The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

In Extremis

Krautmock: Sly & The Family Drone's Psychic Demolition
Lisa Lavery , November 14th, 2013 05:53

"No one would forget their first Sly experience..." With their new album Unnecessary Woe released this month, Lisa Lavery reflects on Sly & The Family Drone's ongoing tug-of-war between discipline and delirious chaos

You know that thing about no rules, yeah? Well, obviously there must be the odd exception to that, because otherwise how do we attain definition? I mean, it cannot simply be a FREE FOR ALL, and we must impose this non-rule loudly, otherwise people will consider us to be foolhardy and fascistic when that moment arises, when someone prods our backs with a sweaty finger and says "That person there is trying to break the rules, look".

The things I don't know are more numerous than the things I know. I have heard things said with great meaning or in clumsy mumblings, but I pick up on them all. There are rumours, Chinese whispers, clangers, drunk musings, and I retain all these in my mind. My brain administrator, who can sometimes be having a contrary day at the office, will say to all the office workers "There is no order, no hierarchy, no sentence structure, NO RULES!" The same administrator will then disappear to the car park, open the boot of his/her car and extract the leaf blower he/she brought to work, and with a real puffed out chest return to the office and plug the leaf blower in. He/she will then proceed to switch on said leaf blower and blow all the files and paperwork off everybody's desks, and he/she will yank open the filing cabinets and evacuate any paperwork in those. While the office workers remain catatonic in their states of shock and awe, this seemingly crazy administrator will boldly 'Ctrl + Alt + Del' everybody's computers. Tea ladies will scald their be-flip flopped feet with burning hot water as they are distracted by the goings on. Caretakers (or janitors) will join in, the hierarchy of employment culture thoroughly smashed in before their very eyes. No-one's going to object. Unsure of how to handle paper, they swipe mugs and medium sized plant pots off desks and shelves using their telescopic magi-mop handles.

"FUCKINNNNN'C'MMMMONNNNNNNNNLAAAADDDDDDDS!" they growl and gurn, pained expressions barely decipherable from onanastic fulfillment once reserved for private moments and American Pie movies. Inboxes and pending trays make percussive cacophonies when colliding with metal waste paper bins. Industrial sized shredders and temperamental inkjet printers are pushed to their limits by office administrator and accompanying caretakers (janitors) and they callously crunch and buzz in their final defiance. Shamefully trite office artwork is trashed, the acrylic (mostly) panes splintering, pinging as the frames that were there to protect them renege on their original purpose and rush to join in with the rest of the stuff that can make a good noise.

There is an inherent and obvious playfulness in S&TFD that begins with their name, a pun on Sly & The Family Stone - a revolutionary, musically groundbreaking, at times politically divisive collective that eventually crumbled under the weight of egos and excess (hello, 1970s). Forward to the Drones' live gigs - the most inclusive and 'egalitarian' noise performances you are likely to witness or more likely participate in, for an average of a fiver entry, on the (just about) right side of a hippy drum circle.

Sly & The Family Drone gigs are chaotic, incoherent, aggressive and provocative - egalitarian is the belief attested by one of their core members, and while I can see why they'd choose that word, I'm not sure it's accurate. There is a singular driving force behind Sly which has been there from the start, an enthusiastic ego for whom barriers do not exist. (Until the promoter flakes out, or they find themselves on the hard shoulder of the M4 at 4am because they ran out of diesel... okay, okay, the fuel gauge was "broken".) Haphazard planning and naive reliance on shared wavelengths with promoters does the Drones a disservice. Live, were it not for this supposed egalitarian approach, the spectacle would cease to be, and the spectacle is surely what drives the performance on.

Psychedelic noise is not typical bedroom listening. If it were pure meditation, one could self indulge at minimal expense or sacrifice… perhaps as part of a small cult, based in the Home Counties. Cults, of course, often feature the heavily medicated sons and daughters of people. Eight out of ten people I know are or have been medicated; there is a burgeoning epidemic of generational anxiety, financial stagnancy, provincial deadlock. A community of up and down people who do not respond to 'Friday nite party bangers', and for whom 'alternative' music in the mainstream media is the mental equivalent of reading a succession of articles on Thailand's dog-smuggling-for-the-restaurant-trade complete with graphic photographs.

My first experience of seeing Sly was at the Windmill in Brixton at an all-dayer a few years ago. I was nearing the end of a skin-drying three day bender, and had reached the point where I had positively plateaued. Everything about it was good; even if the band ended up being shit, I was having a decent time. Upon re-entry after a fresh air break, I encountered a vastly reduced floor space (annoying), thanks to two drummers who had decided to set up their kits, kick drums kissing in front of the stage. Okay, not a new idea. No problem. Then, taking up seemingly enough space for at least seven bodies, were speaker cabs. I see. At the time I perceived it as some big "Hey, fuck you, we're testing you. If you stay, you're cool. If you don't, we don't even care. Fnar" gauntlet. They started the set with their by-now-signature intro of their leader shouting some unintelligible words into the thoroughly distorted mic; everything was feedback central for a while, and eventually the drummers began playing a rhythm which they would more or less faithfully stick to for the best part of the next hour, with the odd triplet thrown in for bare dynamic pleasure.

