Universal Order of Armageddon - Universal Order of Armageddon
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
There are noisy rock bands, I don’t need to tell you, of various stripes. Distortion can be harnessed to multiple ends, from blissed-out hallucinatory filter to gruesome truncheon-to-the-senses means of abasement; just the same, the loud-fast tempo and standard distortion of punk rock can just as easily explode into a prism of meaning. It’s to Universal Order of Armageddon’s credit that their recorded legacy—which, like many other bands, fits on a slim CD—can never be placed down into either of these camps or any of their subsets. The most immediate reference point is Unwound, but UOA usually manage to squirm free of the “confused, fucked-up rock with moments of beauty” tag that characterizes their more embryonic work. Their attack is often more nuanced and focused.
For a sample of the band at their exhortative, train-running-off-the-rails height, look no further than the phalanx made up of the breakneck “Flux,” “Symptom,” and “Painfully Obvious” that comprises the disc’s middle point. Some discographies follow a certain trajectory, usually involving an explosive height bracketed by low ebbs (usually in the form of questionable experiments or concessions to exhaustion); this is not one of them. In fact, there’s a symmetry on hand here that makes me think that everything this band recorded was absolutely essential, never performed with anything less than the unbridled intensity that made their early shows with the likes of Bikini Kill the stuff of church-basement legend. Still, out of all the burn-not-fade gems on display here, it’s what begins the discography, the six-song “Switch Is Down” EP, that encapsulates everything great the band had to offer.
Kicking off with the rasping scorn of the lyrically and musically jagged “Visible Distance,” the listener’s not exactly sure what to make of things until the title track. “Never would’ve had a use for the axle / If someone hadn’t invented the wheel,” is the hoarse, enigmatic chant offered up by an equally mysterious vocalist; an omni-directional guitar squall surrounds his shredded growl. Repeated descending surges (most of which come from bassist Tonie Joy, formerly of Born Against) comprise the hint of melody that we get, but it remains inseparable from the spray of noise. When the rhythm section drops out and the song suddenly splits into the DIY equivalent of Sonic Boom ambiance and some detuned fret-massaged chaos starts leaping out of the mix, you know it’s going to come crashing back to life, but the prolonged inevitable is no less satisfying. “Stepping Softly Into,” with its equally protracted two-note call-and-response between blown-out bass and needling high-end, works the same magic until its disjointed, punch-drunk groove finally coalesces into a masterwork of surging, epic rock. With lots of tremolo and agonized screaming, of course. (I can pick out something about being a butterfly!)
But there are odder tricks up the band’s sleeve. “Clear Set” thrashes and pummels after a lengthy passage of abstract solo drumming. “Benedict” is like an up-tempo punk track turned inside out, its bass-heavy sonic scrawl accentuated seemingly accentuated in all the wrong places. “No Longer Stranger,” with passages of subdued drumming, Slint-esque spoken word, and the ne plus ultra of lurking basslines alternating with more glorious, storming chaos, closes out the original EP memorably. Ironically, it almost works to render everything else on this restrospective irrelevant. Still, the raw pounding of “Flux,” hammered into a pattern of desperate ascension, is one of many highlights. “Painfully Obvious” blasts along with monomaniacal, deranged glee, while “Close to Far Away”—with some moments of white-knuckle guitar-scraping that bring to mind Andy Gill fed through Sonic Youth’s aesthetic—rides its walloping, almost danceable beat to more memorable oblivion. The seemingly one-take recording method that gives the record such a brisk feel is at its best on the powerful blast of “Entire Vast Situation,” which sounds like it has a P.A.-bleed-through (or else a demo recording of the guitar track) reverberating throughout its length. “City” and “Four Measure Start” manage to exploit the band’s bruising rhythm section to equally stunning effect, making these songs more than mere loud-and-fast bouts of shadowboxing. The latter, about as subdued as UOA gets, allows one to glimpse the finesse that their assaults no doubt contained, even when it seemed least likely.
And this, finally, seems to be what set UOA apart from their peers; while punk collapsed into the self-parodic theatrics of Earth Crisis and their mosh-metal peers, or gradually fled for the shoals of deliberate lo-fi incompetence or gentle indie genericism, this band seemed determined to do something different. They remain representative of an overlooked period—or, to be more precise, selectively overlooked—in the American underground, one that arrived in the wake of Nation of Ulysses and Heroin. It may not initially seem too clever or adventurous compared to, you know, Pavement or Stereolab, but its intelligence and sophistication is no less evident.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01