In this writer’s opinion, The Dead C might just be the best rock act currently active (despite strong competition from the likes of Skullflower, Keiji Haino and Zs, none of whom are quite so rock-centred), precisely because they refuse to become complacent in a genre that allows for far too much room for doing the same thing over and over, to dispiriting levels of popular and critical acclaim (see the fawning reception accorded to My Bloody Valentine’s dreary and uninspired MBV).
As the edge and sense of adventure seems to be getting increasingly sucked out of what was once the most rebellious of musical genres, The Dead C seem more and more to be a refreshing vision of an alternative, more challenging approach to rock, far removed from the pop posturing of so-called ‘indie’ or the delusional pretension of the ATP crowd (Deerhunter, MBV et al.). Listen to The Dead C, and the bland, BBC spittle-coated, coma-inducing celebration of repetition and conformity that is Glastonbury, with its roll call of identical poser bands in skinny jeans, seems a world away, ready to be consigned to the same dustbin of mediocrity as any of the multitude of Ken doll boy bands that the X-Factor vomits out. Which is a nice dream to dwell on.
Which is not to say The Dead C are infallible, of course, and, truth be told, Armed Courage will not go down in avant-rock history as a work that sits alongside past masterpieces like Harsh 70s Reality or The White House. It’s probably not as good as 2010’s Patience. But it’s still a fucking roller coaster of a ride over, above and beyond the tropes of rock music, taking in as it does an overwhelming variety of styles and influences and mixing them together in a great big out-there blender over two colossal 20-plus minute workouts. Truth be told, it is only the tracks’ length that poses a problem, because there is a heavy dose of righteous noise belted out throughout Armed Courage. Side A is taken up by the predictably-named ‘Armed’ (you can easily guess what the other track is called), and it kicks off in a haze of guitar mulch and fluttered drum rolls, a constantly broiling miasma that seems perpetually set to burst into full blown anarchy. Improvisation is a key factor in The Dead C’s recording process, and you can hear guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley probing and darting around each other, safe in the knowledge that Robbie Yeats’ supple rhythmic backbone will always be there to catch them if they fly too close to the ether of chaos.
When Yeats drops out, ‘Armed’ does drift a bit, but it’s the kind of feedback-drenched haze that will slate the needs of, say, fans of Sonic Youth (at their noisy best). The Dead C often seemed to me to be SY’s slightly deranged alter ego, a band born out of the same culture but who refused to echo Thurston Moore et al’s occasional nods towards mainstream expectations. Like many, I was saddened by Sonic Youth’s demise (although Kim Gordon in particular has gone one to release some truly righteous sounds since then), but, gratefully, The Dead C continue to press on, honing and expanding on everything SY promised but only occasionally delivered. ‘Armed’ gathers pace and intensity about ten minutes in, as Yeats’ – otherwise strangely restrained in the mix – kicks out a repetitive martial beat, like a punk take on Neu!’s motorik stride, somehow galvanising Russell and Morley into a furious torrent of guitar mayhem. It matters little that the track starts to dissolve into unfocused sub-Crazy Horse drifting as it grinds to a close: yes, ‘Armed’ is too long, but that middle section is so brutal and unrestrained that all excess is swiftly forgiven.
Initially, ‘Courage’ is more restrained, with synthesizers buzzing inchoately around plucked arpeggios and lonesome one-note interjections from one of either Morley or Russell. Yeats channels the spirit of a free-jazz improviser, scattering rhythms in unpredictable bursts of cymbal or snare rolls. The synth drone builds into a moody cloud and Morley leans in with his trademark groaning vocalisations, the words always just out of reach for the listener. As the piece gathers pace, the noise levels rise, the synths gradually layering themselves over chugging riffs and insistent rhythm. The momentum is acutely akin to the most forceful of krautrock classics, such as Neu!’s debut or Harmonia’s Deluxe, but -and again, this could be a sign of a track overly extended- the trio refuse to stay locked into this groove for long, instead doing a completely about turn and deconstructing their music to its bare bones, with minimal guitar progressions, hesitant synth wobbles and restrained percussion, continuing in this vein in fits of noise followed by near-silence until the track fades into the ether.
Armed Courage will probably be best loved by Dead C fanatics like me, but if anyone unfamiliar with the band who feels the rest of rock is becoming a tad sterile, I can only urge you to ignore the bloated fanfare around such dinosaurs as My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter or Nine Inch Nails and slap this hulking monolith of a record on your player. It doesn’t necessarily break down the boundaries of rock music, but it sure as shit gives them a good kicking.