The rest of the noise was provided by men with synths, tape loops, pedals, feedback - you know the kind of thing. It was great, it was harsh and it was brutal. I got into a nice zone. Then it happened. One floor tom on the move, two floor toms on the move. A ride cymbal was passed around. I grew suspicious, not to mention claustrophobic by this point. The man with the microphone now appeared to only be wearing boxers. A part of me really wanted to rip the drumstick out of the hands of the girl in front of me and show her how to play in time. Another part of me wanted to pound the toms with gay abandon. I realised that to be this torn in the face of no barrier whatsoever was going to completely bum me out - there was almost too much fun being had, too much charity given to the audience, who were no longer the audience by that point, I supposed.

Three years later, I can testify that when the paradigm shifts to 'serious mode' and the hype is laundered with last month's raumy underwear, collective concentration can emerge, and organisation appears to exist where before was pure fluke and luck. It leads to something frankly good, and only really achievable by adhering to some semblance of an actual work ethic. The cult leader is your typical cult leader - lashings of hype, untameable passion and a full address book.

For such a lurching, messy noise beast, Sly & The Family Drone have made what's turned out to be a pleasing, coherent, decisive recording. This kind of single mindedness is what makes things happen, seven times out of ten at least. It ensures that a weekend of recording in a warehouse where two of the core members reside can take place unrestrained by space or schedules. A vast room that can house at least two drum kits, many speaker cabs and miles of jack leads. A place hand-built by its residents that can ably assist in tying and dangling metal from the beams for percussion ease. There is no audience present, but hey, they've got each other. When it's just them making noise, sticking to a vague plan, it sounds really good. Like a 'respectable' 'psychedelic noise' artist. You could put Sly on the same bill as Bardo Pond or Wolf Eyes or Acid Mothers Temple or Hey Colossus - musically mutual. But no-one would forget their first Sly experience.

So, to Sly & The Family Drone's Unnecessary Woe...

This howling creature awakens slowly, unassumingly, like the naive protagonist's journey at the start of a horror movie. You know something terrible will happen to that person; you do not know whether that person will live or die. Whatever does happen will culminate in at least one build up of tension, and involve a couple of hair-raising twists and turns. 'Handed Cack' begins like this, and I'm fully imagining John Travolta in Blow Out with his field recording equipment, or maybe Gene Hackman in The Conversation, crouching near some railway sidings, unwittingly capturing some evidence along with the rumble of the rolling stock, the railway points switching, sleepers creaking.

'Grey Meat' pretty much sounds like an echocardiogram of all the members' hearts - one is rumoured to have an arrhythmia, fact fans - that leads into Satanic Gregorian chanting, largely ominous vibes, like the accompaniment to some really fucked up 70s Italian horror chase. This theoretical movie definitely features some messed up cult-based action and probably much sacrifice, but perhaps that says more about my imagination that it does the music. It's around the 4:30 mark that the hallmarks of a rave start to appear - the trebs from the pedals are gaining on the drums, which slowly melt into pure cymbal bashing, transforming into a full-on mind meltdown.

This is surely the perfect music for children: unwashed, organic, non-GM products, not affiliated with Nestle or Coca Cola. It's totally PURE, in a really grubby way. It's not telling anyone to be sexy and it's not telling every single woman in the world that they are special or every man that he can have it his way.

'A Man That Could Look No Way But Downwards, With A Muck-Rake In His Hand' offers some respite from the barrage, time to gather one's thoughts, enjoy these singular sounds, pleasing to the ears, like being in space. Some general tinkering, textural soundplay that arrives at a gently peaking primal scream. Tribalistic thug drumbeats surrounded by necrotic white noise, at first prodding and then totally enveloping your psyche. At times they're reminiscent of some of Wolf Eyes' early noise - the stuff that was completely perverse, violent and uninviting.

Once it arrives, the 4/4 beat doesn't really bring the listener back to reality; it's mocking you, krautmock, the death rattle of Predator and his entire family tree. It's also a big two-fingers-up at the ideology of 'white man play guitar, sing songs, shag woman'. That beat refocuses with more force, while the strained voices of tormented souls head in one input and out the other. The dogs of authority are straining at their leads - they want to come in and bite the hands off these sonic manipulator, bad men, not conforming to the current 'alternative' image!

The last minute or so sounds like millions of chains and shackles unravelling from beams high up, delivering feedback that washes over you in a comforting way. Unnecessary Woe is now, in fact, the perfect bedtime album, designed to blow out the fug of your enfeebled minds.

Sly & The Family Drone's Unnecessary Woe is out in November. For more information and to order the album, click here..

Sly & The Family Drone host a launch party for the album on 3rd December at Tamesis Dock, alongside Shield Your Eyes. Details and tickets here.