Speaking of chanting, I was just lucky enough to see Black Dice at an art gallery within walking distance of my apartment. The art gallery, by the way, is a both completely perfect and totally ridiculous place to see the band. They are sort of the epitome of the art-damaged punk: brainy, NYC-by-way-of-RISD hipster bartenders making electronic noise music. On the other hand, the music is so dense and inchoate and gutteral that the very idea of displaying it like a painting or a sculpture seems wrong. I’ve seen Black Dice twice now and both times it’s been hard for me to believe that their music could actually be performed by people. I would expect it to be exuded from mounds of earth, or washed up by the tide. Or something.
But display it they did, complete with gut-rattling bass and bad-trip pixelated video projections and I couldn’t have been happier. When I moved to New York, in 2000, Black Dice were art-noise provocateurs and, it seemed to me, not much more. But then, in 2002, they released “Beaches and Canyons” on DFA and blew my fucking brains out. The incredibly ambitious aim of that record seemed to be to use the tools of noise music—the mangled guitars, the distorted electronics—and pounding, tribal (yeah, you heard me) acoustic percussion to approximate “natural,” expansive beauty. And its a punishing ride, but by the end of the album’s closer, Endless Happiness, there you are staring into the ocean, the wind whipping at your face. The suggestion, it seems, was that “nature” is a more inclusive and encompassing term than is typically thought. This is the same feeling I get when standing on a street corner in Manhattan, taking in the city’s delicacy and power, its chaos and balance, its overwhelming feeling of permanence and dynamism: that the actions and creations of humans are not excluded from a full conception of nature.
Since "Beaches and Canyons", the band’s drummer has departed, leaving Black Dice an electronics driven three-piece, now lacking the lone acoustic, traditionally naturalistic sounding element. In many ways this change signaled a sea-change in the band’s approach, taking them away from their scenic vistas and toward a more synthetic sound. Their last release, "Broken Ear Record" seemed to validate that thought. It still contained Black Dice’s signature tensions—brutal processed distortion and lilting, curiously melodic guitar; painfully un-constructed electronic disco that opens into these almost beatific passages—but the spacious, pastoral feel of Beaches and Canyons was gone.
Now, I expected that I would really enjoy the show last week, but I was surprised to find that, in a live context at least, Black Dice had dissolved those tensions. It occurred to me as I stood there surrounded by the band’s utterly massive, throbbing swirl of noise, that they had focused their view from nature writ-large to the body itself. In a live space, filled with huge amplifiers and real, breathing people, even their most punishing tones were warm and rich. Things sounded so deep and wide that it really felt as if the sound was actually being produced by my own body, mirroring and amplifying my own internal processes. Every tone that came out of the speakers was profoundly physical and though much of it was overwhelming and uncomfortable, it was also incredibly soothing. Not pain exactly, more the pleasant discomfort of being embodied, like awakening from a deep, midday sleep and slowly coming the realization of being a corporeal thing. And what’s amazing about this, to me, is that these synthetic, electronically processed sounds could have become so much a part of our daily lives as humans and listeners as to feel this familiar and, well, natural. That something so seemingly artificial could feel so fleshily alive (think here, too, about our cultures humanizing of vintage machines—that objects as fantastically futuristic and mechanized as a tape recorder, automobile or electric guitar from the 1960’s could have ever come to seem organic and almost pre-modern is a testament to the way that we are able to naturalize our own technology. Incidentally, Black Dice’s ‘80’s arcade/early photoshop projections play on that same tendency). It is not only that synthetic things can mirror natural processes (something I think most of us are fairly comfortable with), or that Black Dice are tremendously awesome musicians (which they are) but also that our experience, our basic physical experience, has become profoundly mediated by human-made systems. Not only has the natural world expanded to include our mechanized imprint—our very bodies have become deeply enmeshed with technology. The border between the things we make and what we are has become very blurry. We are the world we have made. Or at least that’s what I thought about while shuddering under the shower of noise coming from the wall of amps, happily succumbing to Black Dice’s rough, bodily charms.