Friday, March 15, 2013

Lifetime of Gray Skies Part 1: Form is Emptiness

 I wear an iron mask to hide the ugly truth
Lifetime of gray skies

"In the Desert Sight Precedes Sound"
Lifetime of Gray Skies

    There were no press releases announcing Anodyne's breakup in 2005. The band did not hit the tour trail for one more victory lap. Burned out and creatively spent, the then-New York trio quietly canceled their plans for a European tour and laid to rest one of the most abrasive and aggressive hardcore bands of the young millennium.
    "I'm super critical of the fanfare people put on these things like 'This is our last show,'" said guitarist and vocalist Mike Hill, the band's sole constant through its eight year existence.
    It's probably a given that Converge will go down as this generation's equivalent of Black Flag, but Anodyne make a perfect Miss Congeniality to the other Boston hardcore institution's Prom Queen. Anodyne reeled off three vicious records, including apotheosis Lifetime of Gray Skies, and the requisite van-full of EPs in an eight year period, honing and perfecting their sandpaper scrape brand of hardcore. Unlike Converge, though, Anodyne fizzled partly because they were never able to identify a demographic hungry for their angular, driving, emotionally cathartic hardcore. Though Anodyne, itself, was never able to connect with a wider audience, it should be remembered as a proving ground for a series of musicians who would spin off into a host of creatively challenging bands as varied as Tombs, 27 and Defeatist.
    "It's something we all did together and it's something important to us," Hill said. "It made us grow as people and as friends. It helped us achieve the things we're doing now. It was a building block."


Photos courtesy of Scott Kinkade
    New York transplant Hill was fresh out of his Melvins- and Helmet-influenced band Otis, when he and drummer Thos Niles of La Gritona met in Boston and began making free form noise in 1997. Niles came to noisy music through the "punk rock door (as opposed to the metal door)," but the two bonded over a love of Black Flag, Amphetamine Reptile-style clamor, Merzbow's white noise operatics and the forward-leaning punk of the SST and Dischord labels.
    "We just started the band as a two piece," Hill said. "The single band we both agreed was an influence on what we were doing at the time was Black Flag. That was a conscious influence."
    Taking Black Flag's "trippy, intense kind of stuff" as a starting point, the duo set out to craft music that combined the tectonic crush of Earth, the technical wizardry of Crom-Tech and the "huge influence" Rorschach, according to Hill.
    Anodyne started with a simple mission statement: "to destroy all music before and after us," Niles said.
    "Mostly we just were making noise, doing a lot of improvisational stuff," he said. "We actually explicitly said that we didn’t want to do any standard band type band stuff."
    Intent on churning out noise for music's sake, the twosome settled on a band name that was at pointed odds with the abrasive assault they perfected: Anodyne.
    "It's funny. I remember typing a bunch of words into the thesaurus program on my old Mac and the word anodyne came up," Hill said. "I put in words like pain and misery and the antonym function spit it out."
    The twosome would jam out long, freeform swaths of impromptu noise akin to the song "The Metal Years Pt. 3," which kicks off The First Four Years, the band's posthumous EP collection on Hill's Black Box Records.

    "Imagine that for like 90 or 120 minutes straight in a hot, sweaty room and that was the first few months of Anodyne," Niles said. "It wasn’t until [bassist Mike] Davis came down that we started to have anything that we even attempted to play twice the same way."
    Seeking a fuller, heavier sound, Anodyne expanded to a quartet with the addition of Davis and former Spore guitarist and Boston underground music fixture Ayal Naor.
    "We started the band and we ended up adding a bass player and a guitarist who handled vocals, that was Ayal," Hill said.


