The historical record has not been kind to Alter-Natives. I have a Forced Exposure from '87 or so in which Coley pans them. Dave Lang consigned them to SST's mistake bin in his great '98 Perfect Sound Forever article on said label. My beloved Carducci only mentions them in passing during the Riff section of Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Hell, I have a pal who lives in Richmond, VA, their home town, who has suggested to me that the group themselves have disowned a lot of their stuff. As for me, I saw them two or three times live, and was always blown away by their wild combination on precision and abandon. They're a band from that era that I find myself coming back to repeatedly. Could this just be bad taste on my part? Let's put the headphones on and dig in to Hold Your Tongue and find out.
Alter-Natives sound like a group that practiced a lot. Many of the pieces on Hold Your Tongue feature the kind of changes that arise from heavy, frequent jamming. That's not to say that there are not tunes. Most of the songs on this recording clock in at about two minutes, and despite having tons of changes, they do have working melodic and rhythmic parts.
The lead voices of Greg Ottinger on guitar and Eric Ungar on flute and saxophone provide plenty of melodic interest. Ungar's playing is not particularly virtuoso, but he gets raw tones from his saxes, sometimes sounding Pacific Northwest Garage, at other times South Bay Surf, and still others almost Gnawa. His flute tones are sweet and controlled, Rock in orientation, as he never ventures too far out into solo realms and sticks mainly to melodic playing. Perhaps his music loses points with the critics for his inclusion of the flute? It's never been a particularly popular Rock instrumental choice, that's for sure. Ottinger's guitar playing is a mixture of Prog control, SST grime, and post Fusion Harmelodics. He seems to really like spiky harmonics, which come into play throughout his rhythm section playing. When he takes the lead, his sound becomes a lot more SST-ish; he flips out in a manner that can be described as controlled aggro, playing Pharoah Saunders to Ginn's John Coltrane.
The rhythm section of Chris Bopst on bass and Jim Thomson on drums rages underneath the horns and guitar. Bopst seems to favor the higher end of the bass register, playing a fast, melodic Fusion style. On many songs it's more another melodic element than an anchor. His growling, funky sound goes to places inhabited by the likes of Watt and Dukowski. He's not stayin' in the background, that' for sure. Thomson's kit playing is a hyper, rolling bash. He syncopates wildly throughout each and every song, but has the good sense to stick tight with the band during the more subdued parts. However, when he goes for it, he REALLY goes for it, featuring a sound that flies by the seat of it's pants, a caffeinated Tony Williams, lashing out and spinning ideas with haste. Sometimes it works against him, as his beats seem to be a bit behind the rest of the band, but you won't hear me complain about that. Please also let me mention his ride and hi-hat cymbal playing, in which he has such a sweet touch.
Alter-Natives' brand of Harmelodic Hardcore obviously isn't going to please too many people. The fast, dense attack on Hold Your Tongue is a great example of musicians' music, as the band careens through idea after idea, barely stopping to catch their breath, let alone leaving room for the listener. Obviously someone at SST was listening, and liked what they heard (check out Mojack's latest CD and the last SWA recording for evidence of that.) I find a lot of pleasure in their murky fusion, too. If only the naysayers could have seen them as they pounded through their version of Why Don't We Do It in the Road (I'm not joking), maybe their accounts would have been different.