I worked in college radio in the early 90s—a fertile period for fucked-up guitar music—and a few weeks ago I tried to put my memories of those years to good use. I compiled a short list of lesser-known 90s noise-rock bands for a dear friend who loves the Jesus Lizard and Rapeman but isn't quite old enough or obsessive enough to have heard about, say, Phleg Camp, who put out their one proper full-length, Ya'Red Fair Scratch, in 1992 (and who barely exist on the Internet today). When I got to the bottom of my mental catalog—after dredging up Star Pimp, Shiny Beast, Ed Hall, Nimrod, Barkmarket, Slug, Craw, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, Distorted Pony, Zeni Geva, and maybe a dozen more—suddenly I remembered Gravitar, a band about whom I knew literally nothing but their name.
I bought the 1997 Gravitar album Now the Road of Knives not long after moving to Chicago, going on little but the cover art. The CD insert doesn't make it especially clear who plays what or what the songs are called. (It did introduce me to the portmanteau "microphonetar," which I still can't define.) I didn't even learn where Gravitar were from till I researched this post.
To answer several of those questions at once: Drummer Eric Cook and guitarists Geoff Walker and Harold Richardson, who'd met through Schoolkids' Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan, formed Gravitar in 1992. Richardson left in '95, to be replaced by Michael J. Walker, Geoff's brother, and in 2002 the band broke up.
Richardson came up with the name, and according to this 2008 interview, neither Cook nor Walker knew at the time that Atari had released an arcade game called "Gravitar" in 1982. It also exists as a term in space science: "A gravitar is a slightly non-axisymmetric neutron star that spins-down primarily due to gravitational radiation," write Jolien D.E. Creighton and Warren G. Anderson in the 2011 book Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy.
Gravitar used improvisation to write their music, and it shows: Now the Road of Knives is almost entirely instrumental, and its barely structured meanderings collage together frenzied drumming, hypnotizing riffs, ritualistic noise experiments, distorted dub, meditative interludes, warped Krautrock eruptions, and hands-down the most unhinged use/abuse of fuzz, delay, and whammy pedals I've ever heard.
For a time Gravitar rehearsed in a ten-by-ten-foot metal-walled self-storage room, running two or three extension cords out the door to an outdoor power outlet around the corner from the building. "I'm not sure exactly I can convey what kind of ear damage that induced. We used to rehearse loud," Cook said in that same old interview. "There would be this high-pitched shimmer that would hang in the air as the walls and doors vibrated and shook."
Geoff Walker told a story that endeared me to the band, because the same thing happened to one of my old groups at a gig in an industrial garage in New Orleans in 1994: "There was a time at the Green Room in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where the sound man measured us at 116 decibels while we were tuning up, before he turned on the PA system," he said. "We were massive that night. We cleared the audience out completely. I thought they'd left because they didn't like it, but when we went out front into the night air, Jay Heikes (who did the cover art for Now the Road of Knives) said, 'That was great!' 'You didn't even hear it—you left,' I said. He replied, 'No! We were all out here listening! It was way too loud in there, we had to come out—but you sounded great.'"
Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive produced much of Now the Road of Knives, including "McCoy," which you can listen to below—he's responsible for the bizarre phase-shifting "channel changes" in the mix. John D'Agostini, a longtime engineer and friend of the band (he played bass in an early, pre-Gravitar lineup), recorded the other song on this Spotify playlist, "Real II."
Surprisingly, Spotify has four of Gravitar's six full-lengths in its catalog, but the band's music is scarce on the rest of the Internet. In fact, the only reason I decided to use an embedded Spotify playlist (they can cause trouble with certain mobile platforms, I'm told) was because I wanted to share this version of "McCoy," and I couldn't find it anywhere else.