Saturday, 16 July 2011

Guitar Wolf

"The trend toward narcissistic flair has been responsible in large part for smiting rock with the superstar virus, which revolves around the substituting of attitudes and flamboyant trappings, into which the audience can project their fantasies, for the simple desire to make music, get loose, knock the folks out or get ‘em up dancin.’ It’s not enough just to do those things anymore; what you must do instead if you want success on any large scale is figure a way of getting yourself associated in the audience’s mind with their pieties and their sense of “community,” i.e., ram it home that you’re one of THEM; or, alternately, deck and bake yourself into an image configuration so blatant or outrageous that you become a culture myth." - Lester Bangs in the essay James Taylor Marked for Death from the absolutely essential collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

So I try not to quote Lester Bangs too much, and I fail all the time, because he's the sort of person that when I started reading them seriously I was already leaning towards something approaching their style and approach in my own writing (I feel the same way about Le Clezio and his cascading torrent of words echoing the noise of society) and so reading them was a mixture of "Holy fuck! This is amazing! I'm not alone or insane! Someone is doing exactly what I want to do and doing it brilliantly!" and "Ah shit. This is amazing but it means I'm completely unoriginal. Someone is doing exactly what I want to do and doing it brilliantly." It's even worse with Bangs than Le Clezio because Bangs is not only offering far better writing than me, he's also often writing about the same shit. He hangs heavy over everything I pen. He is, after all, the man credited with the term 'punk rock'. So I try not to quote him too much because he frequently renders any insight I have utterly pointless (like Bill Hicks I can only thank my lucky stars he died horrendously young and thus did not have time to supercede everything and anything I want to say about shit) but it's unavoidable here, because if anyone has taken the culture myth approach to rock music, it's fucking Guitar Wolf.

You know how I should really conduct this review? I should just put the words GUITAR WOLF in screen-filling size and animate it so it flashes black and yellow and everyone who gets it will be like "FUCK YEAH!" and everyone who doesn't can go die in an office.


That right there is a pretty accurate summary of the state of my brain as I walked out of the Islington Academy last Friday having seen the most awesome (in its original meaning before dumb fucks like me and the rest of the internet dulled it through inane overuse) display of pure rock and roll that I have ever had the ungodly fortune to experience.

Okay, so sonically, Guitar Wolf are the bastard children of Joan Jett, Motorhead, The Ramones and Link Wray, although they're probably stylistically more monomaniacal than even Lemmy's 35 years of making songs that go dananananaNAH! and they certainly have none of the attempts at pop hits that the Ramones indulged in from time to time. They are ascetics to the religion of rock and roll. Aesthetically, they are the bastard children of Joan Jett, Motorhead, The Ramones and Link Wray. They are garage punk, with the volume and attitude cranked so far off the dial that they trample carelessly around the shadowly borderlands of noisecore. And they look fucking cool doing it.

Every single Guitar Wolf album sounds pretty much the same (okay, so I haven't picked up the new one yet and didn't have enough cash to the other night but I don't think it breaks any new ground), but that's what's so wonderful about them. "Every time you do it, you dig deeper" as Ross MacDonald said when critics accused him of writing and rewriting the same novel over and over again with his Lew Archer series. Guitar Wolf are digging deeper into this almost primal rock and roll. Their song titles are built from a compendium of rock cliches, Midnight Violence Rock'n Roll, Machine Gun Guitar, Kung Fu Ramone Culmination Tactic and Sex Napoleon but they do it with enough unwinking verve that you just want to believe in it all again, all the 'yeah baby's and '1-2-1-2-3-4's and guitar solos and drum flourishes. All that silly stuff. The best starting place is probably the album Jet Generation, generally considered to be the apotheosis of their sound, possibly because it is claimed to be the loudest album ever recorded. Matador records claim "When we sent the new GUITAR WOLF record to the mastering lab for inclusion in our recent in-store play sampler, the mastering engineer called back, mystified by the volume level on the CD-R. The levels exceeded the theoretical maximum possible on compact disk audio. In other words, JET GENERATION is the loudest CD in history." How fucking cool is that? If you don't think that is cool, then maybe we cannot be friends.