    Davis had been playing in local noise band Luca Brasi and had seen Hill perform with Otis, though the two had never met. Hill recruited Davis on the recommendation of 27 drummer Terri Christopher after Luca Brasi's final show at a Boston funeral home. Davis made the leap to Anodyne after a lengthy phone conversation with Hill where the two bonded over their shared vision for not just making noisy music but for how a band should operate as well.
    "We talked for two hours on the phone about what we would want out of a band and what we want to be about," Davis said. "Nothing like, 'Do you like this band.' It was all more conceptual. It was all more about what you see in bands that grabs you."
    Hill, Niles and Davis played and rehearsed as a trio before they decided to expand to a quartet to bring another layer to Anodyne's music. Davis suggested Naor, who had helped put out Luca Brasi records had occasionally filled in on guitar as needed and who had played in several bands with Niles.
    Naor was originally brought into to add layers of noise and ambiance to Anodyne's freeform chaos. However, the band slowly mutated into a more conventional music unit even if the actual songs were still destructive slabs of paint-peeling noise. Naor came to his first practice armed with a theremin, FX boxes and a boombox, which he used to add impromptu noise to Anodyne's songs.
    "I'd tune the radio and try to grab samples live and loop them," Naor said. "We were trying to be really experimental and then it devolved into a heavy rock band."
    "The idea was that he was just going to add non-instrumental noise to the situation. He had a lot of effects and homemade shit – like the talking end of an old telephone spliced onto a microphone cable that he’d run through an echo-plex and a bunch of distortion pedals," Niles said. "It was a long time before he even suggested putting a guitar on, but before you knew it, we were in a standard band kind of configuration and started doing regular band kind of stuff like writing songs that could be performed the same way twice, and practicing them to get them tight, then recording them, then having shows…. Not what we’d originally set out to do, but it was the natural way of things, so I didn’t fight it at all."
    Though that first incarnation of Anodyne was meant to be more experimental, Naor found himself picking up the guitar and taking over vocals more often in between noise jams. It was "just falling back in to the natural groove," he said.
    "When we started the band we wanted to do something different from what we had done," Naor said. "I'd been in noisy punk bands for years, Mike had been in Otis and Thos had been in La Gritona. We wanted to do something different, [but] you're standing in the room and you're so used to playing guitar."

    The introduction of Naor, who ran Reproductive Records, also gave Anodyne an outlet to publish their music. Reproductive had put out recordings by artists like posthumous sludge superstars Harvey Milk as well as local acts like Luca Brasi. So it made sense for Reproductive to  release Anodyne's eponymous first EP.
    Adding Naor also added a second driven personality in Anodyne who complemented Hill's strengths.
    "Ayal is a very hard worker, so he can't just sit back and watch TV and do nothing," Davis said. "He's really got to be accomplishing something and get something done and it was a perfect combination with Mike. When he's focused on something, he wants to get it done and he wants to focus on it and he doesn't want distractions. The two of them worked so well."
    Naor, Davis and Niles also provided a check on Hill's intensity, keeping rehearsals from slipping into something humorless and arduous.
    "That was the magic of that band," Davis said. "[Hill] is intense. He can be intimidating, but the three of us had such a light sense of humor that we abused Mike with it. We forced it on him, and he finally came around. It was good."
    "Everybody in the band, all of our senses of humor aligned," Naor said. "Most of my memories of the band were cracking up and laughing and busting on each other. I enjoyed in being in that band a lot."

