Yellow Swans


(Modern Radio; 2008)

By Traviss Cassidy | 25 August 2008

Tag me a noise dilettante if you want, but I will never enjoy racket for racket’s sake. Which isn’t to say I’m adverse to confrontational music in general, I just need something extra—a melody, an epic motif, an engaging texture—to pique my interest in those high-pitch squeals and subterranean synth farts leaking from the dank basements of the world (or maybe just Brooklyn?). It goes without saying that I can’t “get into” bands like Wolf Eyes or Pig Destroyer, yet I lurve hour-long drone pieces by Boris or Sleep. Except: fuck Sunn O))). That shit is whack.

Not that my relationship with the noise genre is peculiar or even all that interesting. (I’m sure plenty others suffer from—or enjoy, I guess—a similarly conflicted one.) It just bears mentioning that, every once in a while, a record like Deterioration comes chugging along and completely obliterates my notions of what noise music is or should be. It’s not like the Yellow Swans are some unsung saviors who’ve descended from the sky to present us with this masterpiece of theirs; their discography claims between 50 and 70 releases (many of which are tour-only cassettes, CD-Rs, and EPs), depending on whom you ask, and their small yet rock-solid fan base has been heralding their virtues for the better part of a decade. At their best they, like My Bloody Valentine, take caterwauling feedback at its burliest and most impenetrable and mold it into something devastatingly beautiful. Instead of stretching their sheets of squalling fuzz and maniacal distortion over a pop song’s bed frame, Peter Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman pin it up and let it flap in the breeze. This way, each of the five bone-crushing pieces on Deterioration is free to take whatever awesome shapes its internal battles lead them to.

Two paragraphs in and I’ve already dropped the MBV bomb, but shoegaze is just one of many sonic touchstones visited and duly decimated on Deterioration. Insofar as “Reintegration” follows the same aching loop from its muted genesis to its violent self-destruction, the band is channeling Basinski’s basic conceit on The Disintegration Loops, albeit without the time-worn procedure and at a much higher volume. Already mentioned drone-metal forebears Sleep and Boris could explain the awesomely elongated guitar whines of “Broken Eraser/Time Stretch,” but such a comparison becomes futile in the face of “Burnt Dub,” the infinitely massive, ZOMG-worthy piece here. To say “Burnt Dub” is rock and roll wouldn’t be too far off, but it’d be more accurate to call it both the steel wrecking ball taken to Physical Graffiti‘s (1975) monolithic apartment complex and the resultant, crumbling cinder blocks hurtling towards their rubbly grave. From the thrashing build-up and retreating, concluding hum of “Reintegration” to the inevitable comedown of murky ambient stopgap “Untitled,” the whole album orients itself around “Burnt Dub” as the bouncing monkeys of 2001: A Space Odyssey did around their mysterious, yet infinitely wise, monolith. And just check out those guitars at the end that lash out like shredded power lines. Rad!

A case could be made against “Dirty Heads” and how it closes the album like a fourth grader’s concluding paragraph to an essay—essentially a cut-and-paste collage of passages that summarize the sonic territory traveled in the four previous tracks. After switching directions four times, the band is maybe caught with its cards already shown. Which might suck, except: Have you seen those cards? If anything, its synthetic nature and proclivity for the slow build à la “Broken Eraser/Time Stretch” add a crucial sense of coherence to the record.

All in all, Deterioration wants for the binding continuity of last year’s fantastic At All Ends, which played out like one flowing piece of face-melting sound. Deterioration is a spikier listen, its production predictably less polished as it was not originally intended to be a proper studio LP. (The band initially self-distributed the album in cassette form at shows last year and Modern Radio kindly reissued it on CD this June.) Yet, the album’s pseudo-rogue status in the band’s catalogue also makes it a more thrillingly diverse summation of latter-day Yellow Swans’ intimidating powers. It also makes you wonder what other genre-bending masterworks await discovery in the band’s dusty cassette box…

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