The other possible starting point for Guitar Wolf is not an album, but their b-movie Wild Zero. In which they fight zombies and UFOs and look so fucking slick. Senji, Billy and Toru AKA Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf. Shooting shit, shouting "ROCK AND ROLL!", riding motorcycles with flames coming out the back, blowing shit up, delivering a stringent anti-transphobia message, rocking the fuck out, saving the world, somewhere between spirit animals and rock and roll superheroes.

So the band took the stage. First Bass Wolf (U.G. since the death of Billy a few years ago), then Drum Wolf, then Guitar Wolf himself. Here are some of the things that happened during the next hour and a half or so:

  • I've listened to almost everything they've done and they only played three songs I recognised, the opener UFO Romantics, Jet Generation and Link Wray's Rumble.

  • They did play something that resembled the Dead Kennedys' Police Truck though.

  • The guitar cable was fucked so the sound went out a couple of times but nobody appeared to notice (I didn't even notice this, I was informed by someone I was with after the gig).

  • They did every single rock and roll posture, pose and move that should've gone out of style 40 years ago but made every single one look unbearably fucking cool, especially the whole "hold your guitar like a rifle and spray bullets of rock into the crowd" one.

  • They were so completely into it from the very first moment that a couple of the guys we were with had popped out for a cigarette and when they came back in to see the band writhing about and playing guitar behind their heads they were like "Oh shit. This looks like the last song." when in fact it was the first song and the entire gig proceeded like that.

  • They barely ever stopped making noise, each glorious rock and roll cacophony would be drawn out into a stumbling wind-down but before they did the synchronised blunt rock and roll ending they'd pump it back up into another song without stopping.

  • Guitar Wolf dragged a guy out the crowd and gave him his guitar, which the guy clearly could not play but his thrashing around made no real difference to the sound being produced and it took a long time for Guitar Wolf to communicate to him in his limited English exactly which rock and roll moves he wanted him to do (it was basically like that scene from School of Rock where Jack Black teaches rock stance to the kids, but enveloped in huge colliding continents of noise), but it was still all deliriously entertaining.

  • Drum Wolf did the ol' James Dean 'look cool while combing your hair' thing while just playing the bass drum.

  • Bass Wolf had no G string, not even a tuning peg for one, lest he be tempted by the evils of something that clearly wimpy.

  • Guitar Wolf broke a string and the guitar techs tried to give him a new guitar but he was like "Fuck it. I can still thrash this one".

  • They did two encores, the first one really short, the second one after the PA had started playing music to signal the show was over but people were booing and chanting for more and I could see Bass Wolf arguing with the stage manager for one more. FIGHT THE POWER!

  • This one more went on for fucking ages as Guitar Wolf pulled a load of the crowd on stage to form a four tier human pyramid on stage which he climbed to the top of and bestrode like a powerchord pharaoh briefly before it collapsed.

  • After the show had finished, the house lights had come up and half the crowd had left, Guitar Wolf came back on stage just to pick up his shit but the people lingering about who'd just been rocked out of their mind cheered him and inspired by this he grabbed his unplugged guitar and with no mic or amp thrashed out a song in exactly the same sweat-shedding dramatic pose, grimacing as though being exorcised by the music, that he had adopted for much of the show when he was not thrashing about on the floor or leaning into the crowd, in almost COMPLETE FUCKING SILENCE while the audience stood and cheered "WOLF! WOLF! WOLF!" as though they could still hear the majestic racket that had just flayed them of their senses.

I know I'm forgetting some of the other delirious acts of rock and roll madness that took place, they may have been erased by the dark swirling mass of clamor and chaos that filled the room and got itself worked into the rustling fabric of my being. ROCK NOT LEST YE YOURSELF BE ROCKED!

Seeing them live changes the way you view the band, it makes you think even more than you ever did that they are actually rock and roll superheroes, but it also makes you stop thinking about individual songs as separate artifacts of that rock and roll. It makes you really understand why they're classed as noise-rock as much as they are garage-punk, because that constant onslaught of sound eats into you until silence feels utterly unnatural.

