(Slap a Ham)
Arab on Radar
Queen Hygiene II
By Douglas Wolk
Early hardcore was as simple a musical style as has ever been invented: chords anyone could learn in a few hours, rhythms an easy variation on the polka beat, speed as high as everybody in a given band could manage at the same time--go! It worked because it was an immediate, no-frills expression of explosive rage, but also because it varied little enough that it allowed its listeners to pay more attention to the words.
Hardcore began as a hyperverbal music. Communicating ideas was one of its primary purposes, since it was meant to build an ad-hoc coalition of disaffected youth--there's no telling how many kids treated Minor Threat's straight-edge anthem "Out of Step" as a manifesto. If hip-hop, as Chuck D once said, is black America's CNN, then hardcore is C-SPAN for people who can't get a good fake ID. There's still a lot of straightforward hardcore being made, and it's still anchored by words, though these days the scene's politics are codified more by the gaggle of wordy, newsprint zines it spawned--Heartattack, Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and a million others--than by song lyrics.
But the hardcore scene has expanded over the years to include a lot of other rock bands driven by free-floating aggression. Some of them play in ways obviously derived from the old stuff--blurringly fast and at top volume--but mess with its formal conventions in favor of something artier. These bands tend to have musical rather than political agendas; they don't necessarily want people to listen for the words. It may be that they think that lyrics call attention away from the overall sound, or that ambiguity is an essential part of a certain kind of aesthetic experience, or simply that they don't have a verbal point to make. But purely instrumental loud-fast-rules music doesn't really work either--a sharp voice cutting through the mud is a key part of hardcore's sound. That's probably why a handful of fierce-sounding bands have been following a curious middle path, singing without decipherable words.
Crom-Tech, possibly the fastest band ever to come out of the prog-rock tradition, even seems to have invented its own language. The 12 songs on the D.C. duo's 13-minute self-titled record (Gravity) have titles like "Brammix-Q:49 Face" and "Wemcraftor: Limsniffer" (for which an explanatory note reads, "12 a wixot as Q off the Rolltarp"). Whatever the guy with the single-note range is yelping over those number-crunching, twiddly-iddly instrumental subroutines, it doesn't seem to be in any known human tongue. This isn't a new idea--the 70s French prog band Magma, whose records played at triple speed would probably resemble Crom-Tech's, invented its own language, too--but it makes the urgency of Crom-Tech's panic attacks nonspecific, even alien. The band's utterly unclear intentions and unwillingness to develop anything for more than eight seconds makes it a hedgehog among bands, with a single tiny idea--we're so different from humans that you can't even understand us! At normal velocity, the EP would probably be unbearably pretentious, but the ridiculous speed gives it a kind of caffeinated charisma.
A funny thing about this new breed of hardcore is that very often the people who are clever enough to intentionally obscure their words write interesting lyrics, and sometimes they're proud enough of them that they can't bear for them to be lost completely. Hence the phenomenon of lyric sheets for records where the singing sounds like somebody gargling blood. When the cacophonous Florida trio Harry Pussy did its final tour last year, it seemed astonishing enough that Adris Hoyos could scream murderously nonstop while massacring her drum kit (and that everyone in the band generally stopped playing at the same time, and could get it together enough to cover Teenage Jesus & the Jerks' two-and-a-half-chord "Orphans"). It wasn't until a lyric sheet appeared with Live (Cherry Smash), one of three live records released so far from that tour, that it became clear not only that she was yelling actual words, but that there were preset texts for every song. They're sharp-witted lyrics, too, whether they're the epitome of punk simplicity ("I hate myself, but who am I?") or more dryly funny: "Around others, I am filled with ambivalence....I like girls, trust me. I like girls, but sex scares me."
The first few releases by Japan's Melt-Banana also included lyric sheets, the only way to parse singer Yasuko's ultra-high-end vocalisms--which, if you're not attuned to them, come off rather like the persistent yipping of a very small dog. On the page Yasuko is an ingenious, very weird lyricist, a sort of monosyllabic, dadaist Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Like a black crack on the wall / Don't vouch a wrench / You patch, who left the scar?" This isn't translation-from-Japanese syndrome, but rather the work of somebody who's fascinated by the way English words sound. On more recent records, though, like the newish EP Wedge (Slap a Ham), Melt-Banana hasn't printed the words, and they're even harder to make out as sung. Parts of Wedge dissociate language and voice altogether: "Cough Coughed Coughing" is just a long Yasuko scream knotted together with a guitar scream that's almost as long. The abandonment of written texts focuses attention on the band's high-tension dynamics and on Yasuko's voice as an instrument, but it also means there's no way of knowing what's behind intriguing song titles like "Seesaw Semiology."
In some cases, though, it's better not to know. Take Arab on Radar, from Providence, Rhode Island. Garbling lyrics is part of vocalist William Tell's performing persona--that of a man with whom something is terribly wrong. He screams and slurs all his words, flapping his limbs and staggering into audience members. As printed in last year's Queen Hygiene II (Heparin), his lyrics are one long diseased id spasm, almost entirely concerned with bodily fluids and loose teeth ("My dentist is very angry / I do not keep my dentures clean / because of the diaper rash / and guilt about my wet dreams"). When AOR plays live, the words are lost under the band's deafening, scraping attack, and presented as the ravings of a character with no control over his body. (At a recent show, Tell methodically zipped and unzipped his pants between songs, until somebody in the audience inevitably yelled, "Show us your cock!" "Ish noh thah shimple," he answered in horrified desperation.) On Queen Hygiene II Tell veers into comprehensibility from time to time; on a new and lyric-sheet-free single on Load, the song titles, "Swimming With a Hard-On" and "Samurai Fight Song," are the only decipherable words. Maybe that's cause to be grateful.
These bands' movement away from hardcore's centrality of words is part of a rejection of convention that's necessary for any kind of art to evolve. It's also an affirmation of voice as pure sound--the singers' voices work more as percussion than instrumentation, in the most literal sense giving more meaning to rhythm and inflection. And, in turn, it recontextualizes the music it draws on, emphasizing a way of listening to old hardcore that's less about text and more about sound. A scream doesn't have to be articulate.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.