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Saturday, September 23, 2017

DUDS - Of A Nature Or Degree (Review)

“There’s nothing new under the sun”, so goes the rather discouraging adage. Artists and musicians have been trying to disprove this saying for some time. Whether or not there has been any success in that department is up for debate. In the late 70’s and early 80’s there came a new avant-garde ethos rising out of the punk movement. It went by many names: new musick, post-punk, no wave; but the desire to shed what artists saw as the tired tropes of punk was much the same. Fast forward to present day Manchester where a new post-punk band, DUDS, is impressing listeners and show goers with their pursuit of that post-punk dream. Their new album, Of A Nature Or Degree was just released on Castle Face Records and it’s filled with atonal guitar riffs, rhythm patterns that are both odd and visceral, as well as some funky grooves to break up the controlled chaos. As you’ll notice, there is a definite affinity for classic post-punk, no wave and experimental rock, but also some resistance to any such categorization.

One of the first holdovers from punk that you’ll notice is speed. The beginning of the album feels kind of like a caffeine overdose turned into music. Some of the pieces are also quite short, the shortest, “A Different Stage,” coming in at just 33 seconds. Not all tracks are frenetic, however. Pieces like “Elastic Seal” later in the album slow the pace down a bit, with a cool groove. A bent guitar string, acting as a metronome, playing simple quarter notes proves you don’t have to be complex to be weird. It’s also more in-key than a lot of the album (quite catchy actually). It eventually descends into tonal and rhythmic chaos, but it’s down right funky until then. The consonance isn’t alone on the album but it stands in contrast to the opening “No Remark,” “Signal, Sign,” “Of Nature,” (take your pick, really) where guitar and bass seem to have a tonality all their own. “Elastic Feel” features wild, James Chance style saxophone improv to finish the song off. “Signal, Sign” is interesting because of the simple yet strange two chord progression reminiscent of Wire. It’s also got a perfectly dark, not quite dissonant bridge that carries the song out. Another call-back to original post-punk era is “Irregular Patterns,” which features a classic drum machine with a guitar tone that would sound right at home on a Gang of Four record. In all these pieces the bass, although it echoes the crazy guitar melodies, seems to provide a foundation for the chaos. It would be hard to rock out to some of these pieces were it not for the revolving bass riffs.

The paradox of DUDS, and perhaps of the post-punk clothe from which they are cut, (some writers on the subject have pointed this out) is that in the pursuit of something new, an inevitable, eclectic borrowing is bound to occur. Bands of the classic post-punk era retained punk’s rebellion and DIY spirit while delving into other genres such as funk, electronic, dub, reggae, noise, and jazz in pursuit of a new sound. Now, nearly forty years later, DUDS, in their own explorations, perhaps are refining and codifying the results of this initial post-punk experiment. In other words: a copy of an eclectic copy. It's also doubly ironic because they are turning something that was arguably anti-style (e.g. “no wave”) into a style. Over the years, there have been plenty of bands donning the post-punk moniker posthumously that are responsible for this refinement as well. It’s also not the only “genre” that didn’t start as such (think of the original meaning of “indie”).

Does this described refinement however, mean that DUDS are unoriginal? This take is a little simplistic. Post-punk is not only a style, but a spirit, an ethos, a commitment to the unconventional. This means that if you’re doing it right, you’ll never sound exactly like the other guys. The ways in which the album departs slightly from post-punk tropes: it’s more polished and it’s more rhythmically adventurous. It sounds studio recorded (albeit with plenty of reverb), and the band almost has a math rock, or prog rock precision to their performance, inching away from punk’s anyone-can-do-it constitution. The average garage band would have a tough time keeping up with these guys. This has much to do with the practiced rhythm section, which makes the entire band sound tighter. The guitar playing too is virtuosic while somehow conveying the proper amount of aloofness or messiness to qualify as punk. This instrumental precision however, doesn’t quite extend to the vocals, which usually consists of a simple rhythmic talking or shouting. There are moments of course, when “normal” singing is approximated. But even then, the vocals are mixed in such a way as to push them to the back. This makes it tough to make out the words. Their Bandcamp page however, says that their lyrics “comment on the human condition and arbitrary, sometimes strange scenarios or themes.”

As far as rhythm, the occasional odd time signature, or polyrhythm bucks any comparison to the 4/4 standard of most punk and post-punk drumming. “No Remark,” a re-recorded track from their earlier EP, Wet Reduction, has a bizarre four and a half beat riff. The simple opening guitar line almost mocks the simplicity of a 4/4 beat, lingering just a little too long on the last note. The atonal break down mid-song ending with a couple of clicks of the woodblock is a perfectly quirky reset before getting back to the ecstatic groove. “The Nose” is an intense piece with obtuse timing. The three notes at the end of the riff prevent you from rocking out, instead forcing you into a sort of rhythmic spasming that’s probably more fun anyway. Much of the seeming chaos on the album can be explained in musical terms if you know what you’re talking about, rather than free form, Beefheart style expressionism. An impressive exception is “Pro Tem” which slips in and out of a disorderly spoken word break-down with ease. Throughout the album there is various arrhythmic improvising on top of a more regular foundation as well, an attribute more common perhaps to the no wave scene than to post-punk.

In addition to all this formal stuff, there are intangibly unique elements one can’t exactly put their finger on. There’s something ineffable that transcends form. One can’t say with any honesty that there is another band quite like DUDS. Anyway, does being different trump being good, enjoyable, entertaining, etc.? After all, the experience of music is not purely intellectual. Of A Nature Or Degree is a delightfully crazy record that hooks the listener from the start with it’s spastic grooves and unconventional melodies. For those that seek something unique in their music, it’s an inspiring album worth multiple listens. But, if you’re still stuck on the reoccurring philosophical question of originality, the experimental composer Harry Partch had a pretty good answer: “Originality cannot be a goal. It is simply inevitable. The truly path-breaking step can never be predicted and certainly not by the person who makes it … He clears as he goes, evolves his own techniques … and his path cannot be retraced, because each of us is an original being.” Brian Eno has a slightly opposing but equally convincing theory about how music and art evolve. In fact, it’s fitting to mention the no wave compilation he produced, perfectly demonstrating his theory of scenius. I’ll sign off with one thought: if there is a new sound out there to be discovered, one certainly can’t do so through lazy formula. That’s one word I don’t think can be thrown at DUDS, “lazy.”

The album is available on CD or Vinyl through Castle Face Records.

Matt Ackerman