"The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words stat forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop…" - Tom McCarthy, C

In contrast to Killer Dreamer and a lot of that sloppy garage-y pop-punk, where it does feel like a single perfect burst of mellifluous pop taken apart from the inside and also in contrast to something like Husker Du's New Day Rising where it often feels likes a song built hardy, smooth and true and then thrown screaming like a bag of cats into that sea of fuzz so it has to struggle and splutter to keep itself heard. It feels as if we're coming from the other side, delving into the dingy discord of the world, the latent thrum of the cosmos, pulling a brief harmonious moment out of the primordial clang. We're not talking taking a Chuck Berry song and filling it with the crackle of basement souls, not wrapping a sweet teenage love song in acidic folds of hiss, it's the molding the background noise of the planet and beyond into something you can scream along to, exposing the true rock and roll heart that lives inside the deafening rumble of rocketship lifting off, the faded roar of distant traffic and the static buzz of a thousand electro-magnetic signals degraded and spattering invisible against bodies and buildings, going further and further into the dancing soul of things, unearthing rock and roll as the sound of the tick of the universe until they're grasping the echo heard by Penzias and Wilson and shoving it into a Bo Diddley beat.

Near-pure noise music like Hanatarash is possibly the closest to this idea of bringing into the light the sound behind it all, amplifying that low-level echo of existence as one drawn out, stretched and mutilated rock and roll song, like that version of Justin Bieber's inane platitudinous sexless Baby slowed down 800% until attains an odd scraping beauty, we're looking at everything from the big bang on up until the heat death as a version of Overkill lasting aeons with a billion false endings, but Guitar Wolf are a step away from that, often live it seems as there is no structure to what's going on, like these adventurers and cosmonauts of the sonic void are aimlessly rolling around in the distortion and thrash, but then they'll grab onto a groove, snatch a drumbeat from infinity and shackle it, they're plucking guitar solos from the murk. "Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world." as Stalker had it, or at a less wholly mythic level (it's a hierarchy of noise and Guitar Wolf are drawing both from the base big bang echo and the assorted descendant static that has followed and intermingled with it) it's something akin to GX Jupitter Larsen's noise novel Sometimes Never which starts with "Most thought the radio static was empty. They were quite wrong..." it says before 20 odd pages of phonetically rendered static, pages and pages of letters smashed together briefly asserting themselves into half-recognisable patterns that scamper away from your comprehension designed to be read out loud and make you like hissing/fizzing madman if you do it in public. Entering into this churning noise, they're bringing back melody and rhythm from the brink and passing it on to us as only true heroes can.

Because here's where the culture myth gets interesting, Guitar Wolf are not us. Jeff Rosenstock is. Lauren Measure is. Mikey Erg is. Biscuit Turner was. Even an exulted a figure as Mackaye or Rollins is still us. Still that ordinary person who does ordinary things, goes to the shop, stubs their toe, they just go out at night and play stunning angry beautiful music rather than relaxing with a boxset of Mork and Mindy, a cool Coors 16 ouncer or a Yukio Mishima novel.

But Guitar Wolf drag audience members on stage and hand them a guitar and then they're part of it, they've got the crowd cheering them on. One move and you're a rock god, Auxiliary Wolf, let me hear you howl. What Guitar Wolf do, and this is explicit in Wild Zero in which the main character is not the band but a fervent fan named Ace, is they make you a fucking sidekick to the madness. They draw you in. Like a Dr Who companion, or Willy DuWitt in Bucky O'Hare, or whatever lucky kid gets to visit the Justice League HQ this week and help save the day, you're just the odd little human drawn into this mission, this romantic excavation of sound with the tools of poses and postures and three-string basses, part of the crew even if your job is just to keep the radio on the right station, you're part of the myth, the Guitar Wolf gang. Get your jacket and sunglasses and point the axe at the nearest star, with the ache and groan of space-time behind us, there are rock and roll songs out there swirling between nebulae and black holes and it's our job to go and get them. We've all got a little overdrive and garage noise in our heads so let's use it, shape it, exploit it. Count us in Drum Wolf, we're along for the ride.

"Some religions say that the universe was started with a word, a song, a dance, a piece of music. The Listening Monks of the Ramtops have trained their hearing until they can tell the value of a playing card by listening to it, and have made it their task to listen intently to the subtle sounds of the universe to piece together, from the fossil echoes, the very first sounds.

There was certainly, they say, a very strange noise at the beginning of everything.

But the keenest ears (the ones who win most at poker), who listen to the frozen echoes in ammonites and amber, swear they can detect some tiny sounds before that.

It sounded, they say, like someone counting: One, Two, Three, Four.

The very best one, who listened to basalt, said he thought he could make out, very faintly, some numbers that came even earlier.

When they asked him what it was, he said: 'It sounds like One, Two.'
" - Soul Music, Terry Pratchett

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