Tuesday, October 05, 2004
The long delayed Flux Information Sciences post
Earlier this year, a band called The Liars created a big stir when they released a second album that didn't sound like their first. You've probably encountered some of the fuss about They Were Wrong So We Drowned. If you haven't, the gist is that some people hated it and acted like it was a misguided and possibly half-assed change to an intentionally difficult style.
Here are a few quotes, just to get a feel for the kind of reaction the album got, and the way people tried to describe its sound:
With a seeming penchant for the more outré and unsettling output of Cabaret Voltaire (circa Nag, Nag, Nag) or Sonic Youth (circa Bad Moon Rising), They Were Wrong, So We Drowned borders on aural torture. -- Steven Long for BBC Manchester
Unlistenable. -- Andrew Beaujon for Spin Magazine
Echoing the dissonance of Sonic Youth and the percussive menace of Einsturzende Neubauten, the album winds tribal drumming, atonal guitars, bloodcurdling screams and spooky vocals around a story about a witch and the kids who kill her. The concept is difficult to follow and the music occasionally unpleasant. But the band’s willingness to stretch in new directions is refreshing. -- Dave Brigham for Junkmedia
an electronic-noise collage that sounds disturbingly rooted in the what-the-fuck? tradition of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music...Making a record about fear is one thing; making a record you fear listening to is quite another. -- Christian Hoard for Rolling Stone
Though some sections are plodding and one-dimensional, others lock into place. "There's Always Room on the Broom" cobbles a dubious but filling meal together from scrapings at the bottom of the sonic cauldron, and "They Don't Want Your Corn They Want Your Kids" (awful name, that) scratches its itch with beats recalling the Pop Group at their most abrasive. -- Geeta Dayal for The Village Voice
Here, the band's influences remain just as obvious, but they now seem to be skewing toward the more abrasive and self-indulgent sounds of the Pop Group and Public Image Ltd. The grooves are less compelling, and all too often the tracks are subsumed in a mire of noisy effects. Liars appear to be groping for their sound here. Let's hope their next move will be to return to the more accessible, beat-driven music they made on their bow. -- "CM" for Billboard
I picked up the album and thought it was reasonably good. What got me interested, then fascinated, though was the utter lack of mention of one particular group in any of the reviews I read. It's a big world, so I can't swear that I haven't missed something, but at this point I've probably read nearly a hundred reviews of this album (I'm counting blog entries, etc.), and one point never comes up: the "look and feel" or rather the overall sound of the Liars album is incredibly similar to that of a band called Flux Information Sciences. I wouldn't necessarily say that one band copied the other, but the relationship is too clear not to at least note.
By itself, the fact that one band sounds like another isn't big news. The reasons why I think it's important in this case are 1. reviewers seemed to really be groping for comparisons when writing about the Liars' album (it's not that Sonic Youth/PIL/The Pop Group/Cabaret Voltaire are flat-out wrong, but they really only address certain small aspects of the Liars sound) and 2. there was a tendency among reviewers to treat They Were Wrong (either explicitly or implicitly) like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, i.e. a lazy attention-getting sudden shift of style, done for the sake of pissing off or pissing on the artist's audience.
A few things worth knowing:
The Liars used to tour with Flux Information Sciences.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's has gone on record as being a Flux fan.
Nick of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's used to play in Flux.
Karen O used to date one of The Liars.
What I'm getting at should be pretty obvious. This isn't a case where two bands just happen to sound slightly similar. They have all sorts of ties. To be honest, once you've heard Flux Information Sciences you really can't get away from the similarity. If you haven't heard The Liars yet, you can hear clips from They Were Wrong here.
As for Flux, from their Private/Public album which came out in 2001 on Michael Gira's Young God label, here's Liposuction and Love Me, Love Me. It's not that any one Liars song sounds like any one Flux song, but the sounds and the overall organization are very, very close (and a whole lot closer than any of the bands referenced in the reviews up above).
But nobody mentioned this connection in a single review that I could find. I said in another forum that reviewing They Were Wrong without mentioning Private/Public is sort of like reviewing The Raveonettes without mentioning The Jesus and Mary Chain. One response was that the difference is that Flux aren't well known, and I can see that up to a point. But given the reaction that The Liars' album got ("Oh my goodness, why oh why have they suddenly changed their sound to something so strange! Who could ever have predicted this! What were they thinking!") and the large number of people writing about it, it seemed bizarre to me that nobody was talking about the scene that spawned the Liars in the first place. That's one of the functions of music critics, right?
