The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Laddio Bolocko's '97-99' Box Set
Sean Kitching , May 20th, 2022 10:24

Sean Kitching sings the praises of late ‘90s noise rock outfit, Laddio Bolocko, whose studio material is finally being reissued for the first time on vinyl by Castle Face Records, a band worthy of a much wider audience, and comparisons to Can and This Heat

Formed by guitarist Drew St. Ivany, bass player Ben Armstrong and drummer Blake Fleming, and later joined by Marcus DeGrazia on horns, Laddio Bolocko spent much of their existence, from 1996 to 2000, in near hermetic isolation in their rehearsal space in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, and later in an abandoned ski lodge in Elka Park in the Catskills. St. Ivany and Armstrong (who would later form Psychic Paramount) met Fleming when their band Chalk 22 supported his math/jazz rock outfit Dazzling Killmen. Fleming, who founded Dazzling Killmen at the age of fifteen, played on early Mars Volta demos and later formed Electric Turn to Me. Laddio Bolocko, however, represented a pinnacle of achievement for all musicians involved, as well as being that rare thing from a critic’s perspective — a band that could be most easily described as sounding like Can and This Heat who made music that was actually deserving of such an epithet.

Yet Laddio Bolocko have been consistently under-appreciated. When I chose their track ‘Nurser’ for a Quietus writers’ Top 40 Noise Rock Tracks piece in 2016, editor John Doran, who is much more knowledgeable about the genre than I, was unaware of their existence. Hopefully this reissue (which sees two albums and an EP available on vinyl for the first time), will rectify this situation.

One of the minds blown by Laddio Bolocko’s intense live show was John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees and boss of the label behind the reissue, Castle Face Records. Dwyer caught the band after the booker at The Bottom of the Hill venue in San Francisco called him to suggest he attend their gig that night, because the previous night they had been “so mesmerising, so strong” that they had offered them the next night also.

Dwyer wrote: “I had my ass & ears handed to me that evening… I remember a sax as big as me, drums that were physically hanging on by a thread, and twin electric strings that reeled sinister sprites over my head in outwardly circular patterns. Aggressive, far-out fractals burned in my brain. I had never seen anything like this band, and never have again.”

The not-so-hard-to-fathom ‘secret’ behind Laddio Bolocko’s powerful and mesmerising sound, which also contained within it the seed of their eventual dissolution, was their 100 per cent commitment to their music. They were constantly playing, recording everything with their own equipment and listening back attentively to the results, establishing over time, a near telepathic connection between members, as did Can or This Heat before them.

Blake Fleming recalled: “We were very into Brian Eno. Specifically, those four rock albums that he made in the ‘70s. We were very into krautrock. But at the end of the day, it ended up being about the alchemy between the four of us. We were like a four-headed beast, when we were at our best. Dumbo in the late ‘90s was like what SoHo was like in the ‘70s and ‘80s – a desolate no man’s land. We could play, basically 24/7. We would just eat, drink coffee, smoke weed and have philosophical discussions, listen to records and play constantly. We had a Tascam DA-38. An eight-track digital recorder. We got a Soundcraft Spirit Board and we were set. We had a few crappy mikes really and that was it. But we had time to experiment and to get things to sound a certain way.”

‘Nurser’, which originally appeared on their first LP, Strange Warmings Of Laddio Bolocko, is a prime example of the transcendent, amp-shredding din of their early material. A thirty-second electronic pulse reminiscent of This Heat’s ‘Testcard’ is supplanted by sheets of coruscating guitar and a propulsive, locked drum beat. Straining against both its own inherent density and the limits of any speakers one might choose to play it through, the track progresses through numerous abrasive shifts in texture that somehow manage to sound simultaneously monochromatic and psychedelic. Opener ‘Goat Lips’ is 60% soaring euphoria based around a runaway locomotive-like guitar riff and dynamic locked-groove percussion, which becomes crowded out by increasingly industrial sounding noises that likely recall the din of reversing garbage trucks outside their Dumbo rehearsal space. ‘The Man Who Never Was’ evokes noirish jazz with a descending guitar riff that recalls black and white spy movie soundtracks but contained within an already-dissolving envelope of overburdened amps recorded in a seemingly massive concrete-enclosed space.

