People of the North - Sub Contra [VINYL]

by Daryl Worthington Rating:7 Release Date:2013-06-10

On Sub Contra, People of the North don't so much play songs as drop dense slabs of sound on the listener. The band is made up of Kid Millions and Bobby Matador of Brooklyn legends Oneida, which makes that band the obvious point of comparison. There are similarities, but People of the North play a version of almost ritualistic, bass-heavy drone which is much more abstract and subtle than the duo's day-job.

This is an album of deconstructed rock music. The term post-rock is a maligned and loaded one, now typically associated with generic quiet/loud instrumental crescendos, normally derivative of a small group of influential bands. However, if we take Simon Reynolds initial definition as 'using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes', you have a good idea of the approach used by People of the North, and realise that it doesn't mean they full into the trap of making predictable instrumental music. The basic rock tools of distorted organ, drums, guitar and occasional vocals are all present but are used to create something far removed from any typical song arrangement.

Complex drum patterns float around the beat, huge bass notes oscillate at a continental pace, and formless guitars and vocals are buried low in the mix, away from their usual prominence. The cumulative effect is to create something that, although loosely linked to the riff-based textures of someone like Black Sabbath, ends up with more in common with a La Monte Young or Morton Feldman composition. To summarise it in a cheesey soundbite, this is rock and roll, but without the rock, and without the roll.

As expected from any Oneida-related project, in spite of its experimental approach, Sub Contra still feels as heavy as sin. Bands such as Black Mountain and The Black Angels have found critical success playing a blend of beardy, sludgy, Krautrock-tinged psychedelia. Oneida could and often have been placed into a similar aesthetic place to these bands, but their willingness to experiment with forms, genres and structures mean they have just as much in common with Terry Riley or Glenn Branca.

This experimental urge seems to get its truest expression by People of the North. 'Drama Class' and 'Sub Contra 1' are built on gnarled guitar-lines and stuttering synths which slowly envelope the listener. Rather than relying on riffs and chords, the band achieves its heaviness through smothering the listener in weighty layers of sound.

Those familiar with Oneida's most recent album, A List of the Burning Mountains, or the third disc of their triple set, Rated O, will have some idea of the territory covered on Sub Contra. Both of these, however, still have something of the bombastic, cyclical riff-structures found in Oneida's music, despite their more experimental leanings. People of the North succeed in moving away from this, encouraging the listener to focus closely into the minute details of sounds and textures.

'Coal Baron' is the track that comes closest, being a piece of ambient music. Opening with chords which float in and out of hearing, washes of static, tremolo synths and throbbing low-end rise and fall around this initial idea. It never resorts to a linear progression or predicable crescendo, but instead slowly moves and develops. The track's sparseness and comparative softness may detach it somewhat from the rest of the album, but its nonlinear structure and form are typical of the approach used throughout.

With Sub Contra, Matador and Millions have created an album which deconstructs the normal structures of rock music, taking the experimentalism of their 'other' band into a new extreme of unusual form and texture. It is a difficult listen, one that might alienate some fans of the more song-based elements of Oneida, and whose unusual execution is unlikely to win them many new. However, it is a reminder of the endless possibilities of traditional rock instrumentation, beyond standard rock structure.

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