Bay Area threesome (two of whom originally hail from Bozeman, Montana) Steel Pole Bath Tub put a happy face (well, sorta) on industrial-strength grind rock, leavening its pitbull riffs with jaggedly humorous short stories that couldn’t be further from established noise-boy motifs. On the surface of its sound, Steel Pole Bath Tub isn’t all that different from a thousand other post-Big Black combos, but a plunge below the clamorous veneer reveals a clever ear for a twisted sample — not to mention a peculiarly pop-savvy way with a guitar hook.
Neither of those is especially evident on Butterfly Love, an album steeped deeply enough in irony (“Thru the Windshield of Love”) to serve as a display in some future-world exhibition of post-modernism. Although Darren Mor-x’s boot-boy drumming is guaranteed to raise cerebral welts, the album simply doesn’t have a whole lot of enduring impact. The Lurch EP mitigates the one-dimensionality significantly, with guitarist Michael Morasky enveloping the songs in enough effects to make it clear that the title refers to the music’s queasy motion, rather than the Addams Family butler — although the trio’s pop culture fetishism doesn’t rule out some sort of influence from the latter. For a CD compendium of the first two discs, look under the Lurch handle.
Before the release of the fairly impressive Tulip, Steel Pole began building its rep as one of America’s better po-mo cover bands, slathering 7-inch singles with aggressively deconstructed versions of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” If nothing on Tulip approaches those tracks in terms of sheer inventiveness, the band’s use of samples is far more cagey: in terms of sheer found-sound layering, it’s hard to think of any rockers who top these guys, making for an appropriately oppressive sonic environment — given the James Ellroy-styled psycho-spiel that makes up most of the lyrical content. It’s interesting to see the development of two distinct voices within the songwriting: Morasky tends toward self-contained audio noir stories, while bassist Dale Flattum intones ominous real-time journal entries (often precise enough to contain day and date).
The Miracle of Sound in Motion provides the most cogent crystallization of the band’s sound yet, falling as it does smack in the middle of the intersection between mind-control and muscle-flex. While undeniably creepy — Flattum’s approximation of a speed-freak’s ranting on “Pseudophedrine Hydrochloride” is awfully spot-on — the album fully discloses the trio’s workaday experimentalism. Tracks like “Train to Miami” (one of Morasky’s journeys to the center of the heart of psychic darkness) and “Thumbnail” are marked by sonic lunges every bit as “out” as any number of avant-garde artistes, but Steel Pole’s timbre remains decidedly rock. The album’s most unexpected pleasure materializes when the band throws a curve: a thoroughly straight reading of the Pogues’ “Down All the Days.”
Some Cocktail Suggestions, six songs recorded by Steve Albini, appears to be a water-treading move. While aggressive enough-both “Ray” and the shivering “Hit It” pulse with angry-parolee venom — the EP doesn’t sustain much in the way of forward motion. It does, however, provide a detailed bartender’s guide, complete with a practical hangover remedy.
The intriguingly straightforward Scars From Falling Down relegates the band’s battery of samples to subordinate status, a state of affairs that enhances Morasky’s fractured-but-judicious riffing while doing little to protect the air of mystery that’s one of Steel Pole’s chief assets. Abetted on three tracks by Ed Stasium mixes, the self-produced band does its best to sound like a rock combo; still, songs like “Home Is a Rope” and “3 of Cups” (one of two numbers named after favorite cocktail lounges) plant enough random depth charges to allay the fears of diehard fans. Heady stuff indeed.
Duh (aka Death’s Ugly Head) is a semi-legendary, ultra-fluid Bay Area “super”-group (anchored by Morasky and Boner label owner/ex-Fang guitarist/Star Pimp bassist Tom Flynn) that specializes in full-squall idiot-rock like “Hex” and “Hot Day for the Ice Cream Man” (the silliest invocation of Lucifer this side of Deicide). If one were to lock Primus and Poison Idea in a closet together, the results might end up sounding like this. (As a point of history, the name Death’s Ugly Head previously belonged, in the mid-’80s, to a Stockton, California group that included journalist Jackson Brian Griffith and future Pavement drummer Gary Young.)
Milk Cult, SPBT’s industrialized sideline with DJ/sample fiend C.C. Nova, is a markedly more shadowy and less song-oriented project, replete with plenty of doom-rock atmosphere, clanking percussion and walls of samples thick enough to contain the wild shrieking of whoever it is pops up to do the singing. For the easiest entry into the Cult’s compound, try Burn or Bury, which features guest yowling by Mike Patton on “Psychoanalytwist” and a lot of twisted but accessible rock-with-samples; the ambient, random-access no-singing weirdness of Love God, which makes an effort to be taken as fictional film music, is a lot more daunting. C.C. Nova’s demented solo collage record offers an even worse assault on the nerves, using such creative ingredients as “Bach’s Flute Dance (from Badinerie of B-minor Suite) 5″ yellow plastic childrens record burned with a Bic lighter played @ 16 rpm thru faulty stereo cable” and “various sound effects records looped with Scotch brand magic tape, scratched, ruined, and then returned to the SF Public Library. (Sorry)”
Tumor Circus teams the entire Steel Pole lineup with Jello Biafra for a handful of predictably “shocking” attempts to tweak middle-class kulcha: the self-titled record compiles previously released singles on the order of “Meat Hook Up My Rectum.” Do you really need to know more than that?