Arab on Radar
by Tim Shannon
Is there a part deep down inside of you that craves dissonant music? Did you hear the No New York compilation and, not being fully satisfied, demand more? Lament the No Wave scene for being cut down in its prime? Want Sonic Youth to release something like the dark primalness of the Kill Yr Idols EP again? Want music that is worth the risk of potential hearing loss? Feel alienated by what's passing for music nowadays? Is radio leaving you bored with its "safeness"? Do you wonder whatever happened to that underlying, dangerous, threatening, offensive appeal that rock could have, which would scare your parents away? Where's the music to challenge your ear, which you won't find on MTV?
If any of this is hitting a note, you might be a noise fan, and I have good news. Your favorite music hasn't become something extinct like dinosaurs or the optimism of the sixties. Let me be the first to open you eyes to one of the best bands to happen to noise rock in years: Arab on Radar.
No Wave's origins began in New York as a gob in the eye of some of the punk bands who toned down and compromised their sound to look for success, becoming reborn as new wave bands. No Wave pushed the anything-goes ethics of punk further than punks themselves--who sometimes were as conventional as the thing they were rebelling against. Unfortunately, it eventually collapsed as there wasn't enough to sustain its existence. At the end of the 1990's, commercial radio was dominated by the sickening, plastic teen pop phenomenon. Underground music reacted distinctly to all that crap again.
After decades of Sonic Youth and the Swans keeping the flame alive, No Wave started finding favor again, inspiring and influencing new bands to pick up instruments. Besides Arab on Radar, bands like Black Dice, Lightning Bolt, The Locust, Lake of Dracula, Wolf Eyes, and Pink Brown were formed, seemingly coming out of nowhere. These bands were much noisier and more dissonant than the hardest of the hardcore bands of the 1980"s, making Black Flag look like the Knack. The bands shared a penchant for experimental music, strange lyrics, and playing anywhere, including warehouses or abandoned buildings. Truly the best part about this No Wave resurgence was that this time it was much better received by people. Positive encouragement of the music allowed them to grow and be able to tour--something that the original No Wave bands couldn't have dreamed of. There's also the benefit of no crossover appeal to ruin the integrity of the musicians.
As Arab on Radar aren't your typical band, neither are their beginnings. Not only did the band members not know each other, but no one had even played in a band before, making their eventual ouptut all the more impressive. It all began in 1994, when four of the members were applying for jobs at a submarine manufacturing company in Connecticut. None of them got the job, but the grueling hiring tests left them all as friends. They went out to a bar and at the end of the night decided to start a band. A woman at the bar named Andrea Fisset enthused about playing bass and was drafted as the fifth member of their band. The band consisted of Eric Paul (vocals), Jeff Schneider (guitar), Stephen Mattos (guitar), Andrea Fisset (bassist) and Craig Kureck (drums). They never went by these names while in the band, opting instead for Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (aka Paul), Mr.Pottymouth (also aka Paul), Mr.Clinical Depression (aka Schneider), Mr.Type A (aka Mattos), and Mr. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (aka Kureck, while Fisset didn't have a nickname). They did this to make sure the music was given greater importance and the band members were seen as secondary.
Musically, the band was inspired by the Providence's Six Finger Satellite, Butthole Surfers, US Maple, PiL's Metal Box and the eccentric genius of Captain Beefheart. Early singles like "Inventor," "Aisle 5," and "Kangaroo" are abrasive, owing a serious debt to No Wave while somehow being catchy at the same time. The bass is often at the center to provide some sort of melody while everything else twists, bends and fights around it.
In 1997, they released their first album Queen Hygiene II, on the Providence label Herrapin Records, and it showed that they already had a unique form all their own. Paul's trademark lyrics were already in place ("Her underwear has April showers and I'm pissing on her mayflowers"), justifying his pseudonym of Mr.Pottymouth. The guitars on this record sound equally if not more disturbing than the lyrics. A squealing, high-pitched riff incites you to move around and have fun in "Attack on Tijuana" before the guitars spiral off into something more rigid. There's a genius matchup of heavy buzzing bass, a stuttering drumbeat, and a skeletal, jabbing guitar on "St. Patrick's Gay Parade," one of the best songs on the record. "Rubber Robot" is in a constant state of building up while one guitar sounds like a cat being strangled and the other shakes with tenseful fury. This debut is good and isn't that far removed from the singles released around then.
Their second album, 1998's Rough Day at The Orifice (Boston's OpPoPop), finds them moving away from that direction and doing something different. The bass no longer has a flowing riff, instead changing to a tougher, more dirge-like sound. The songs take a heavier, darker tone, and are at times almost drone-like. The sound is more experimental, breaking down song structure and sounding more disjointed then ever. Some good tracks like "Menstruating Thrills," "His Maintenance," and "Biggest Little Prick in The Union," give the album reason for repeated plays. Ultimately though, this album suffers from not having as many good ideas on it as Queen Hygiene II.
