Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Dead C
The Operation Of The Sonne


Released 1993 on Siltbreeze
Reviewed by attic demonstration, 29/12/2009ce


It begins with a low-end, seismic rumble. Out of this escapes a high- pitched, squiggling synth line that needles its way into the listener's brain and remains there for the duration of the piece. Acting as a bind between this 'above' and 'below', various elements are added: overdriven, pummelled, bent-out-of-shape (rarely 'played') guitars; pockmarked percussion; and a grainy, dolorous voices that states, "It reads thus", ushering us into "The Marriage Of Reason And Squalor", the opening track from The Dead C's staggering 1993 LP, "The Operation Of The Sonne".

The voice belongs to Bruce Russell, co-founder of the New Zealand trio, who have been extant since 1987. Formed at a time when striving to write the 'perfect pop song' (albeit a ghostly, psychedelicised version) was the prevailing trend in NZ underground circles, The Dead C were out in the cold. Conspirators Michael Morley (guitar, voice) and Robbie Yeats (drums) had served time in various bands, including The Weeds and The Verlaines, whose sole aim appeared to be just such an undertaking. While the results were often beguiling, the limitations of the form were enough to lead Morley, Yeats and Russell into less familiar surroundings, where representational Song bleeds into abstract Sound.

Of course, this approach has vague precedents, in New Zealand as elsewhere: Tall Dwarfs, who formed in the early 80s, occasionally cast off their pleasingly ragged DIY pop apparel to plunge into the fetid waters of sound collage. This Kind Of Punishment, meanwhile, augmented their lo-fi musings with scouring guitar noise. Further afield, their forebears are more apparent, from the primitivist yowl of Patti Smith's "Radio Ethiopia", to This Heat's cut-and-splice methodology. But The Dead C pushed out further still, alienating many of their brethren in so doing.

It should be noted that on their earliest works, such as "The Sun Stabbed" and "DR503" , vestiges of song and structure remain. Their disdain for the pleasures of the three minute joyride is obvious, and the most thrilling aspect of these recordings is in the way they warp, mangle and stretch the songs out, yet somehow fail to destroy them. With the release of the utterly savage "Harsh 70s Reality", however, the thin membrane seperating form and chaos is torn down the middle, the onrushing freedom engulfing anyone fortunate enough to be caught in its path. The langourous crawl of old is replaced by the furious attack of a group newly energised by their almost preternatural powers. Any nod to convention seems more of a hollered 'goodbye to all that', than an enfeebled attempt to slough off the dead weight of the past.

"Harsh 70s Reality" has been justly lauded, but it was not until "The Operation Of The Sonne" that the band fully embraced the Free Noise aesthetic. Over the course of three long tracks, they grapple with the implications of what it might mean to create a new language out of the degraded vernacular of the old. Familiar rock instruments are put to use in ways that disorient the listener, unable to latch onto anything solid, as a host of alien tongues babble all around. On the aforementioned opener, "The Marriage Of Reason And Squalor", Russell recites from the Tabula Smaragdina, an ancient alchemical text concerning the creation of the universe, as what sounds like an anvil is struck repeatedly, hammering the alchemical point home. Malformed riffs buckle and distort, until the group-mind splits open, sound collapses in on itself, and all that remains is the hum at the edge of eternity.

After this astonishing performance, track two, "Mordant Heaven", appears as something of a footnote. Windchimes tinkle in the chill wind of a nuclear winter, as Michael Morley's elegiac vocals scale the heights of despair, and guitars mumble their condolences to the world. Finally, we come up for "Air", the piece that swallows up the whole of side two. Flecks of sound (radio chatter, terse guitar 'licks', amp drool) are interspersed with long stretches of near-silence, in what could be the most beautiful use of negative space ever committed to tape. The intimacy of the experience is what counts here; the tiniest nuance drawing you ever closer in. When the clatter of drums announce the return to some semblance of form, however, the effect is both shocking and curiously liberating. Total freedom, after all, can be just as oppressive as absolute control.


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