A Liminal Review: The Dew Line (reissue) by Gate (April 16th, 2012)

The modern day answer to prog, insofar as it gets similar bile and vitriol poured over it by know-all journos quick to use the word “pretentious” is, of course, post-rock. Personally, I’m rather indifferent to the majority of what is labeled as such, and rather bemused by the anger it evokes in many commentators and music fans. My only real issue is with the term itself, with is particularly meaningless. I don’t see how you can have something that is “post” rock, yet still be resolutely anchored in rock, in the way that Explosions in the Sky, Mono or even Godspeed are. Post-punk artists, in comparison, sounded very little like your Sham 69s or Sex Pistols, instead filling a void left when punk no longer existed, at least as a relevant or innovative musical and cultural phenomenon. “Post-rock” can’t really do that, the bands unfairly lumped under that banner being too anchored in the core aesthetics and instrumentation of rock (a permeable and fertile genre) to really go beyond it. “Post-rock”, as it is currently represented, whether you love it or hate it, is a misnomer, and the term would be much better applied to Gate, a one-man act that stepped off the fringes of “traditional” rock and deconstructed its tropes to the point that most ties with them were emphatically and beautifully severed.

Of course, Gate’s Michael Morley had something of a previous when it came to mangling the standards of rock music, as one-third of seminal Dunedin, New Zealand band The Dead C. Under the yoke of Morley, fellow guitarist Bruce Russell and drummer Robbie Yeats tempos, formats and melodies were torn asunder, tracks were sped up or slowed down to extreme levels, and feedback and distortion contorted the tried and tested rock format in ways that only the likes of Sonic Youth and Keiji Haino could equal. Gate was Michael Morley’s chance to take such monomania even further, stripping away any frills (such as there were with The Dead C!) to focus on his guitar and voice in one of the most abstract ways yet deployed in rock music.

In many respects, Gate’s music feels like an experimental version of the ethos that propelled ex-Blue Cheer guitarist Randy Holden’s elegy to the electric guitar, Population II. Like Holden, and his Dead C colleague Bruce Russell, Morley’s treatment of the six-string is torrid, but loving, both a mauling and a caress. The Dew Line, originally released in 1993 and now given the remastering treatment by MIE Music, complete with bonus tracks, remains the greatest embodiment of this unique form of guitar worship. Most of the tracks evolve gradually, and the album is centred around four lengthy and darkly intense pieces, giving Morley and the listener time to focus on shifting guitar patterns and insistent riffs. Shorter pieces, meanwhile, such as opener “Millions” or “Triphammer”, chug along with a more overtly “rock” pace and feeling, sounding like excerpts from a hardcore album, or The Dead C’s punk-noise classic “Sky”, only performed by someone recording underwater after downing four valiums. The focus here is on the riffs: ragged, repetitive, hinting at Sabbath and Neil Young & Crazy Horse, with a similar earthiness, only one that has become unmoored and listless. Every attempt at focusing on the melodies is hampered by the torrent of fuzz and feedback, not to mention Morley’s singular voice, a moody, slovenly moan that punctuates the murk without ever freeing itself from it.

It is, however, on those aforementioned longer pieces that The Dew Line really delivers a shock of the new, and highlights my previous point about it being positively “post” rock. ‘Needed All Words’ is a superbly dirge-like trawl through the disemboweled remains of some long-lost swamp rock number. The guitar here is tuned so low it sounds like an organ (maybe it is one!), burping out a sustained, murky drone that sits across the mix like a dejected lizard, basking in its own inertia, even as forlorn percussive patters tap out a semblance of rhythm. Meanwhile, Morley groans out his lyrics with a pathos that borders on lassitude, the phrase “I needed the wooooords” repeated with almost masochistic frequency. If that makes it sound like a vomitous version of some sub-Cure goth tune, I have to apologise, because ‘Needed All Words’ is a bizarre, unfathomable masterpiece, so relentlessly slow that it becomes the perfect embodiment of rock taken to the nth degree.

And what to say about ‘Have Not’, the album’s centrepiece and one of the greatest tracks ever laid on vinyl? Hyperbole aside, this twelve-minute magnum opus feels like every hard rock/metal track that ever defined a generation stripped to its bare essentials and then slowed down beyond all recognition. The riffs and guitar work are instantaneously familiar, brutish in their distortion and hypnotic in their majesty, in the manner of Neil Young’s ‘Dangerbird’; but with Morley’s stoned and melancholic vocals chucked on top, the track pitches into something that’s half electric folk, half doom metal psychosis. The familiarity of rock is there, enshrined in those riffs, yet everything feels.. wrong, somehow, deconstructed to the max, and replaced with a soaring, insidious, almost atavistic blend of rock, noise and drone that transcends all genres. “Post” rock indeed.

In such a revelatory context, the bonus tracks supplied with this reissue were always going to suffer and feel superfluous. The presence of drums on some of them removes the aura of sheer exploration/deconstruction that defined the original Dew Line, bringing the material closer to subsequent works like The Wisher Table, and The Dead C, something that almost does a disservice to the majesty of The Dew Line. Having said that, one can only applaud MIE Music for resurrecting this absolute treasure, and continue to absorb the brilliance of Gate’s incendiary, unfathomable and timeless molestation of rock’s archetypes.

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