Thursday, December 1, 2011

CRACK3D MACHIN3: The Beauty of Brainiac

So much of the power of music depends upon its place in time. I was lucky enough, then, to be in college, in Ohio, tuned into both local music and the alternative tidal wave (for better or worse - so much of it worse) just as Brainiac was born. I cannot claim to have been turned onto any of the initial 7" singles emanating from Dayton early, early on (and still haven't heard them) but I was an early adopter of Smack Bunny Baby in '93 and followed the band's recorded output very closely from that point out until the untimely death of frontman Tim Taylor in 1997 and, to this day, consider two of their three full-length LPs to be absolutely essential entries in my music library - and music history for that matter.

Records age and time alone determines their musical stamina. Upon reflection now, 1993's Smack Bunny Baby, while distinctive, doesn't quite distance itself from its many peers at the time. It's a frenetic, satisfying slab of poppy punk with a few alt-radio single-worthy tunes, particularly lead-off "I, Fuzzbot" and the title track and, if not a perfect portent of the bans potential, certainly not offputting and a great representation of the best of the darker side of college noise from the early 90s.

Bonsai Superstar, following closely in 1994, was an evolutionary leap. The sloppy, dischordant approach remained but two crucial elements emerged as dominant. The addition of multifacted noisemeister John Schmersal on guitar and the development by Taylor of his voice as a true instrument. The man could never sing per se but has, hands down, made the most effective use of vocals ever put to record, ranging from barely-there breath to falsetto to raw rock roar, adjusting for - and within - each number as one may use a synth or effects pedal. "Hot Metal Dobermans" grabs the listener from the get-go and the album's power is undeniable throughout. Sampling, distortion and the all-out art of the manipulation of noise in a manner that still resulted in compelling rock absolutely astounded me then and still impresses to this day. "Fucking with the Altimiter" and "Sexual Frustration" stand out as masterpieces of both composition and production, the latter of which transforms sampled static and feedback into an outright groove and the former accompanied by the most perfectly phrased and sinister of whispered confessions, accusations and observations: my oxygen's lost in these lungs again somebody give me my oxygen / i need to breathe / before i forget i'm going into oxygen debt / i think your flesh is separated from the sins it commits / and that explains why you smile when you balance on your stack of regrets. "Juicy (on a Cadillac)," on the other hand, foreshadows the explosion of noise that would erupt with the Internationale EP.

Coming in 1995 and produced/"decoded" by Kim Deal, Internationale was a fantabulous 7" reeking of Daytonian cred and "Go Freaks Go" dominated our turntable for weeks, perfectly capturing a shrill, apart-at-the-seams explosion within an utterly addictive rhythm. The flipside did indeed contain an inverse of the single, the almost pretty "Silver Iodine," which, at the time, served as a worthy peer to Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral as well as a preview of cold electronic things to come the next year with Hissing Prigs in Static Couture.

Hissing Prigs... (stylized as H1551NG PRI95 1N 5TAT1C COUTUR3, with the band re-branding themselves as 3RA1N1AC - how the hell do you file that?) stands as their magnum opus. There is an aloof chill that permeates the album, as the band veers into a realm more machine than man while still maintaining what had now become trademark ferocity. There are still plenty of rockers ("Pussyfootin'," "70 K9 Man" and "Kiss Me, U Jacked Up Jerk") but all are so layered, so processed, so meticulously messy in their manufacture that one has to wonder how these would have worked live (I never did have an opportunity to see the band in the flesh). Atmospheric numbers such as "This Little Piggy," "I am a Cracked Machine" and "Beekeeper's Maxim" build on the successes of Bonsai Superstar, evolving the band faster than the listener could process. It was not hard to enjoy Brainiac and Hissing Prigs... still stands as my personal favorite of all their records but, frankly, it is next to impossible for me to put myself into their shoes and comprehend the vision that lead, across four short years, from Smack Bunny Baby to the eventual coda, Electro-shock for President, an EP I still cannot wholly digest.

1997's Electro-shock for President made it into my hands at about the same time I heard the news of Tim Taylor's death in an automobile accident, from the clerk at Chicago's Dr. Wax, where I vividly recall standing, EP in hand, as he told me (and love for blogging and all aside, I still pine for the pre-internet days of learning about music in actual record stores). Electro-shock... is, for me, a near-impenetrable record. "Fresh New Eyes" sets the tone and communicates an angst beyond anything Trent Reznor ever conjured and the remaining five numbers strip away any humanity that remained following Hissing Prigs.... In all honesty, the EP format is perfect for this kind of experimentation and I still regularly give it a spin in this context but, given Brainiac's increasingly complex transformations from one record to the next, I wonder if their next full-length (which was being planned for release on Interscope Records at the time of Taylor's death) would have made it seem tame and warm by comparison. Much like the scene that birthed them, Brainiac ended so abruptly it was a shock. Coupled with the actual human tragedy of Tim Taylor's passing, it was all the heavier. Their recorded works, brief as they are, continue to provide hours and hours of discovery and feel too much like a perfect dream broken by waking.

As of this writing, the last three of Brainiac's releases on Touch and Go remain, thankfully, in print and available for purchase. Smack Bunny Baby (from Grass Records, along with its successor) seems relatively easy to find at low prices from any second-hand sellers with Bonsai Superstar the most elusive and expensive (though certainly not unaffordable) should you track it down. And you should.

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