he “outsider’s perspective” is a tricky vantage point to negotiate, relying as it does on a tenuous balance of naivety and invention. Yet for years it’s been something of a specialty for Brooklyn’s Black Dice. From their earliest incarnation as a tweaked West Coast hardcore nightmare to their emergence as neo-psychedelia noiseniks on 2002’s Beaches and Canyons, they’ve been intimately tied up in a project of coping with musical history by sidestepping it nearly entirely. With only a handful of hardcore records to their names, the former Providence natives crafted a brutal noise rock assault that mixed performance art antagonism and spastic bleats of feedback into a grimy mess every bit as invigorating as their better-studied peers. Without the “proper” experimental rock pedigree, they’ve stirred up torrents of delay-saturated static storms atop tribal thump, earning them a place alongside innovators like Wolf Eyes and Boredoms in the electronics-damaged rock pantheon. Through each metamorphosis, they’ve steadfastly maintained a certain personal detachment from their musical persona—a scan of interviews with the band finds them listening to dub when they’re supposedly calculated No Wave terrorists, talking techno and Caetano Veloso when they’re supposedly steeped in lysergic noise torrents, and expressing a generalized ambivalence toward listening to the music they often emulate.
On Creature Comforts, Black Dice again tackles a corner of experimental music with relatively fresh ears—this time shedding the propulsive rhythms and high-energy fluxes for a raw, punk-tinged take on musique concrète . The overt rhythmic underpinnings of their previous endeavors are now subsumed into the implied pulses of blips and sputters moving in space. Crushingly dense walls of processed signals have given way to spiny and spacious interplay of nearly recognizable sounds that suggest teeming forests stocked with robotic animals. The dark undertow that pervaded even the most ecstatic moments of Beaches and Canyons is conspicuously absent, replaced here with something bordering on playfulness or whimsy—imagine newfound kindred spirits Animal Collective ditching the folk-pop angle and wrestling head-on with electroacoustic improv. The change in tone and tactics seems custom-designed to remove the band from their most recent pigeonholing with the current junkyard noise crop, and it’s executed with a degree of self-consciousness uncommon for a band so used to recklessly inhabiting other sounds. For all its surprises, Creature Comforts marks one of the first times Black Dice has sounded like a band in transition, and consequently lacks much of the serendipitous splendor of their previous efforts.
Many of the twinges of discomfort stem from the relative nakedness of the band’s rough-edged sounds, which at times suffer for their rawness. Now-departed drummer Hisham Bharoocha’s percussive backdrop makes only scant appearances, leaving shards of Bjorn Copeland’s processed guitar and a host of electronic squiggles from Eric Copeland and Aaron Warren more exposed to scrutiny than ever before. Presented in sufficient density, the electronic components swirl and warp into mysterious mobiles, as on the opener “Cloud Pleaser,” where tittering samples and an insistent burst of low-frequency thump tiptoe around one another as a bundle of folksy guitar curlicues gradually unravels itself. When the band opts for a more calculatedly spare approach, however, their curiously monochromatic and already-dated sound palette becomes a hindrance that grows more nagging as the album progresses. “Creature” opens with coarsely panned bleeping nicked from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and trudges through repetitive delay-treated blippery until Bharoocha’s loose-limbed drumming resuscitates the track’s final third, lifting it up into a whirlwind of unmoored jungle noises and hysterical chatter. “Skeleton” suffers a similar fate, less the last-minute resuscitation—Hawaiian slide guitar loops linger well past their welcome, broken by a decidedly un-mysterious tremolo-addled vocal sample that ceases only for a pleasant-if-uninteresting wash of fragmented guitar samples. Without the intensification that density once provided them, Black Dice’s sounds seem uncomfortably flat, especially for listeners more closely attuned to experimental music—there’s an odd “throwback” quality to the band’s current template, and one is left to wonder how much of it is intentional.
On the occasions that the music does hit its stride, the results are engaging and evocative in a way that will either render the surrounding moments of tedium bearable or maddening (depending on your degree of optimism). “Treetops” makes the most of its coarse sonic material, gathering together a diverse collection of scuffed synth hiccups and rippling guitar twang only to grind them down with a delightfully discourteous sandblasting of distortion tones. Each fuzzed-out eruption provides relief from some of the album’s all-pervasive pleasantness, a geniality perhaps responsible for some of the lack of sonic variety. Album highlights “Schwip Schwap” and “Night Flight” finds the band reworking its confrontational streak into something at once tuneful and unsettled. Pentatonic guitar melodies flitter with woozy irregularity against the chunk-flung circuits of discarded effects pedals, eventually melting the music down to a lead-gray pool of degraded analog bubbles. Oddly enough, the album’s most promising moment comes in the aptly named “Live Loop,” a minute-long interlude whose short, looped phrase drips a teasingly incomplete snippet of melancholic slide guitar over entropic electronic gurgles in what sounds like a fuller realization of the band’s new modus operandi than most of the studio material.
Creature Comforts may be the most divisive Black Dice record to date—a strange assertion, perhaps, given its pursuance of considerably more “listenable” fare than previous releases. While the music retains much of the band’s distinctive voice, it lacks the same sort of reckless, history-defying abandon that characterized its genre-bending predecessors—to some extent, they’ve traded their teeth for timidity. Fans of the band’s more violent incarnations will doubtless be left cold by its almost unwavering amiability and beat-free ambiance. Diehard experimentalists are likely to chalk up these eight experiments to pleasant, if slightly watery, live versions of early tape music experiments or look for richer soundscapes in other pockets of the increasingly diverse experimental music universe. For the first time, one is left with the impression that Black Dice could do with a little more research, focused fine-tuning, perhaps even a bit more inspiration—at last, they seem to have found a guise that will take a little more work to fit.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2004-06-25