    That Anodyne lineup was potent but short lived. The first to leave was Davis, who was never able to find the balance between his work commitments and Hill's willingness to jump into a van and play anywhere at any time.
    "Mike really wanted to play every show we could. He just is the definition of a hard working rock guy. He would play shows everywhere," Davis said. "There was a show he wanted to play in Long Island, a basement show in Long Island. I was like, 'Mike, you're fucking crazy. I can't really do that. I got a job.' It was a Wednesday night or something. I knew he was pissed off, but he's not one to show his emotions. So it wasn't any more than a conversation."
    Though he soldiered on a bit longer, Davis finally left Anodyne after playing to an empty house at a New Hampshire show.
    "Literally nobody was there. I think my girlfriend was the only one in the room and she left," he said. "It was just the four of us having a practice. We weren't pissed off, but I'd done enough traveling around to play to nobody on weeknights."
    Hill's roommate Joshua Scott stepped into the vacancy. He would anchor Anodyne for the rest of the band's life. Scott would not only bring consistency and stability to Anodyne, but he introduced Hill to a range of additional musical influences that would add scathing new elements to their repertoire.
    "Josh and I had been friends and roommates," Hill said. "He and I, especially during that time, almost had identical record collections. He actually turned me on to bands like Throbbing Gristle and White House and that was very much a part of the aesthetic we were going for combined with the hardcore style."
    Scott was a "half-assed guitar player" from Maine with a taste for industrial music and Touch and Go albums who had previously pulled bass duty in a short-lived band with Hill.
    "After failing to find anyone suitable, they asked me, mainly because we all got along, and not my bass playing skills," Scott said. "I learned all the fundamentals of bass playing in that [prior] band, at first mimicking all of Mike’s parts and then developing separate shit."
    Scott had also spent time in mathrock band Loga with future Isis drummer Aaron Harris.
    "By the time I had arrived in Anodyne, I had digested a lot of Big Black, Neurosis, The Jesus Lizard, Dazzling Killmen, Rorschach, Nomeansno, Man is the Bastard, shit like that," he said. "I don’t know that I sounded like any of that, but those were bands I found inspiring."
    After Davis left, founding drummer Niles, who had started his own business, also began to feel the grind of touring and trying to hold down a demanding day job. He said the decision to leave came to a head during a show with Isis.
    "I had started a retail business with my wife and was putting a lot of my creative energy into that. I can distinctly remember when I decided not to do Anodyne anymore," he said. "We had done a long weekend of shows in Canada with Isis, and the last show was in some church basement, I think in Quebec. We were playing our set and I remember thinking to myself, 'OK, it’s about an eight hour drive home…I wonder if there’s anything to eat in my fridge…If I have to open the store tomorrow, will I have time to do laundry?...' and as I’m thinking about this, I look over at Mike and he’s just going for it, the way Mike Hill does, and it hit me that I was dishonoring everything that I believed in by being in that band and not putting in the same.  My mind was somewhere else, and I am not a fan of half doing things. The only thing worse than not being in an awesome band would be to be the weak link in an awesome band, phoning it in while the rest of the guys were still giving it their all. A couple of days after we got back, I met Mike for coffee and we both knew that it was time for me to go. I honestly can’t remember which one of us said it, but the phrase I recall was 'I think we both know that we rounded a corner this weekend…'"
    Hill could see Niles slowly drifting out of the band before the break became official.
    "Thos was going through this transformative period in his life," he said. "He was getting married. He was getting serious about work, which is something I was never able to do."
    It was Scott who found Mike Swanson, who later changed his name to Ira Bronson, in 1999 after Anodyne went through a series of fill in drummers without settling on a permanent replacement for Niles.
    "I was friends with this kid Luke through the Hydra Head guys; he interned there and was the Cave In roadie. Luke told me he was approached by an odd fellow at the local burrito place.  This fellow told Luke he played drums and hit 'REALLY HARD' (this ended up being true)," Scott said. "He wanted to join a band and asked if Luke knew anyone who needed a drummer. Luke told Bronson Anodyne was  looking and that’s how we met him. I think Bronson creepy-crawled the Melt-Banana show we played with a fill-in guy, just to see what we were about.  We got along well with Bronson and he was a total power-smasher, as advertised. I don’t know that he ever played any fills."
    Bronson preferred thrash and death metal, but he jumped on the noisy hardcore bandwagon after he scoped out Anodyne at the Melt-Banana show.
    "There were two things that grabbed me when I saw them, which were the massive volume and the fact that no one said anything the entire time," he said. "It was discordant and unrelenting and I really appreciated the ethic. At that moment, that didn’t necessarily mean it was dudes I could make music with, but those things were definitely things I identified with as far as playing shows."
    Bronson dove right into the songwriting with Anodyne as the band prepared to record their debut full length, Quiet Wars, in late 1999.
    "I think, at the time, my influence had kind of locked down the songs into some solid shit rhythmically," he said. "The dudes had clear visions musically and I just left-brained it with some logic to make it all work as hard as possible. We definitely worked well together."
    A power drummer who had no interest in playing a bunch of fancy fills, Bronson fit in perfectly with Anodyne's face-first aggressive style at the time.
    "He showed up to practice and destroyed," Hill said. "He was one of the hardest hitting drummers."
    With the pieces in place, it was time for Anodyne to make a statement.


Rosemary said...

Well done.

Helm said...

I'm not a fan of hardcore but this is solid music writing. Made me listen to the samples too.