Call it cabin fever — or basement fatigue — but in the Midwest, musical eccentrics are prone to surliness. A recent example is Columbus band Times New Viking, which last year turned a gruesome episode in rock history into a wry pun with the song titled "Imagine Dead John Lennon." The track was from an album with an equally flip name — Present the Paisley Reich. The band's move was not unlike answering the phone with an expletive; it makes those inured to their wit laugh, but threatens to grate on the thin-skinned.
With Times New Viking, Ohio is in its third decade of fostering musicians who engage in a tight regional exchange of styles and values, a place where "DIY" and "analog" are golden. Cleveland's Pere Ubu set the template for Ohio rock's highest aspiration in the mid-'70s: to carve your legend into a small stack of vinyl before petering out. In the early '80s, Great Plains picked up Ubu's mantle of art-damaged garage rock. Then in the '90s, hard-drinking fourth-grade teacher Robert Pollard started issuing basement tapes from his shambolic bar band Guided by Voices. Fast forward a decade and you have Times New Viking. "Lo-fi to us is almost a cultural heritage at this point," says Adam Elliot, Times New Viking's singer and drummer. "It's something you can create in your basement or backyard."
Times New Viking's 2005 debut, Dig Yourself, flaunted this lineage. Elliot and his bandmates — keyboardist-vocalist Beth Murphy and guitarist Jared Phillips — absorbed their predecessors' recording ethos. But today the subject quickly wearies Elliot. "It's a little ridiculous that most of the attention we get concentrates on lo-fi," he says, "not the songs or message, especially so many years past the Velvet Underground."
When Times New Viking signed to Matador last year, the smart money was on the band streamlining its sound for indie rock's preeminent label. The group was already five years and two albums into its home-taping odyssey, well beyond Guided by Voices' threshold when Matador's '90s mainstays finally started booking sessions in a 24-track studio.
But on Times New Viking's latest, Rip It Off, the band's sessions remain knotted in four-track tape. The album's lead, "Teen Drama" (with lyrics and riffs paying homage to Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot"), picks up from where it left off on The Paisley Reich — in the basement with the Tascam faders pushed to ten. Elliot's prolonged drumstick count presages a tribal beat. By the second chorus, when the tom-toms give way to a truncated glam stomp, the band emerges beneath the sonic sprawl with an intense focus missing from its two previous albums.
Rip It Off's songs, stingy as their length might be (16 tracks crammed into 31 minutes), are melodically generous. "Drop-Out" is a short burst of he-said, she-said clamor, where Murphy and Elliot are left "waiting for something more than a bad idea." (For his part, Elliot calls his lyrical style "nihilistic romanticism.") The titles "Faces of Fire" and "End of All Things" further blare Elliot's alarm but the lyrics telegraph a subtler message; naked pleas like "I don't want to die in the city alone" and "Just can't wait to be near you" expose the emotional hesitance cynicism protects.
Though Times New Viking's records recall Matador's other listless '90s college rockers, onstage the group reaches thrash metal's level of brutality. The members attack their instruments, forcing the sounds out, appearing to forgo fretwork and syncopation. This viciousness should produce the shrillest squalls. Instead, it coaxes out hooks that often go unheard on the group's records.
The ultraviolence Times New Viking commits against its gear is a living manifesto — an expression of the members' disaffection for sonic gloss. The band's tunes, cutting through the din, are a clarion call to the maladjusted.