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August 10, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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Speedking: The Fist and the Laurels (Tigerstyle)

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So I was bargain hunting in Real Groovy the other week. Ostensibly I was in search of the Beat Happening/Screaming Trees split, but really I was just browsing for the sake of browsing, as if to fulfill a hunter—gatherer need at some base, cellular level. Before long my fingers stumbled across a spartan, black and white sleeve. Speedking, it said. The Fist and the Laurels, it said. Do those two names mean anything to you? If they do, then you, like me, are a music geek. It’s almost as if the only meaning behind your existence is derived from a constant pursuit of the hottest sounds. They might be cutting edge, like a John Talabot sunshine house single from Barcelona, or they might be long-lost b-sides, perhaps off Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock sessions. When you’re at a party you just can’t stop ranting about how Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’/’Dead Souls’ beats out ‘Strawberry Fields’/’Penny Lane’ as the greatest double a-side of all time. You’ve got a MacBook Pro with over 1,000 albums on it. And then there’s the lossless material, the live bootlegs, all in .FLAC format, painstakingly downloaded from obscure torrent tracker sites. You need to get a life. In fact, you’re probably the kind of person James Murphy poked fun at on his debut LCD Soundsystem single, ‘Losing my Edge’. No, you aren’t an ageing hipster (that would be Murphy himself). You are something even worse. You are one of the kids who is coming up from behind. You are an internet seeker who can name every member of every good group from 1982 to 1998. You even have a little jacket, and a borrowed sense of nostalgia for the unremembered ‘80s. But maybe, just maybe, you were there.

I know I was.

I was there.

I was there in 1996 at the first Animal Collective practices in a high school music room in Baltimore, MD. I was there when Ryan Schrieber started up his first music review site. He wanted to call it Pitchforkmedia.com. I told him: “Don’t do it that way, you’ll never make a buck.” I was there. I was the first guy playing M.I.A. to the indie kids. I played it at Mighty Mighty. Everybody thought I was crazy. We all know. But I was there. I was there.

I’ve never been wrong.

So I’m holding The Fist and the Laurels, and I’m nerding out. You see, Speedking was the band that James Murphy was in before LCD Soundsystem. Unfortunately, they imploded in 1997, preventing the release of what would have been their debut album. An album that would (if the All Music Guide is to believed) have [proved] “Speedking to be one of the great acts of the ‘90s, and the leader in the return of no wave’s danceable guitar thrash.” If those words are true, that’d make TFatL a must-have for any self-respecting “internet seeker”. In the end, the album did see release, on Tigerstyle in 2002. And I’ve just found a copy, some seven years later, in a second-hand bin here in Wellington. Needless to say I splash out the $15 required to make it mine, rush home, flick on my stereo, insert disc one, and hit ‘play’:

The first thing I hear is a series of modulating synth clicks and filter sweeps. And then the drums come in. James Murphy’s drums. Thudding bass kicks and snare snaps alternate between landing on and off the beat. Then the bass. A dirty low-end menace, followed swiftly by an explosion of thresher-shark guitar. Unfortunately, my preferred type of guitar is usually of the warm and fuzzy variety, not tinny metallic junk. To put it plainly, Chet Sherwood’s guitar sounds like the chainsaw from a bad horror film. So I turn my stereo down a little bit. Just as I start to ask myself whether I’ve gone soft, the slashing chords stop. And then guitar and bass resume instantly, locked into a wicked swinging parallel. The high hats start to open. It’s practically a fucking disco rhythm! That’s more like it Jimbo! The rest of TFatL is a mix of aggressive post-Sonic Youth indie, with the vocal duties split democratically between the punkish yelps of Sherwood, bassist Miriam Maltagliati’s more considered turns and the straining attempts of James Murphy (who hasn’t quite figured out how to get the most out of his limited voice yet). The best vocal performance comes from the guesting Jeremiah Ryan (of Six Finger Satellite fame), on the album highlight, ‘Hearts and Flowers.’ It’s a song that, more than any other on TFatL, prefigures Murphy’s later work. The guitar alternates between muted scratching, siren screaming and a melodic breakdown rhythm, while the synths sweep/squelch on and off in a fashion that sounds almost identical to that which Murphy would deploy almost half a decade later on ‘Give it Up’. It’s a hell of a track, but unfortunately the rest of the album never quite reaches the same heights.

Sure, the album’s more progressive tracks like ‘What is a Mason’, ‘Millionth Monkey’ and ‘Get the Dogs’ do foreshadow the dance-punk that Murphy would later patent as the figurehead of the DFA empire. However, for much of the rest of TFatL, Speedking use their synths to provide a disconcerting background ambience rather than to aid in the creation of danceable rhythms. Surprisingly, Murphy’s drumming is also a let down. He has a tendency to overcomplicate things, using too many kick-drum hits and one-handed 16th note high-hat taps when simpler beats and a disco swing might perhaps have proven more effective. Most frustrating of all is the band’s reluctance to take any real risks with their material. It’s as if they could tell they were onto something new, but lacked the courage to properly follow through because it would have required them stepping outside of the familiar indie/punk framework. Speedking just weren’t very self-aware, and as a result, they produced something that sounds like angular indie + moog squelch, but lacks an end product. TFatL is essentially an unfinished equation, with a question mark following the equals sign. Of course, we all know what the answer is now, a fact that makes TFatL a frustrating listen for anybody going back to it in post-DFA 2009. It’s as if you can almost hear Murphy using calculus to work around the equation in search of a new proof, but on TFatL he falls short because he hasn’t quite gotten his head around some of the other variables. Perhaps that’s why he waited until 2002 before allowing Speedking’s work to see the light of day, because by then he’d been able to demonstrably solve the elusive dance-punk equation in one decisive sonic moment: ‘Losing My Edge’.

RATINGS:
Mainstream: 1 Star
Indie: 7.0
Kim: Makes the iPod

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