Following Rough Day, Andrea Fisset left the band, but that didn't slow them down. Arab on Radar went touring across Europe with the Flying Luttenbachers and had appreciative crowds. On that European tour, they recorded a new album which Weasel Walter (Flying Luttenbachers) would later produce. Coming back to America, their association with Weasel Walter led them to sign with Skin Graft. This was a great advantage for the band. "We got to go to Europe, make a beautiful record, and were saved from an awful record deal that we made (by mistake) with a shitty label in Providence, RI. Skin Graft saved our lives and our record. We helped them stay active as a label... so it all worked out perfect," said Jeff Schneider.
Their third album, Soak The Saddle, was released in 2000, and they sound reinvigorated and energetic on it. Walter's production adds a huge improvement, giving the songs a livelier and punky sound. The tracks on the album may not have names, but they are far from forgettable. On track #1, the drums came right out at you with a punch and the guitars seem like they will tear through the song at any moment. The guitars gasp for air, sounding strung out and unpredictable like a junkie on track #5. The album title coming from track #4 assures us that although the band is progressing they haven't lost their love for shocking lyrics ("Judy Garland doesn't use tampons") with a messy background of sound. Track #9 has a jittery, wild guitar that flies all over the place like a loose, high-powered firehose. Soak the Saddle shows the band moving away from their more straight-ahead material and taking the music to a place without barriers.
Their next album, Yaweh or The Highway (2001), would be their crowning achievement. It's their most realized, creative work and has everyone playing at peak performance. Yaweh throws out the rules to invent this gloriously fucked up music. Looking at the track titles can only give you a hint of the wildness of the music inside. "My Mind is a Muffler" pushes off with a brutish bass riff around screeching abstract guitar, which give way to an industrial factory kind of noise at the end. Dementedly sung lyrics ("Sometimes I just gotta jerk off, my nuts are a pressure cooker") mark a new height of dirtiness for Eric Paul. "Cocaine Mummy" sounds like the audio equivalent of trying to run away with a broken leg while someone blasts a shotgun at you. "God is Dad" starts with a bang, shooting out the gate with guitars swarming like angry bees, buzzing around before holding notes out, not allowing a full climax. Their love of free jazz can clearly be seen as an influence on "Semen on the Mountain". The band's interplay has grown leaps and bounds, shining through with shrieking guitars on "Birth Control Blues." The band had reached a new plateau and people took notice.
In 2002, Skin Graft assembled the Oops Tour to display some of the most exciting, challenging music of the day. When it was all done, it would be discussed infamously in music circles. The Oops tour included Arab on Radar, Lightning Bolt, The Locust, Erase Eratta, Hella, Wolf Eyes and The Flying Luttenbachers. The tour gave the bands a chance to meet their peers and be in a creatively supportive environment, which in turn gave them inspiration. It must have been affirming to realize there are other bands out there with similar aesthetics, taking risks with music. When the tour was over it was regarded as a great success, giving exposure to bands people might never have seen. The fact that it was a success showed that this music had a loyal fan base and was converting new fans everyday. Arab's sets on this tour were mesmerizing to watch. Paul counted off the songs in a high falsetto and the band proceeded to assault the audience unapologetically with their instruments. The singer spazzed around like a cockroach in a frying pan and the whole band seemed absorbed in their music, as if they were in another world.
"The Oops Tour was amazing, honorable, intense, scary, meaningful, and most importantly, the best tour Arab on Radar has ever been a part of. I don't think people will forget that tour too easily. I felt some very strong emotions watching all these wonderful, intelligent, talented people perform....It was a true sense of pride." remarks Schneider.
Everything seemed like it was going well until out of the blue in the fall of 2002 the band released this announcement: "Arab on Radar have officially broken up due to irreconcilable differences. Unfortunately these differences have compromised the creative process. Arab on Radar are forever grateful to all those who have helped us out over the years." The innovative broadness of Yaweh seems to have torn the band apart. Hearing the news, Skin Graft was just as shocked as fans were about the statement. As a sort of parting gift the band compiled their scattered singles and compilation tracks for another album, The Stolen Singles, released in 2003, arguably containing some of their most accessible material.
Despite the breakup all the members continued to pursue music. Singer Eric Paul and drummer Craig Kureck joined with Richard Polletier and Paul Vieria to form the Chinese Stars, a dance-punk band similar to AOR's early singles, but less noisy. Jeff Schneider teamed up with members of La Machina and Bossman to form Made in Mexico, which has plenty of familiar AOR distortion in it. Stephen Mattos and Pat Crump formed the duo Athletic Automaton who is known for their odd stage dress of 70s basketball uniforms and noisy, improvised songs. There seems to be no bitterness or bad blood between the band members since the breakup. They've done split singles, helped mix each other's albums, and have toured together. The band is proud of the legacy that they left behind. Stephen Mattos says fondly, "Arab on Radar always intended on creating something challenging in the music scene, right from the start. Whether directly or indirectly, we were reacting to the present state of music at the time. So we just did what we felt was in our nature to do, which was to fuck it up and confuse the hell out of people in the process. For some odd reason, many bands in Providence also wanted to fuck shit up. We just played what came out of us. I don't think there is much else I can say about it."
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