This weekend, two Pacific Rim bands with markedly different takes on the U.S. play San Francisco: Japan's Angel'in Heavy Syrup, who affectionately reprocess Western psychedelic sounds of the '60s and '70s, and the quasi-legendary Dead C, an obstreperous New Zealand trio with a penchant for cryptic pokes at the U.S. Together, they provide a glimpse of the love/hate relationship much of the music world has with American culture. Relish it or loathe it, you really can't ignore it.
First off, Osaka's Angel'in Heavy Syrup. (If you're wondering why the apostrophe, check out a Japanese pop-music mag sometime: Taking creative liberties with the English language is a long-standing band-name tradition in the land of the rising sun.) Formed in 1989 by bassist/vocalist Mineko Itakura and guitarist Mine Nakao, Angel'in is primarily influenced by classic psych and German art-rock. In a recent fax (via a Japanese translator), Mineko, Mine, Fusao and Tomoko ticked off some faves: Soft Machine, Amon DUU II, Can, unsung late-'60s groups like Fifty Foot Horse (from S.F.) and C.A. Quintet (from Minneapolis) and true stump-the-experts obscurities like “Fran” and “Coise Hardy.” Anybody?
“American audience[s] are great!” the foursome enthusiastically faxed in response to a question about their last visit to the Bay Area. What did they like about the U.S.? Crowd reaction, low prices, temperature and “mood.” What didn't they like? Nothing.
The Angels' three CDs — economically titled I, II and III — are blissful excursions into lysergic, kaleidoscopic guitar pop. Retro in a fractured, Japanese-distillation-of-Western-record-collections sorta way, they're a tidy passel of trance-inducing tunes. Few bands that I've imposed on unsuspecting listeners have garnered more immediate favorable responses than these syrupy seraphim; everyone from fans of 4AD slush-pop to fuzz-hungry space-rock freaks should be able to latch onto these dream-rock offerings.
Angel'in Heavy Syrup III — recently released on Circular Reasoning, a subsidiary of the local Charnel Music label — is in many ways the band's strongest effort yet. Kicking off with the luscious 11-minute epic “Breath of Life,” these six tracks provide 40 minutes of interstellar bliss. The band's name doubles as a dead-on description of Mineko's breathy vocals, and the fact that she sings entirely in Japanese borders on being a plus: There are no concrete images to weigh you down, though I'm not so sure the lyrics are any more tangible upon translation. When asked about their meaning, the Angels fax: “They are descriptive, psychedelic, dreamlike. For example, on 'Flower and Dream,' they express wonderful moment like full of color world.” Took the words right out of my mouth.
The Angels' only swipe at English is a rendition of the Sonny & Cher chestnut “I Got You Babe” on the second CD — a chiming, charming exercise in lyric-chewing. The Angels say they'd like to better their English, but in person, their giggly congeniality transcends language; on their last visit here, they proved they can deliver their divine sound live as well.
Some 6,000 miles southeast of Osaka is the small burg of Port Chalmers, New Zealand, home of Dead C. Formed in 1987, members Michael Morley, Bruce Russell and Robbie Yeats are often pegged as forerunners of an entire guitar-based noise genre. Anointing the trio the sole godfathers of lo-fi seems excessive, but it's probably safe to say that Sebadoh's Lou Barlow cued up Dead C a few times. By challenging just about every commonly held notion of what a band “should” sound like, they've certainly influenced a large sector of indieland conceptually. And Dead C has amassed a voluminous catalog of enigmatic noise to date, especially if you consider side projects like Russell's A Handful of Dust and Morley's Gate.
The core configuration is Morley and Russell on guitar and Yeats on drums, but these guys are not averse to instrument-swapping, and tapes, keyboards, electronics and whatnot often enter the fray. Even with the guitars, anything goes: a five-string guitar with 2-year-old strings played with a screwdriver through a cheap amp, for example. The Dead C do perform “songs” on occasion, with discernible rhythms, chord patterns — even vocals — but just as often they don't. It takes a bit of getting used to, though the payoff is there. Onstage, the band has been described as “a beautiful mass of swirling contradictions … lurching from aggressive sub-hardcore to introspective noodling of the most sublime variety.”
If Angel'in Heavy Syrup are the sort of thing nine-outta-10 casual listeners might find appealing, Dead C is one of those groups likely to send them all screaming from the room. Still, Dead C's inscrutable squalls of plink and scuzz can be every bit as transcendentally mesmerizing, albeit in a far more disorienting, nontraditional manner. On the 1992 double-LP Harsh 70's Reality, there's a side-long, 22-and-a-half-minute alien opus titled “Driver U.F.O.” It's an awesome specimen of Dead C at its free-form freakiest, an opaquely beautiful sound swamp that one Pennsylvania band found compelling enough to name itself after.
Transversely, the trio can be almost maddeningly aimless on occasion; even die-hard fans slag the occasional disc. But truly unhinged aesthetic erraticism — along with the ingestion of sundry mind-altering substances — is all just part of the Dead C equation when it comes to creating a beautiful blort. Simultaneously high art, anti-art and artless, Dead C recordings have a haunted, discomfiting nature that's coursed through damn near everything the band has done since its debut, the Perform Max Harris cassette, which was released in a ridiculously limited edition of about 20 tapes. Much of Dead C's output documents either live shows or practice sessions; this is one group unafraid to press something recorded on a Walkman or boombox.
“Never use two chords where one will do” is Dead C's self-proclaimed motto, and there's a liberal amount of pranksterism involved. The song “Children” on 1990's Eusa Kills is a de facto deconstruction of Led Zeppelin's “When the Levee Breaks,” which emerged in part because drummer Yeats was the only one who had any idea how to play it. Incidentally, according to a Bananafish interview, “Eusa” is both a folk hero of the post-apocalyptic future and the personification of the U.S.A., a symbolism allegedly inspired by the book Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Eusa Kills, like much of Dead C's output, criticizes the U.S. Scathing indictment doesn't get any more cryptic.
Despite the predominantly moody and ominous tenor of Dead C's work, the threesome approach it with a sizable sense of humor and parody. “We were laughing hysterically at our first practice, when we realized the three of us could make this particular 'noise' which epitomized everything we'd ever loved about 'music,' and in a sense we haven't stopped laughing yet,” the New Zealand zine Alley Oop once quoted Russell as saying.
“We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at our peers, we laugh at America.” Let's see what happens when the trio play their first-ever U.S. show in S.F. this week.
Angel'in Heavy Syrup plays Sat, May 27, and Sun, May 28, at the Kilowatt in S.F., call 861-2595; Dead C plays Sun, May 28, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F., call 885-0750.