...and all the dogs to shark
(Black Bough; 2008)
By Conrad Amenta | 8 April 2008
For a music critic, to read a Lester Bangs anthology is the equivalent of today’s indie rock bands casting new wave in a perpetual state of novelty—even if Bang’s particularly personal brand of gonzo disassembly is as informative of modern music criticism as new wave is of modern indie rock. Granted, in Bangs’ ’60s and ’70s there seemed to be more to say about counterculture, if only by virtue of the fact that it was more fashionable or immediate to say it, than today, when protest has been about as thoroughly subsumed and branded into the mainstream and commercial as anything else. One of Bangs’ many axes to grind, however, still holds as true today as it once did: regardless of the political climate, there is dissension first and then there’s its copycats; what is particularly abhorrent about the latter is that to copy is to become the antithesis of the former. Like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers with market forces, rebellion is appropriated and emptied when it’s given a lackluster doppelganger.
Bangs, if not his many copycat critics, is still important for constantly harping on this. In his ongoing privileging of the avant—the Captain Beefhearts and Lou Reeds and Nicos—at the expense of the more comforting or nihilistic of songwriting mores—the Aerosmiths and Springsteens and Framptons. A paradigm of formal dissidence was made reference to, divined even, at a time when genuine political gesture was being diluted by both the cynicism of punk and the triumphalism of stadium schlock. There’s an urgency to the avant garde that is hard to deny in the face of what we now understand to be historical defeatism. Events too grand to hope to effect were met with the spit and terror of real vitriol; the Bangses, the Hunter S. Thompsonses, were as important to the political consciousness, and the development of the self-aware individual in American art and culture, as the artists they helped to categorize (or who they helped to transcend categories). Near the back of the temple of personality, Bangs has a special alcove reserved with the rest of the cultural critics whose work just might have been the tip of the sword to pierce through to the heart of late-‘70s America’s solipsistic darkness.
Refract that feeling of anger, that frustration at narcissistic stagnancy, by decades. Replace Reagan with Bush, a Regan-lite Bangs could have never imagined in his worst, acid-catalyzed nightmares. Replace the nadir of art-as-nihilism-as-political with shopping-as-culture-as-art. Complexity and melody have become one; values and ambiguity have become one; intelligence and stupidity are one; dissonance in music, in the shuddering, spidery cracks of its noise, is less dissidence than a better portrayal of reality’s information poisoning. Intense alienation segues into catharsis, and Kingdom Shore are welcoming Bangs home into the deep folds of Western culture’s staggering commercial incest.
Music like this is so appropriate for our time; equal parts cinematic and musical, it seems at times like the little plastic discs can barely contain Kingdom Shore’s quaking viscosity. Track listings seem tongue in cheek, album art quaint (though, it should be noted, it’s absolutely beautiful). I listen to it and think of old men shivering in the cold, harsh chaos of new world orders, schema in which the generation just born will, for the first time, grow up and be entirely comfortable with uncertainty and terror. Kingdom Shore is the music one watches the world’s catastrophes to, which doesn’t compete to wrest one’s attention away from so much as compliment and abide by. Finally, here is music as complex, violent, tragic and occasionally beautiful as real life.
Kingdom Shore is the vision of one Mark Molnar, written for four violins in so many layers as to seem random but with purpose fully scripted in its amalgamation of Steve Reich, Stravinsky, John Zorn, Captain Beefheart, Shostakovich, and Fugazi. The aesthetics of classical, avant-rock, and punk are not so much blended as heaved and smashed against each other with invigorating idiosyncrasy, turning to their own internal reason. Track lengths, beginnings, and ends are as seemingly arbitrary as the titles that stand with mannequin impotence beside each track’s towering substance.
A comparison to Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be facile, both for the mutual presence of strings but also because Godspeed’s politics pander in comparison. This is music to challenge, to be sure, but also to grow with. Godspeed can’t help but hold their listeners at arms’ length, constantly asserting difference in a language so clear to understand that it cannot help but sometimes read with all the sincerity of a Che Guevara soda bottle, all while dating themselves and grinding slowly to a halt as they explore the limited dimensions of their formula’s tiny room. Real difference first posits cold, alien resolve in the place of connection, but then makes the listener work to enter its world and understand. Empathy is reciprocal. Unfold the gorgeous packaging, and that recognizable plastic disc is a red herring; Kingdom Shore stand with neither affronted, calculated sub-culturalism as a badge around their arm nor appeasing, commercial readiness. This music is simply different (though not without referents, which is obviously an impossibility) in a way that is lasting, rewarding, and exceptional.
Opener “Stray Bullets Singing ‘It’s not what you say, but who you give it to‘” works through a coda of movements in its first five minutes of greater diversity than most of the self-described indie of scope that you’ll hear this year. Silence is counter-posed to atonal slides, horror-filmed across a continuum of visceral noise before jittering with spidery taps. Johnny Greendwood’s excellent soundtrack to There Will Be Blood touched modestly on some of the techniques and themes alluded to here, but Greenwood’s segments were compartmentalized by filmatic need. By contrast, Kingdom Shore are without leash. An audiophile’s idea of headphone music, entire spectrums of rhythm and melody thrust like jagged skyscraper husks and then disappear as if you’re driving by a post-apocalyptic cityscape. The track conveys real magnitude: height, breadth, the insectine magnified on the side of the monolith, and within mere breaths of one another too.
It’s exhausting and tempting, taunting, even, in how embedded this music’s naturalistic tunefulness is obscured by both texture and sudden change. This isn’t the stuff of purposeful obfuscation, however; the music on ...and all the dogs to shark is, simply put, too complex to accommodate whatever vestiges of thirsty melody vein its multifarious arms. This album will never leave your collection, and it’s possible that, in the years to come, it will contain new albums. But it’s hard to imagine that it will ever sound like it’s compromising.
Boogz, our cherry-faced enthusiast, once proclaimed a certain Radiohead album to be “Important.” I’m a fan of Boogz, if not that particular album, and applaud his gusto. While I do think importance is the kind of thing that’s only really possible to assess after some time and much proselytizing has passed, I will say that I consider this type of music to be (deep breath) Important. And I think Lester Bangs would agree because, ultimately, we’re left with the notion that criticism (at least criticism of Bangs’ variety) and avant-garde music like Kingdom Shore are essentially both moralistic, politically invested, or, at the very least, both of those things by virtue of how alienated they are from the norm. Lyotard once wrote in his “The Postmodern Condition” that the postmodern, like the avant-garde, is a temporary state inhabited before the thing, whether it’s art or idea, is, like everything, invariably absorbed into the mainstream. But each instance of the avant-garde has its moment, its window, in which it can affect ex-stasis: the sublime. This is contentious territory, so I’ll stop short, but you can see what I’m getting at: transcendence is hard done by these days, practically a dirty word. Kingdom Shore might not seek to elevate past context, but they do bang at the walls of context’s boundaries from within, thrashing like a composite animal, and in doing so offer some teasing glimpse of what’s beyond.