This is cause for cheerfulness if you’re of a certain cast of mind – a lover of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s cheery hellbound sitcoms, for example, or someone who sees ‘The Seventh Seal’ as an average day at the office. Maybe also if you were the kind of person seduced during the ’80s and ’90s by 4AD’s handful of backwards-future visionaries, soused in reverb and electronic gumbo but somehow touching on something stirringly ancient… even if they’d injected bastardised hip-hop into the mixture. Grizzlybearunderwear (Leipzig-based, led by the enigmatic KGSi) would’ve fitted in perfectly with that crowd. A decade or so further on at the century’s turn – with post-rockers rooting back into that world of blurs, dirt, noise and strangely captivating obscurities – they’ve got a chance to make a whole new set of friends.
So… eleven mostly-instrumental tracks, combed in from the band’s previous run of EPs. Some of this are a little too familiar-sounding. My Esoteric Friends sounds like Dif Juz deciding whether to dig themselves out of a swamp or wallow sensuously in the warm sludge; and if Germany had hosted a Cocteau Twins concert in the middle of a swamp, the bootleg would have sounded like Again, Dangerous Visions (romantic, rusted post-punk bass, fussing drum machine and guest singer Hirshie’s lightly sonorous warning tones, close to that chin-down, guarded alto which Liz Fraser used in more plaintive Cocteaus songs). But the way in which the phased guitar yields to free-form space whispers and to an unhitched scramble of psychedelic organ points the way towards Grizzlybearunderwear’s wilder, woollier intentions.
As KGSi and co. delve deeper, the album proves that they’re not short of ideas for interesting meetings of instruments and noise. Physalia takes a rocky journey from distant cave-drums and tremolo guitars to exhausted sludge-metal riffs and queasy, fingers-at-the-brink harmonium chording. The two-minute Spacer tumbles out of gothic guts like one of Vincent Ward’s lost sound cues from ‘The Navigator’: dragging, muddy-toil rhythms and a lamenting guitar which flaps overhead like a ragged banner. A suffocating sky-duvet of wah-noise cups itself She Drove To The Sea which (with its chain-clanking Slint guitars, Bardo Pond moodies and tinnitus grumble over the top) comes across like one of the more restless new-millennial post-rock bands (perhaps a more despondent Delicate AWOL). Ushuaia strips the detail further back only to add even more noise guitars, suffocatingly entwined, with gushing tidal waters surging relentlessly over the top with a hammering beauty. The gothic bells and sombre Rothko bass clanging of Parthian Shot, clunking bravely in its subterranean echo, mask a swirl of voice being squeezed out of existence in a tempest of rushing noise.
Broader thinking, filtering in dance music, is revealed on Snapdragon (Eniwetok Remix). A squelching bass pulse and a rapidly fluttering trance-techno riff are poised over the everyday, comforting sounds of a shopping mall: you can hear parents and children swarming distractedly through the aisles, as if to set us up for a braver, happier new world of clean architecture and Saturday shopping: suddenly, an abrupt countdown slams the music into driving industrial rock mode, extinguishing the shoppers. When we next hear voices they’re quietly discussing the effects of atomic explosions and the penetrative power of radioactive particles.
It’s revealing that the latter is being talked about in the matter-of-fact tones of Midwestern news broadcasts, and that KGSi’s industrial attack was merely grim and tough rather than decisively devastating. The 4AD bands cowered under the global threat of one overwhelming nuclear apocalypse. The Grizzlies are of a time when the average person’s at risk from a smaller hell – maybe one small package of explosive discontent, stashed in a city bin under a pile of greasy McDonald’s wrappers and waiting coldly for rush hour. Snapdragon’s lack of hysteria suggests that KGSi has accepted these everyday atrocities. His tongue-in-cheek claim of playing “electric chair controls” seems to be an acknowledgement of the casual trappings of horror the world now contains so openly.
Grizzlybearunderwear’s work with dialogue adds to their explorations, although they’re rarely explicit. Patrol These Borders retains the time-honoured spangly guitars (embroidered with the hiccuping spatter of treated toms) but blends in a long chunk of bitter dialogue from ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – the voices of Bogart and Bacall, strained by disappointment and guilt. An assured, untrustworthy telephone voice on Beaver Female Seminary (providing guidelines to “the True Way” in the tones of a used-car salesman) is flattened by heated, weary steam-press thuds and growling Banshees guitars.
Hell Are Other Real People (which samples Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’) nods its way along on a scarcely-there-at-all dance thud, while deep, surprisingly vocal guitars hum to each other. Sometimes it’s like a more diffuse, message-less take on Godspeed You Black Emperor. All around crickets are warbling, cars draw up stealthily, a campfire burns, and voices mutter to each other. We’re somewhere in the American West, and they’re talking of stalking and concealment, of victimisation, of the decay of living bodies. The story never clarifies; but the feeling lingers: sinister places and hungry lives constantly poised for flight.
Beneath their guitars and samples, Grizzlybearunderwear certainly have an ear for the messages contained in sound and in the emotional underwash of voices. I might wish they had as good an ear for band names but, given what else they can achieve, I can forgive that lack.
Noiseworks Records/Heliodor Recordings, NW220 / HELIODOR 004 2000 (4032648002203)