By: Ric Hickey
Our Britney culture run amok is a world of processed pop music that’s compressed beyond compression, where the Use of Pro Tools and vocoder vocal tweakings are the accepted norm, and no one questions the legitimacy of making records this way. Fu*k it. It’s just candy for the kids. Who cares what’s in it or how it’s made?
Betcha can’t name a hit record from the 80s that had a good drum sound. Well, here we go again folks. In the record industry perhaps more than anywhere else in our culture: Misery repeats itself.
Of course that’s just the mainstream pop music charts that are loaded with crap records on big labels where it is their shameless, soulless common practice to crank out the over-processed, cookie cutter crap. The indie scene and a thousand other subcultures like bluegrass and punk have always bucked these corporate trends.
Reminiscent of mid-70s New York punk, Brooklyn’s Undersea Explosion is a gloriously bleak blast from the rough and tumble past. Once again the Big Apple proves itself to be the most effective American rock and roll factory. The only place in the world where the right combination of three or four disenfranchised degenerates with guitars, drums, and attitude can encapsulate the seedy streetside vibes of life in the poorest part of the big city and make the whole hedonistic affair sound irresistible and intriguing. With their spit and snarl and a sinister shit storm of swirling guitars, Undersea Explosion whips up the sound of a band that I would not want to run into in a dark alley in the Bowery.
Serving triple duty as the group’s guitarist, main songwriter, and vocalist, James Paul is our tour guide in the underworld. Combining the literate defiance of Richard Hell and the crazed bluster of Iggy Pop, he projects an attitude of educated anarchy. Paul’s mush mouth blurting conveys more emotion and genuine angst than the most artfully articulated aria. The Iggy influence feels instinctive and organic, evident but natural, not put on for effect like a trendy pair of shoes. So it comes as no surprise that Paul was once a member of a Stooges tribute in San Francisco before emigrating to New York in 2002.
I feel a strong CBGB’s vibe throughout the band’s This Is Undersea Explosion! CD. The opening track “The Trouble With Ronnie” perfectly captures raw analog charm, youthful angst, boredom with the norm and raging restlessness. Our protagonist Ronnie “pushed it to the limit, and the limit fell away”. Incredulous that his self-destructive friend has defied death (again?), Paul can’t believe his own eyes, singing about Ronnie, the “walking bag of bones”. Elsewhere on the CD the city after dark atmosphere is conjured by a rhythm track comprised of ghostly metallic sounds, broken bottles scraping on cement and a desperate and graceless harmonica honking.
About the bleak interlude “Back To The City”, Paul says, “We used a lot of little field recordings that we sampled around the city. Subway rails, a slamming gate… That’s a track that started as a chant in my head as I walked down the street. I get a lot of good rhythmic ideas when I’m walking.”
Garage anthems and angry lost love lamentations abound on the disc. In addition to the blazing opener “Ronnie”, most notable are the loser fraternity singalong “Strange” and the cacophonous hell-ride “I Met The Devil Down In New Orleans”.
Pro Tools be damned. All the so-called advances in recording technology of the last 30 years have seemingly been dispensed with here. Just point a couple microphones at ‘em and press record. On the band’s recording experiences, Paul reflects, “We got by on 4-track demos for a while. Then we stumbled upon Seaside Lounge Studios. Josh Clark, the co-owner and engineer was a big vintage gear head and record-collector so we got along famously.” The band’s 2004 debut was recorded at Seaside. A couple years later they returned to cut their first full-length, Paul says, “On a 2″ tape machine which was owned by Eddie Van Halen. Supposedly the first two Van Halen albums were recorded on it. We wanted to make an album with a lot of depth and flow. The thing I’m most proud of on that CD is probably ‘The Trouble With Ronnie’ – particularly the noisy ascension at the end of the song. Just coming up with all these ideas of things to record and use at the end of that song. I remember recording one of those Chinese jingle balls and then playing it backwards, and having our friend Eliza read my poem ‘Hell’ at the end. I did a read-through too. At the end it was just a matter of controlling the chaos enough to get the sound we were looking for. A very Beatles moment for us I guess.”
From the full-on house afire rage of “Ronnie” to the ethereal, cinematic slow burn of “Blood In The Morning”, Undersea Explosion simply cuts loose with frayed nerves, bloodshot eyes, sickly thin limbs, amphetamine daydreams and raw power.
After a brief hiatus, the band recently resurfaced with a new line-up and a slew of new material. “Right now,” Paul explains, “we’re arranging the new stuff and exploring our recording options. Like the rest of the world right now we’re working on a shoestring budget. We’re not even considering pressing CDs at this point. Just singles and possibly a 7″ here or there. I want our songs to get heard. I like the idea of dropping a single and e-mailing directly to our fans. Ask them for feedback, spread it around and see what happens.”
In addition to recording, Undersea Explosion is eager to bounce back from their recent downtime. Paul says, “We traveled quite a bit for a couple years there and besides a few one offs in NYC here and there, we kind of didn’t play here for awhile. Now it’s a new scene. I mean, several scenes have come and gone since we started!”
On their plans for the immediate future Paul says, “I think we’ll play a few more times in New York before the holidays. Our next show will be October 28 at Fat Baby in Manhattan. There will be other dates in Brooklyn as well. We also would love to get back see our friends in the Midwest and the south as soon as possible. We just want to get out there and rock it. We’ve got ants in our pants.”