The latest wave of punk-inspired noise rock—the Men, Metz, Pissed Jeans—had mostly passed me by until earlier this year, when I heard Pop. 1280's "Bodies in the Dunes" on a compilation from the band's label, Sacred Bones. The idea of those bands reviving the trademark sound of the Touch and Go Records catalog from the late 1980s and early '90s intrigued me, but I found the results almost uniformly dull. "Bodies in the Dunes," though, from Pop. 1280's 2011 album The Horror, is a step above the usual Jesus Lizard/Big Black mimicry, a thudding, spellbinding vortex that borrows more from Suicide and Hawkwind than the standard Steve Albini idolatry.
"Bodies" is one of the highlights of The Horror, but the whole album is worth a listen. It's a noisy, fuzzy, messy freak-out of a record; if it's not particularly original, it sounds like it's performed with total commitment. The Horror may not be completely horrific, but it's impressively unhinged, in part because the band appears to have no anxiety about appearing silly. The other bands currently mining '80s noise rock generally do so with a sense of humor, or at least a sense of melody. (The Men, in particular, sound more like Built to Spill than Scratch Acid on this year's New Moon.)
Pop. 1280 won the race to the bottom with The Horror, and the earnestness of their nihilism is oddly appealing. The bleak worldview shared by frontman Chris Bug and guitarist Ivan Lip doesn't really stand up to scrutiny unless you're a pissed-off teenager. But the passion with which they deliver it on The Horror makes a convincing case for absolute negation as an aesthetic statement.
That's why the new Imps of Perversion, out earlier this month on Sacred Bones, is a disappointment. After replacing the rhythm section, the band has gotten tighter and more professional, but they've lost something special that distinguished them from their scuzz-rock peers. The playing on Imps is technically better, but it's less interesting; the songs are varied and distinct but have regressed to noise rock by the numbers.
Surprisingly, selecting Martin Bisi as producer turns out to have been a mistake. Bisi, an underground legend who has produced albums by Swans, Sonic Youth, Unsane, and Bill Laswell, should have been a perfect match for Pop. 1280; instead, his cleaned-up production reveals that the band has a collection of cool riffs borrowed from Nick Cave and David Yow that don't really go anywhere. Worse, it makes Pop. 1280 look sort of like poseurs who were more interested in a cool producer credit than a memorable album.
A much better slab of dirty noise is the new Raspberry Bulbs album, Deformed Worship (Blackest Ever Black). Originally a solo side project for Marco del Rio, who also performs in the lo-fi/avant-garde punk/black metal band Bone Awl, Raspberry Bulbs is now a full-fledged band—two guitars, bass, and drums in addition to del Rio's caustic vocals. Even with a full lineup, though, Deformed Worship is still a very primitive album; everything about it, from the no-fi production to the brute guitar riffs, straight-ahead drumming, and del Rio's harsh vocals, is bare bones. Seriously—this could have been recorded in a toilet stall.
Still, it's a captivating album, operating in a place where underground metal, hardcore punk, noise, and the Stooges overlap—the same place, basically, that Pop. 1280 moved in on The Horror and have since abandoned. The best moments from Raspberry Bulbs aren't quite beautiful—Deformed Worship is too cruddy and nasty for that—but del Rio is a deceptively capable songwriter, and the full-band format allows for subtle sophistication, like guitar harmony, shifting time signatures, and terse, economical solos.
Deformed Worship is, in fact, an artful record; the low-budget production and skeletal songs are specific artistic choices, not necessities. Low fidelity is, here, as much of an artifice as Auto-Tune. If authenticity is what you're after, look somewhere else. But if you're looking for meaning in nothingness, Raspberry Bulbs have found it.