Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Alter-Natives-Hold Your Tongue

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.

5 comments:

Michael said...

Fucking hell - you've just gone and raved about one of the only SST records from the 80's I've never, ever bothered to listen to. I've heard Group Therapy (freaky but hard to sit still through) and Buzz (better, more Kraut/space rock, but apparently a slightly different band) . . . but this one? Not even a peep. I'll haveta to search it out or wait til http://heretoblast.blogspot.com/ gets around to posting it.

Did you see these guys in Richmond? I gather there was co-mingling between the Alt Navs and Always August.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

Saw them in R'mond and D.C. They were always mind blowing to me. Yeah, Kurt pretty much quit playing with them after a bit. Not sure if he was just creatively restless or if the bad reviews bothered him. They were kings in Richmond for a few years. Up until Sliang Laos, I guess. I was in California by then. Someone ought to do a Richmond music scene blog. I always liked the groups from there, much more than D.C. groups. More pot influenced, me thinks. I can totally see people's disregard of Alter-Natives, but still, I always loved them. Even bought a red drums set because Jim had a red one.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

I meant Eric, the woodwind player. He quit pretty early. Doh!

Erik Grotz said...

Wow, great history! I agree "someone" should do a Richmond music blog -- if only I had time!!!

After Diaster Amnesiac and I graduated High School (get back to me on that reunion, pal!!) I could only get into Richmond, Virginia's VCU. The only 804-area code number I owned was for one Pen Rollings, so after I settled into my dorm and kissed my mom goodbye I grabbed the phone and gave him a call. He told me that the 'Natives were playing a show that night at the Metro. We met up, he handed me a handful of Honor Role singles (as a "Welcome to Richmond" present) and we proceeded to rock out to the fine sounds of Richmond's finest instrumentalists! Was a great night, and since then I still see and keep in touch with almost everyone in that scene back then.

great read!!!

XOX from R-Town EG

Disaster Amnesiac said...

Erik, you're very lucky. Please add the Richmond Blog to your DU history. Somehow, make the time!