I’m sort of a sucker for take-the-piss band names, and Sly & The Family Drone fits the bill perfectly alongside such luminaries as Blue Sabbath Black Cheer and, hm, Kathleen Turner Overdrive? (Wait, there’s a real one?) I blanked. Anyway, these dudes sound nothing like the legendary funk band from whom they extract all but two letters in their name, and I couldn’t be happier for it. To be honest, I’m not much of a funk dude. I’m a shrugger when that enters the discussion. It’s fine, whatever. I’d certainly much rather talk about the unholy noise these dudes are peddling than P-Funk or Kool and the Gang.
Unecessary Woe is the band’s 2013 LP (limited to 300 copies, act fast!), and is three tracks of harsh vibes, whipped together from sessions wherein drums, shredded electronic oscillations, and obscured voices collide to entrance and horrify. Trust me though, it’s fun! How is it fun? I dunno, maybe you just have to have the ear for it, or be a glutton for punishment or something. Lay off, will ya? But if you’re gonna dive into this, and I recommend that you do, I’m going do something that I never do, because I think it’s lazy. Nevertheless, I’m going to provide a quote from the band’s Facebook page about the live Sly experience, because this really does a good job in setting the mood. (And also because they’re from England and I live in the United States, so I haven’t seen them for myself.)
Sly’s reductionist take on music is literal; they split their drum kit to its singular base units, passing individual drums to the audience who maintain the beat while they free themselves for more noise and freestyle mayhem, ultimately eliminating any boundaries between spectator and performer. This egalitarian approach propels audience and band together into a shamanistic setting of catharsis and anarchic celebration. By the end of the set their drums and equipment are scattered; the remnants of their music lying bare across the floor.
There is no place for guitars within this band.
“Their live shows are becoming legendary. Things usually get broken. There will be more than likely blood. A must see live experience. No gig by Sly & The Family Drone is ever the same.” Club Velocity 2011
I like that – the band has done themselves a better service to themselves with that fascinating description than I ever could. I think that’s a show I’d like to see, distance be damned. (Or, er, come to Florida…) Anyway, it’s easy to see how that approach would work right away, as “Handed Cack,” the shortest track on the album at five minutes, is a cacophony of fleeting sounds, with very little coalescing into a pattern or rhythm. It’s performance patched together from rhythm and noise, and audience participation would undoubtedly make its mark upon it. Maybe it’d sound terrible. But maybe the audience would connect with the band in some sort of transcendent way that glorious grooves would emanate from their efforts. I don’t think it matters either way, and this is important for the why of it: “No gig … is ever the same.” That’s pretty great.
“Grey Meat” quickly dispels the notion that Sly is a one-trick pony, stuck in the seemingly disorganized cacophony of “Handed Cack.” Here, we get the drums, and since most of the band is drummers, this is perfect. Tribal rhythms highlight the band’s obvious love of Wolf Eyes and early Black Dice, and the rhythms gain in intensity and complexity as the track presses on through its twelve minutes. Noises build, crest, and crash, and it was only after the track ended that I realized I hadn’t breathed through it. For twelve minutes. I needed a paramedic.
The intriguingly titled “A Man That Could Look No Way but Downwards, With a Muck-rake in His Hand” ends the album, and is a culmination of the compositional directions the band has taken thus far. It begins with squiggles, samples, buzzes, screes, and other noises, and builds and pulls for five minutes before we even hear a drum. Powerful blasts and voices gradually force their way through the relative calm, and the rhythm becomes vitally destructive around the ten-minute mark. From there it’s a guttural sprint to the finish line, where we’re rewarded for our marathoning with thick oscillators. I don’t know if that’s refreshing, per se, but it sure is exhilarating. And the clock reads that almost twenty minutes have passed on the track. Wow. Where was I?
I don’t think it’s easy to play the noise game and truly craft organic compositions, ones that you can truly wrap your head around, especially if your palette is consciously limited. Sly & The Family Drone has been able to meet the listener halfway, offering a fully immersive experience and not pushing away with overly difficult or discordant material. And I don’t mean to say this isn’t discordant – it’s pretty challenging music. But the band offers enough access points for their audience to experience the process, and indeed literally so in a live setting, that engagement is easier to achieve than you might think. Give it a shot, see what happens.
RIYL: Wolf Eyes, Mouthus, Black Dice, Shit & Shine