Infamous New Zealand noise-rock trio the Dead C certainly isn't for everybody. Some music fans find the band's chaotic lo-fi din unlistenable, while others derive hypnotic bliss from the clamorous dirges created by Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats. Morley often contributes keening, haunted vocals, and in recent years, the band has ventured into more experimental, droning realms using two guitars, drums, and occasional electronics. To a degree, it's metamusic, with the band deliberately deconstructing notions of what "songs" should sound like. In any case, its distinctive noise is a compelling auditory experience.
"The way I see it, the Dead C are like a white man's blues," says Ben Goldberg of the Ba Da Bing label, which released the band's most recent album, Secret Earth, and the illuminating two-CD overview Vain, Erudite and Stupid. "While there's very little groove in their music, there's a whole lot of soul, mostly around the anguish of living in the modern day. It's a sophisticated angst which cuts right to your bones, stripping you down to a complete self-awareness of your own despair." Yikes!
Indeed, there is no other band that holds the same weird power and harrowing, riveting energy. If you surrender yourself to it, you'll find the same transporting magic the group's rabid followers discovered. Secret Earth, for example, is a more accessible return to the band's rockish early days. There are four tracks ranging from seven to 16 minutes in length; the first, "Mansions," launches with a roar and then settles into something resembling Sonic Youth channeling dark, folksy blues. This tone carries throughout the album as a pervasive minor-key melancholy gets layered with obstreperous guitar. Given the chance, the disc is oddly moving and beautiful.
For more immediate Dead C exposure, check out the YouTube video of the trio's single television appearance in 1999. It's a rendition of "Sky" on a New Zealand variety show called Ground Zero. The trio blasts out a hair-raising sonic monster; Russell turns in a blistering display on guitar, making quick use of feedback, a screwdriver, and some enigmatic spinning gizmo. It's a powerhouse performance that's over within three minutes. (Reportedly, the TV crew was most worried that the band would break something.)
The Dead C members often state that they're more interested in pleasing themselves than worrying about their listeners, and in an e-mail from New Zealand, Russell reiterates this sentiment. "In the early days we didn't have any audience, so it was never a worry," he says. "As time has gone on, we've continued doing stuff that pleases us, even when we know that parts of our audience don't like it." He adds that he sees the rock music tradition as dead, and his band's music is a response to that: "It's over; there's no juice in the corpse."
The Dead C's output serves to point out the wreckage, even as Russell understands that his approach is as alienating as it is inviting. "If people are interested in sound as opposed to 'music,' and if they have a critical perspective on art and culture and its place in society, then they may find something of worth in our work," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it." That said, performances by The Dead C are singularly impressive; the group doesn't come here often. Just consider yourself warned.