[Ok, the original version of this piece got kind of rant-y at this point, and I've decided to cut or rephrase most of it. Briefly, I wrote to a number of people who'd written about the Liars album and asked them if they knew about Flux, and I wrote to the two bands. The results: none of the critics who responded had heard of Flux Information Sciences, Aaron of the Liars said he couldn't remember what Flux sounded like but that they likely had similar influences, and Tristan of Flux was amazed by the similarity. I was unable to get a response from the Rolling Stone reviewer Christian Hoard or the Spin reviewer Andrew Beaujon. I don't know for sure that Christian got my email. In fact it's very likely that he didn't as I couldn't find an email address for him and finally tried to contact him via his editor, who was probably busy listening to Big & Rich. It did strike me as slightly interesting that it was so much easier to locate and get responses from the band members than it was with their two most prominent critics.
While doing my research on this piece, I also discovered via the magic of Google that the Rolling Stone reviewer Christian Hoard is about 24, used to be a huge Phish fan, wrote a review just about a year ago where he used the phrase "jam-tastic", and that he (in my opinion) writes in a way that implies expertise in so many musical genres that it gets really surreal after a while, given his age. Check his reviews for the Voice and Rolling Stone, then google his not-actually-that-old reviews for the Michigan Daily if you want to see what I mean, sometime when you're bored, obviously. His editors seem to love him, and I can totally understand that given the fact that he's apparently happy to knock something out for any band you care to name.
As for Andrew Beaujon , he's not expanding on this explanation of why he gave the Liars album an F in Spin (more and more, as I read this, I don't get the sense that it really explains much). And I'm left with a lingering suspicion that he just didn't do his homework on the Liars' background. Imagine, just as an example, that it turned out that Lou Reed had been friendly with a band who had recorded an album in 1973 that sounded a whole hell of a lot like Metal Machine Music. You'd expect people to discuss this, right? I guess I'd just like to see a little more in the way of context if a magazine is going to very publicly trash an album. In his explanation for the F rating, Andrew Beaujon charges the Liars with having contempt for their audience (odd, then, that they're the ones who wrote back to me) and that's a charge that doesn't stick so well if you know their history.
One interesting thing I noticed is that Christian Hoard actually had reviewed Flux Information Sciences in the Village Voice back in 2002. I think he would have been an intern at that point, i.e. he almost surely didn't pick the subject, but still this makes me wonder even more why he chose to take the "Metal Machine Music" approach in his review. One guess is that this is one of those cases where Rolling Stone chose to approach things a certain way and told a 24-year-old to make it so. I also noticed that the Rolling Stone review is fairly similar to Hoard's Blender review of the first Liars album (e.g. The Liars have a tall lead singer). Maybe he was just phoning this stuff in. Until Christian starts a blog, who knows.]
The one other thing worth mentioning, as you may have guessed, is that reviews of Flux's Private/Public were almost all good, and there wasn't any blather about them being unlistenable or trying to alienate people, etc. Hey, even Christian Hoard dug 'em. Absent a music press needing to fit a band into some sort of theory about motivation, their album got reviewed based on the way it sounded and nobody got hurt.
Here are a couple more Flux songs. From their album Summer, here's the Karen O fave Charlotte Rampling. I like the fact that Flux don't have to rely on heavy-duty percussion for their sound to work: the rhythm section on this is straight-from-the-box Casio. From Private/Public here's Sit Down, Silly!. It was pretty amazing to see them perform this live and get the timing right. Also from Private/Public here's a kind of catchy instrumental called Love. I really, really like about 2/3 of Private/Public. Some of the tracks seem like experiments that didn't exactly work out, but nothing on it is bad, and much of it is great.
Currently, Tristan of Flux is operating as Services. His website is here. I asked him if he'd send me an mp3, and he was nice enough to pass on Consider, and it's pretty great as well. If the next Liars album sounds like this, don't freak out. Ok?
[I'm sick of re-writing this piece. I don't want it to be about sucky critics, but I didn't want to leave that out either, and it's tough to do without sounding like a jerk. Ultimately I want this to be more about a band that I like a lot, so I hope you'll read it that way.]