “Felonious Funk,” an Iggy tribute (“Pop for Pop”), the Eastern-flavored instrumental “Donuts and Coffee” and the reggae-spliced tango “Natty Rothschild.” The sound quality is pretty amateurish, but mass consumption surely was no consideration when the band taped this show for posterity. It’s a safe bet no one aware of MX-80 in the Midwest at the time expected the band (much less an audience for its music) to be around 25 years later.
A move to San Francisco (shedding one drummer in the process) brought them into the local orbit of the Residents and Ralph Records. Out of the Tunnel may well be MX-80’s high-tide mark, particularly on the concurrent single, “Someday You’ll Be King” b/w “White Night”; on these two sides, their formula of convoluted, breakneck melodies, cross-fed musical genres and Anderson’s white-hot soloing nears critical mass.
Crowd Control doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights. With more strict adherence to “metal” (in the Blue Öyster Cult sense) form, the songs here merely replace much of the white-hot intensity of Tunnel with volume. The results range from epiphany (“Obsessive Devotion” and “Face of the Earth”) to nails-against-chalkboard (like a take on the theme from Brian DePalma’s Sisters). Out of Control pairs both Ralph albums on a single CD, adding “White Night” and the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween. Crowd Control also has been reissued on vinyl by the band’s own label, Quadruped.
A litigation-enforced five-year hiatus followed; while the band never technically split (note the plethora of pseudonymous releases), they did a pretty convincing disappearing act. When the curtain lifted again, a chopped and channeled leaner MX-80 was revealed. Existential Lover takes a step back from overkill’s precipice; this biting and nasty artifact simmers constantly with the psychotic abandon that spewed irregularly from earlier efforts. The filmic bent is still there on “Monster From Japan” and “Orson.” Stim’s deadpan drawl recalls a Stan Ridgway in its seamy travel guide monotone. A real edge-of-your-seat listen.
Das Love Boat (perhaps the first all-instrumental album to sport a parental advisory) is an exhaustively complete retrospective, encompassing material from all the band’s releases, plus early (’75-’78) live tracks. The package is topped off with a brace of newly recorded jazzy efforts, the best of which is the rasping title track.
Former Camper Van Beethoven/Monks of Doom (and future Counting Crows!) member David Immerglück produced (and contributed keyboards to) I’ve Seen Enough. The band continues the explorations begun on Existential Lover, as well as reprising three songs from that release. Anderson pulls further back from the raw guitar overload, favoring vaguely jazzy chord progressions while bassist Dale Sophiea keeps things anchored. MX-80 revs up on “Have Another Drink,” “Last Man on Earth” (which would’ve sounded at home on either of the band’s ’80s albums) and the blues-tinged “We Will Bury You”; otherwise, new drummer Marc Weinstein holds the tempos back, making them downright funereal at times. (Though he was officially an ex-member of the band, original drummer Dave Mahoney maintained his involvement with MX-80’s side projects until his death in 2006.) This approach puts Stim’s dry ruminations further upfront than they’ve been since Hard Attack — perhaps further than they ought to be — but also leaves room for the singer’s surprisingly good horn playing. Stim ponders whether humans get their minimum daily requirement of amusement on “15 Laffs” and recounts a bit of Cold War history in “We Will Bury You” (“There was a bald Russian / And he had a big shoe / He banged it on the table / Said, ‘We will bury you’ / This same bald Russian liked Shirley MacLaine / And when he couldn’t get in Disneyland / Boy, did he complain”). The band plays a very nearly straight blues in “Dough Boy Joe” (right down to the saloon piano); the office noises that pop up in the quieter moments of “Thank You Boss” accentuate the dirge’s claustrophobic anxiety. Though it may sound bleak on first (or even tenth) listen, I’ve Seen Enough will nonetheless find its way to a listener’s finite zone of dark humor.
Always Leave ‘Em Wanting Less was recorded at gigs in San Francisco and Chicago (adding two tracks from an appearance at a radio station in Evanston, Illinois). Most of the songs come from I’ve Seen Enough, but it also includes the Halloween theme, “Face of the Earth” and “Myonga Von Brontee” (from Hard Attack). Guitarist Jim Hrabetin makes his debut with the group on this CD; he builds some marvelously complex webs of sound with Anderson, particularly on the half-dozen instrumentals (all entitled “Black Feldman”) interspersed in the set. With Sophiea producing, the sound quality is clean and spacious — not that the crowd noise or stage banter ever get in the way. Judging from this disc, the group drew a bigger (or at least more responsive) audience to the Monroe Public Library in the ’70s.