The In Real Time EP was recorded at a vacant ski lodge in the Catskills. The change is sound is marked, perhaps unsurprisingly, by an influx of space. Fleming said: “Moving to the Catskills was in such high contrast to where we were living in Dumbo. We had a dilapidated ski lodge. It was huge. We had a 2,000 square foot ballroom attached to it with wagon wheel chandeliers and a big stone fireplace. There weren’t fucking rats crawling over you at night, which literally happened in both of our practice spaces that we lived in, and we had no neighbours. There are acoustic instruments. I play shakers and brushes, things that you don’t normally associate with Laddio Bolocko, and we were definitely more chilled out.

“Yet there was also a dark, kind of witchiness to living up in the Catskills. It’s one of the things I love I love about these mountains. And that gets reflected in the music. The song ‘Wallkill Creek Survival’ is beautiful and pastoral and then at the very end, Drew goes off on his guitar line, goes somewhere else and a bit more out of the key, darker and more chromatic and it points to the darker underbelly that was underneath all this idyllic beauty that was all around us. It’s definitely a brighter record than Strange Warmings, but it’s not without its darkness as well.”

The EP also contains two of Laddio Bolocko’s finest tracks – ‘BeatriceThe Coyote’ and ‘The Going Gong’. The former sees perhaps the band’s most satisfying use of DeGrazia’s sax with an intricate yet powerful drum, bass and guitar groove. ‘The Going Gong’, meanwhile, takes the band’s potential for creating longer form, trance-inducing pieces to an almost ludicrous, near-operatic conclusion by its end. It is the kind of piece that effectively renders any questions that critics might have as to where Laddio Bolocko might have gone, had they been unhindered by a relatively slight timeframe, obsolete. The EP also contains ‘Laddio's Money (Death of a Popsong)’, a track with spiritual kinship to the kind of material Faust were developing on 71 Minutes, which at least achieved some kind of wider recognition when it was used in American comedian David Cross’s film Let American Laugh.

Laddio Bolocko would return from the Catskills to record a final EP, As If by Remote, at a second rehearsal space in Dumbo. That EP combined atmospheres from both of their other recordings, with the track ‘A Passing State of Well-Being’ (perhaps referring to their now departed mountain idyll), representing the band at their most straight forwardly joyous. Part of the problem was that Laddio Bolocko were simply ahead of their time and lacked the fan and venue infrastructure that might have otherwise helped to sustain them.

Fleming recalled: “We did some touring with Trans Am and they became good friends of ours. On one of those Trans Am tours we played with the Finnish electronic duo Pan Sonic. We didn’t play a whole lot in New York City, we focused more on touring and we did really well in Europe. This was before the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs come on to the scene, it was late 90s. All that stuff was not really happening yet, the garage rock revival. New York City was in a weird place, it was like a nether zone. We felt like we existed in a vacuum already because of how we lived and when we did venture out, we felt like we lived in a vacuum even more.”

In the end, however, it was internal pressures that led to the band’s dissolution. Fleming continued: “We were working on a fourth release before everything fell apart. I’d like to say we were on a constant ascent but things started getting fractured, personality wise. ‘How About This for My Hair’ was a piece that we never really got to do a good recording of and that’s one of the things we were working on. Just comparing the three studio recordings that we did put out, they’re all pretty different but you could tell it’s still the same band. We were continuing in that in the way that the chemistry between the four of us just made unique music. But we had lived so intensely for a few years that the relationships couldn’t survive after a while. The music wasn’t ready to burn out, but the human part, the relationships didn’t survive.”

Ultimately, judging by the recordings that they left in their wake, this was not a case of a band being cut tragically short in their prime, but rather a fully-formed unit transmitting a unique and compelling universe of music that sounds as vital today as it did then. If they were lacking the audience they deserved in their day, then perhaps now is the time to put that right.