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They say there was a time when punk rock could offend an audience. These days that's difficult to digest. With punk appropriated by television jingles and marching bands, what once confronted and agitated now soothes like a crate of Maalox.

While the rest of the Gilman Street Nation rehashed the same old three-chord, Muzak-ready punk songs, the VSS learned to play their instruments. Now, quite simply, the VSS sound like nothing else in San Francisco, and that confuses audiences. At a Chameleon show last year, an agitated hipster sent a cup of brew flying toward the stage. After the band finished a set at Gilman (aka Punk Rock City), one disgruntled kid shouted the band offstage with "Depeche Mode has left the building." At another Chameleon date, some kid turned to a pal after two VSS songs and screamed, "This is an insult to my ears," just before about-facing and skittering toward the door. So if the punk band is too punk for the punkish crowds at the city's punkest places, the punk band must be pretty fucking punk.

Combining the rhythmic ferocity of the Summer of Hate, the skree of experimental music, and the dirge of death rock, the VSS sound really doesn't make sense. They say they try to make music that sounds like spliced tapes, and that's a decent approximation. Josh Hughes' guitar struggles through a phalanx of effects pedals, Andy Rothbard plays bass like an MC5 throwback, and Dave Clifford drums like a sequencer set on random. Meanwhile, front-grunter Sonny Kay postures, punches a box full of stage lights, and throws himself at the microphone. Since you'll never hear a lyric, here's a sample from the new Nervous Circuits liner notes: "What kind of ticks are we?/ We are the bourgeoisie/ Sponge an inch of impulse from better breeding/ The whores for the agile, for the easy and the erstwhile." It's all very disorienting. And that's the way it's supposed to be: difficult.

-- Jeff Stark

The VSS play a record release party with Bakamono and Xerobot on Sunday, April 6, at 7 p.m. at the Kilowatt. Tickets are $5; call 861-2595.

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