Talkhouse Contributing Writer Ben Greenberg is a guitarist/singer/bassist/ drummer/songwriter/producer/engineer and lifelong New York City resident. When he isn’t making records in NYC he spends his time on tour with the band Uniform and his solo project Hubble.
A good friend of mine grew up attending punk and hardcore shows in southern California in the ’90s. He’s got a ton of great stories, but one that always stuck with me was about a fight that broke out between the band Le Shok and their crowd. Fights at punk shows aren’t exactly news, but I was always tickled by the image of that particular band, with their definitely un-hardcore synth/surf garage punk sound, black dress shirts, white belts, and fashion haircuts, getting physical with their audience. Something like that seems almost impossible in today’s climate of mostly one-dimensional bands that generally work as hard as possible to seem like they’re working as little as possible to impart absolutely no more than one idea.
Rock music has become so segmented and sub-segmented and sub-sub-sub-sceneified that it’s rare to encounter an unpredictable band or, better yet, a confusing band. I know I’m a bit young to be writing this but I miss the scary bands, the bands who’d spit blood or fire on you or knock over all their gear and throw it at you; the bands you went to go see because you didn’t know what was going to happen, and what did happen was a lot more exciting than, say, doing unexpected calisthenics at a Les Savy Fav show or something. In this current time of immediate everything, I’ve noticed people putting less and less thought into their bands in an effort to make things happen more quickly by not getting hung up on the details. Less of my generation embraces a certain work ethic, a desire to mold the audience’s hearts and brains immediately, physically, viscerally, than the generation before. Or perhaps we simply experience it so much less often that we don’t know what we’re missing.
Disappears are a rock & roll band who understand that work ethic because that’s where they come from. Singer-guitarist Brian Case started his previous band the 90 Day Men back in 1995 and has made powerful, brass-tacks music ever since. Era, Disappears’ fourth album, seems to be a consciously and subconsciously reflective statement of just that: the current era, the last era, and the differences between them. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a throwback record, in fact I have a hard time thinking of anything that it sounds like. Disappears is a truly multi-faceted organism, capable of sewing together cold electronic minimalism and psyched-out old-school rock & roll sonic mind-melting. As many different textures as can be heard in a single track, the result is always just that: a single track, an energetic monolith of propulsive rock motion that cannot be denied. With the simple standard rock setup of two guitars, bass and drums they hew and wield a sound all their own with enough control and flexibility to go from a tense whisper to a terrifying explosion.
What’s most remarkable to me about this band and this record is the way they simultaneously show the listener where they’re from, how they got here, and how it’s all added up to something completely new, all at the same time. It’s an incredible mix of legitimately haunting energy and maturity that is really, really hard to find, and even harder to find in an exciting form that doesn’t come off cynical or jaded.
Disappears manages something very rare on Era, building on the rhythmic framework of their previous records without losing the alien catharsis so fundamental to their soul. The dual punch of righteous jammers “Weird House” and “Elite Typical” is the highlight of the record for me. These two tracks show the band getting into more danceable territory — they’re haunted, creepy, and evil too, but danceable nonetheless. Both songs present an immediate, addictive rhythmic framework that allow tons of space for guitars and vocals to provide a structure. The guitars weave gracefully between muted syncopated interaction, strikingly off-the-cuff melodic moments, and all-out wailing. As on the rest of the album, the strength in the playing on these songs lies in restraint, patience, and careful attention to the density of the arrangement. (Even the flow between those two particular songs is pretty perfect, simply a millisecond of silence, no need for overblown transitional material.)
Case’s vocals alternate between a distorted yell somewhat reminiscent of the aforementioned Le Shok or their contemporaries Slaves/Pleasure Forever, and a more downplayed, creepy/sexy/haunted trip a la Helios Creed or Peter Murphy. He pulls off both zones effortlessly, his chanting monotone the perfect tension-builder for his scream’s release. Elsewhere on the album, phased hi-hat cymbals and extreme soundscapes show off probably most of Electrical Audio’s multi-effects collection (something rarely done, as anyone who’s spent time listening to most of the antiseptically clean records that come out of that studio can tell you), and remind me of the band Chrome, which is a really, really good thing for anyone who likes rock music and believes it can be scary and forward-thinking at the same time. Or forward-thinking in the service of scariness. Or vice versa.
The producer/engineer nerd in me would be heinously remiss if I didn’t also say that this is by far among the best-sounding albums that I’ve heard all year. The production, by John Congleton (the Black Angels, the Thermals) at Steve Albini’s Electical Audio studio in the band’s hometown of Chicago, is really nothing short of immaculate. The classic EA kick and snare sounds that those of us who wear glasses know so well are here, but they change from track to track, to suit the mood of each song. Album opener “Girl” has the classic Albini clicky kick sound, which is then dulled down to more of a throbbing thud on the follow-up song “Power” to make room in the mix for a pluckier bass guitar tone. Time-delayed drum room mics (another Albini mainstay) show up to fill the haunting emptiness of the epic third song, “Ultra,” and their sudden absence about four minutes into the track is a remarkably effective textural shift that really left my ears feeling robbed of a sound the first time I heard it, like the first night spent in total quiet after a long stay in the city, though I couldn’t place what was missing until the room mics’ reemergence two minutes later. Similarly spirited creative mixing decisions abound throughout the album’s instruments and tracks. Guitar parts swirl around your head one minute, only to snap sharply into focus the next. Case’s voice will be distorted or Space Echoed into utter incomprehensibility on one track, only to re-emerge on the next one clean and in your face, or even layered to the point of sounding truly insane (like, 12 Monkeys insane, not like Converge “insane” or some other pedestrian “extreme” sound). Often, one guitar will hold down a simple rhythm or cross-rhythm against the bass and drums while the other guitar swirls into psychedelic MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal oblivion, which adds a distinctly post-punk flavor into the band’s already rich palette of kraut-y rhythm section moves and frayed, psyched-out atmospheres.
Had Era been a completely live record without overdubs or detailed production, it wouldn’t have been all that different: an inscrutable, raw, powerful collection of songs that are arranged for the most relatable (and awesome) rock instruments with a careful ear for textural density, sound vs. silence, and rhythmic momentum. The second half of the story, though, the careful and artfully constructed mixes, are really what take this album over the top for me. Era is just that, a cold yet loving embrace of the entire process of music-making, the sound of a band mining and minding their own roots and finding their own next step away from the herd. To quote the title track, they are “beholden to nothing.” Fuck yeah.