Stim’s lyrics (which never have been a day at the beach) are the weakest aspect of We’re an American Band, MX-80’s first album of new material in ten years. He dusts off Shecky Greene’s old joke about being rescued by Sinatra in “Mr. Watson”: “I was getting the crap kicked out of me by some Mafia toughs / Frank stepped up and told them, ‘That’s enough.'” The protagonist of “You Turned My Head Around” tells a previously hated neighbor, “But now / I love your ass so much … You turned my head around / Just like Linda Blair.” On “Don’t Hate the French,” the singer shows that sophisticated topical commentary isn’t his strong suit either, when he warns President Bush, “If you don’t stop treating the French that way / I’ll put a frog in your bidet.” He even manages to use Yiddish slang and junior-high humor (not to mention some empty conditional logic) to dress down a conspicuous consumer in “Lights Out”: “Hey, you schnorrer in your Ford Explorer…If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart? / Your head’s up your ass / Do you talk when you fart?” Still, the flat, droll delivery makes it easy to regard Stim’s voice as just an instrument in the mix — thereby allowing the listener to appreciate how the dual guitar approach previewed on Always Leave ‘Em Wanting Less opens up the music on this album. Anderson and Hrabetin blend a wide variety of electric guitar sounds into each track, from surf and spaghetti-Western riffs to funk grooves to drones and classic Anderson-style guitar burn. Flamenco acoustic pops up in the mix frequently as well, along with such surprises as graceful keyboard riffs in the semi-instrumental “Susan” or the percussion that fades back and forth between stereo channels in the album-opening “No Brainer.” Angel Corpus Christi, Stim’s wife, sings backup on two tracks. (Members of MX-80 also back Angel on some of her own releases, which meld Patti Smith-poesy with fringey no-wave.) Oh, and yes, the quintet does cover “We’re an American Band,” in a form likely to make any Grand Funk Railroad fan react with … well, with about the same range of reactions that any Grand Funk fan who heard MX-80 in Bloomington in the ’70s probably had. Though not the group’s strongest effort, We’re an American Band offers moments of unexpected beauty and enthralling noise — sometimes within the same song — and confirms MX-80’s ongoing commitment to tapping into the weirder side of rock.
Unwittingly, the band also ended up tapping into the limitless potential of governments to interfere. Thanks to a law (enacted five months before the disc’s release) requiring accuracy in a commercial product’s stated country of manufacture, the Federal Trade Commission prohibited the export of We’re an American Band until the group or its label would provide “demonstrative evidence as to the national origin” of the band’s members. MX-80 chose to forego potential overseas sales, rather than comply with this idiotic requirement. (Note: As of early 2010, the President of the United States could not be reached for comment.)
Anderson’s solo tapes are essential for those with a passion for volume-intensive but fluid guitar improv; imagine a cross between Sonny Sharrock and a bad-mood Robert Fripp. The first tape borrows a few MX-80 themes, but expands on them enough that you’ll barely notice. Israel: Palestine is a touch harsher and more claustrophobic in tone. (The 1995 release Brutality combines tracks from both tapes on a single CD.) On Balkana, Anderson returns to his theme of creating soundscapes that reflect war-torn landscapes. Bracing stuff.
O-Type was the moniker Anderson and Sophiea used to create theme music for a Ralph film (the theme to which crops up on Das Love Boat) and sporadically revived to churn out doom-laden, Germanic power-rock that’s not all that far removed from an axe-wielding Suicide — especially Anderson’s impassioned vocals. Darling is the pick of that litter.
As MX-80 slipped back under the cultural radar at the end of the ’90s, Anderson and Sophiea reactivated O-Type, eventually bringing Mahoney, Weinstein and Hrabetin on board. (Basically, the group ended up involving all the available members of MX-80, past and present, save for Stim.) On Strict, Anderson layers churning guitar noise over Sophiea’s manipulated samples of classical music pieces. The ambient sonic textures and samples on Medication simulate the negative side effects of different drugs. Lugubrious is darker in tone, deploying its droning waves of sound more for their own sake. Western Classics features seven tracks named after classic movies, each reflecting the style of its respective score composer (through these musicians’ typically dark, clouded mirror). The New Edge (great title) combines all fours of these CDs with Balkana in one box, adding a DVD of nature scenes set to more of O-Type’s ambient aural disturbances.
The Gizzards (identified as “the weak, separated Siamese twins of three MX-80 members”) offer a few more laughs, though not nearly as many as Sgt. Peppersteak‘s title would suggest. Over the course of these releases, the mood becomes decidedly more bleak (and MX-80-ish), peaking with Peppersteak‘s martial, creepy “Straight Line” and “Trailer Park.”