Regulator Watts - ‘The Ballad of St. Tinnitus’ from The Aesthetics of No-Drag (1998)
It can be difficult sometimes to figure out where really good guitar playing fits into ‘punk’ - especially in hardcore, but also and even post-hardcore - as a music of immediacy and no bullshit. Partly that’s just a hangover from the prison of three-chord propaganda and a cultural distrust of indulgent noodling, but there’s still a barrier to expressing admiration for something primarily in terms of virtuosity. Perhaps because on a technical level it can be outdone by other genres (particularly metal) yet what makes it great, to me as a punk listener, is actually something else additional and less quantifiable: I can’t think of a better word than ‘soul’ (soul that is subjective, mutable and often historically/temporally contingent, of course).
For many people, I know it is Fred Erskine’s bass playing which makes Hoover, and I won’t disagree - I just wish I had a better sense for rhythm to more fully appreciate it, rather than just a dim concept of complexity. In the later records of the genealogy, however, it is definitely Alex Dunham’s guitar which has always stood out for me. Entwined within the twin-guitar shifting attack of Lurid Traversal, it takes the centre role in his later work. Three songs in particular never cease to captivate: the pure melodic earworm of '(312)' from Radio Flyer’s In Their Strange White Armour, the deep and moody layering of Abilene’s 'October' from their self-titled first album, and this one - arguably the most visceral, certainly the loudest, of them.
There’s a line in Lou Reed’s Talkhouse review of Kanye West’s Yeezus where he’s talking about never thinking about music as a challenge to the audience - “you do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful” - and he describes his own notorious Metal Machine Music album as “if you like guitars, this is pure guitar, from beginning to end, in all its variations.” I don’t know if he’s being entirely serious and honest - I haven’t gone over the background to the album to divine evidence of the deliberate mischief one might suspect, but I don’t really care either way - although I do quite like the record, as an experience. Actually, I misunderstood the statement at first not to be saying purely guitar (as I assume he means) but ‘pure’ guitar, which is a somewhat odd description of an album based on feedback and little or no deliberate melody. Distortion is technically impure as well, yet this is the song I think of when “pure guitar” as an overwhelming, metaphysical notion is proposed: ‘St. Tinnitus’ is aptly named for sanctified noise.
Of course, there’s more going on than just Dunham’s guitar alone. As is often the case, for a three-piece Regulator Watts bring a lot of noise and intensity. Bassist Cret Wilson (who doesn’t seem to appear in any other band, Hoover-related or otherwise, although he is credited for the original Sea Tiger logo on the back sleeve of their album) underpins the wild squalls and swells of guitar with a steady rhythm that is mostly obscured, except when the screen of noise thins out to reveal it more distinctly. Around them the drums of Areif Sless-Kitain (who later went on to play in Bluetip, and is currently with this rather pleasing ‘post-rock and psychedelic pop’ project) dance with unpredictable yet precise shapes. The Aesthetics of No-Drag is an intensely spacious album, despite the apparent oppressiveness of Dunham’s guitar (in songs such as this and bookending scorchers 'Mercurochrome' and 'Witchduck'), as it weaves its way in and around the groove of the rhythm section (the following track to this, ‘Pemberton Red’, is almost danceable!). Influences of jazz and dub, as in the rest of the Hoover family tree, abound on the record.
One of the benefits of getting back into my Hoover genealogy phase is remembering things I’d forgotten I’d had, like a transcript of this album’s lyric sheet that another fan had sent to me in an email (I did unfortunately once have the chance of picking up the LP secondhand but missed it; however, I try not to be possessive about stuff like that, or at least not things I don’t have). Anyway, it’s supposed to be only a partial lyric sheet - Dunham once stating in an interview that he didn’t like putting the pronoun ‘I’ down on paper - but it’s useful in deciphering some of his tortured howls. Lately I thought I heard the phrase “lost my body to the music”, which would be an appropriate and poetic reflection of the title, though not quite of the apparent theme of the lyrics. Instead I think it’s just the repeated line “I lost my mother to the needle”, as in the schema below:
mother to the needle
father to the bottle
hope to the sound we follow
so the places sting
the ring rings
make the people sing
"[I lost my] hope to the sound we follow": is that the personal statement expressing the nub of the emo catharsis, the 90s D.C. (and Chicago) sound; the soul of post-hardcore?