My reviews of records released by the No Wave band DNA:
1978: No New York with Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars (9/10)
I have heard about this record so much that it was inevitably going to prove difficult to listen to it by the time I got around to it. I first learned about it in The Secret History of Rock close to twenty years ago but I have at least managed to listen to the Contortions and Lydia Lunch in the interim so I had some idea of what I was in for. (I haven’t made it to DNA or Mars yet, but I have heard Glenn Branca and I know where the scene led with Sonic Youth and Swans.)
There is a certain ridiculousness to the way in which some New Yorkers talk about the “downtown” scene (and really any aspect of New York City culture). Especially pre-internet and in the early days of the internet before people realized that it democratized location as much as anything else, there was a presumption that, because something happened in New York, it was better and more important than something that happened elsewhere. The list of these things is very, very long but musically it would include minimalism, punk and no wave among other things. And though there was certainly some truth to this, given the location of so many music labels and distributors and media outlets in New York, it also begged the question of how something that wasn’t heard anywhere else could really be that important. Something like this compilation, which didn’t get a lot of distribution, begs that question. Could this really be such a big deal if, beyond how inaccessible this music is, it never really got in front of people.
But the racket made by these four bands has been fully incorporated into mainstream music, no matter how distasteful you might find this actual recording. (This is in no small part thanks to Sonic Youth, who eventually made some of these ideas much more palatable to lots more people) And what are doing here, to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the band, was subverting the few remaining musical conventions of rock music that hadn’t yet been taken down by punk and new wave. The degree to which you enjoy this likely depends upon how musical it is and/or your tolerance of ideas over musicality in music.
But regardless of your tolerance for noise, I think this is a pretty damn seminal compilation more for how influential this stuff ended up being on rock music ever since, rather than merely for capturing a particular scene at a particular time.
1981: “A Taste of DNA” (9/10)
Like all No Wave this stuff is aggressively difficult. Lindsay’s guitar scratches and makes sounds some people probably didn’t know could come from a guitar. And his vocals are only a little more accessible, between yelling, shouting, speaking and yelping. The drums vary from being seemingly random to playing somewhat recognizable rhythms. As others have noted, it’s often only the bass that is playing anything remotely recognizable as rock music. (And then not on every track.) It’s an absolute onslaught and arguably more out there than some other of their contemporaries.
The brevity reminds me of hardcore. (It’s an “EP” but it’s somewhere between that and a single, and it’s similar in length to some hardcore “albums.”) They don’t need a lot of time to say what they have to say. It makes me wonder if shows were this short too, because nobody knew what to do with it. (The audience’s tolerance for noise music has increased greatly with time, it seems.)
I haven’t listened to any of their contemporaries in a while so I have a hard time comparing them off the top of my head. They are even less song-focused than some – calling some of these tracks “songs” feels like a complete misnomer – and that is both to their credit and not so much. The most successful avant garde acts manage to incorporate their radical ideas into less radical forms. But there’s definitely something freeing in knowing that these guys were able to turn this into a launching pad for musical careers.
That being said, this is fun, crazy music from a very unique time, where rules just went completely out the window. And if you’re in the mood for it, you can enjoy it. (Provided, of course, you have some reference points. Listening to at least some noise music or some of the most out there punk-adjacent stuff from the same era is probably a prerequisite.)