Listen to Juan Velazquez and Michael Vidal's chiming guitars on Abe Vigoda's new full-length, Skeleton, and you'll feel it: Guitar still rules. Almost three decades after Sonic Youth saved us from the shredders, playing detuned, beat-up axes without regard for cock-rock clichés remains oh so right. The young L.A. band has been labeled "tropical punk," a tag that makes sense, given the way Velazquez and Vidal make their stringed instruments sound like steel drums. "It's just the combination of a very short delay, where it sounds kind of metallic, and then playing high on the neck," says Velazquez. "We always get the whole 'tropical' thing. I think we're coming from a more punk rock end of things."
That they are, as Abe Vigoda is entrenched in the scene surrounding L.A.'s all-ages venue The Smell, the much-hyped joint where you can enjoy a vegan cookie with your experimental noise. Randy Randall, guitarist for No Age, is a not-so-elder statesmen and outspoken cheerleader for that same community. His brand of guitar playing, captured perfectly on the band's latest, Nouns, involves noise loops decorated with fervent chord-bashing and anthemic salutes to SST bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag. "When I think of guitar I think of the sound more than the playing," he explains. "Good playing has a lot of passion. Greg Ginn is probably one of the most inspirational guitarists. If you've seen video of him playing, it's as though the guitar is his enemy and he's doing battle with it."
Ginn's Black Flag, along with X, The Minutemen, and other '80s L.A. punk legends, is often mentioned in the same breath as The Smell. The current crop of young bands mirrors the DIY ethos and aesthetic those early legends pioneered. Of course, things were a lot more difficult then, without an existing infrastructure for underground acts. Today's indie bands reap the benefits of our modern times. "We have yet to pull over to the side of the road and use a pay phone to confirm a show," says Randall. "I think to that degree technology is definitely on our side. But at the same time, there might be that feeling of 'everything's been done before.'"
But there's always a slightly new take, right? And while scenes make for great stories, any metropolis can foster one under the right circumstances. It's not the mystique of a time and place that makes great music. It's not the noise, and it's not The Smell. It's the musicians' approach to their art. By injecting noise rock with Caribbean flavor and minimalist repetition (Abe Vigoda), or with shoegazer melodies and dynamic punk explosions (No Age), these bands escape formulaic confines.
That creative ingenuity earned No Age a spot on the Sub Pop roster, where they're trying to stir up camaraderie among their labelmates. "We're friends with the guys in Pissed Jeans, and one of the ideas Dean [Sprunt, No Age drummer] had was to do a zine where we all interview each other," he says. "But it's still in the works. ... Our intentions were just to do a Xerox zine, but I think we're dealing with a non-Xerox world."
Ain't that the truth. Still, every carbon copy eventually degrades. Influences clash and corrupt one another, styles die and get reborn, and punk rockers from every corner of the globe remain at battle with their guitars. One thing that doesn't seem to change, though, is the desire to be loud, arty, and abrasive.