Cul de Sac : ECIM
Reviewing a CD that was originally recorded and released some 15 years ago is a tricky proposition. So much has transpired in the years since that it’s impossible to evaluate the music on ECIM today without thinking about the musical landscape at the time and the many changes that have occurred since the album first appeared. Even then, in 1991, Cul de Sac’s debut was an anomaly. It’s an unusual record for sure, one far removed from even the then-burgeoning “alternative” scene (which was quickly replacing “college rock” or “modern rock” as the term of choice for rock scribes). England was still raving about “Madchester” and the “new” My Bloody Valentine record (Loveless), while stateside, grunge was poised to explode, soon to become the lifeblood of a whole generation of angst-ridden suburban teens. Perhaps even more importantly though, the “post-rock” movement, with which Cul de Sac are often associated (mostly due to the difficulty in classifying their music as anything else), was still a few years away from having a name, let alone a sonic blueprint.
So was ECIM the first “post-rock” record? That’s a tough question to answer. It did manage to combine a slew of divergent musical ideas into a cohesive whole before many other bands were doing that, but at the core, it’s a rock record… indie rock, some might say, having been released on Rough Trade in the UK and Northeastern in the US. That said, it was also heavily influenced by several other musical currents, most notably Krautrock, Indian ragas, post-punk, instrumental surf and garage rock, sci-fi soundtracks, and John Fahey’s folk-blues, a point driven home by a reverent if also adventurous cover of his classic “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California.” Cul de Sac guitarist Glenn Jones is an avid Fahey scholar, and although he is quite capable of emulating Fahey’s unique style, much of his playing here actually strays pretty far from that particular mold. This is in large part due to his usage of the electric guitar, an instrument which he manipulates masterfully. From the slippery slide playing on a couple of tunes to the dreamy spiderwebs of melody conjured on others, Jones displays an admirably wide range of styles and techniques, which prove to be a highlight of much of the album.
Besides Fahey’s influence, several other genres are easily recognizable as key elements in the early Cul de Sac sound. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Krautrock, which is easily recognizable from the opening measures of “Death Kit Train” in the thundering motorik drumming of Chris Guttmacher, which brings to mind both Can and Neu! at their most persistent. Bassist Chris Fujiwara cranks out a cyclical riff while Jones tosses out some great modal guitar leads. Together, it all sounds a bit like a cross between a psychedelic surf theme and the soundtrack to a classic zombie flick, the palpable tension mounting with each repetition until it ends abruptly. From there, we get a spooky, eastern sounding number with some nice fiddle playing by guest Ruthie Dornfield. Another guest, Dredd Foole, shakes things up even more on the two numbers he joins in on, including a rather ragged take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” On “Homonculous,” his vocals bring to mind the art-damaged ranting of Helios Creed and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, or even Julian Cope’s lunatic howls from around this same time. In fact, there are some distinct similarities between Cul de Sac’s and Cope’s work in the early ’90s, from the obvious Krautrock influence and the often dark, apocalyptic vibe to their shared willingness to experiment with form and texture.
Ultimately, Cul de Sac managed to generate a much wider assortment of moods and sounds than Cope did, most notably via Robin Amos’ sizable arsenal of synthesizer textures. Not many rock bands outside the synth-pop genre would even touch a synth in 1991, preferring instead the immediacy (and simplicity) of guitars, but here in Amos’ hands, they work wonders. Often subtly tucked into the fabric of the songs to provide a backdrop for the other instruments, they surface sporadically, lashing out like serpents ambushing their unsuspecting prey. Occasionally, they even take over a segment of a song, as on the middle section of the opening track and also on the fantastic “Nico’s Dream.” One of the highlights of ECIM, it does indeed feature its namesake in the form of some interesting vocal cut-ups of the VU chanteuse, ably manipulated by guest contributor Phil Milstein. Further along, we get the psychedelic garage rock stomp of “Electar,” followed by the final track of the album proper, “Lauren’s Blues,” a slow-building minor-key workout with a touch of Middle-Eastern flavor.
Closing out the reissue are a trio of short bonus tracks, which were recorded about a year after ECIM. The first of the batch is a rather noisy affair which builds in intensity, piling on various layers of distortion over three short minutes. The next is an excerpt of roughly the same length which is taken from a longer improvisation, and it’s a treat to hear the loose freeform interplay between the members of the quartet, who collectively create an organic and flowing groove which even features a bit of what sounds like an African mbira at one point. The final track is a brief snippet of avant-garde noodling, and it’s over before it really starts.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that this Boston quartet was definitely ahead of the times, mining ground that would become considerably more common in the years to follow. Even a decade and a half on, the music here sounds fresh, no doubt helped in part by an excellent remastering job which manages to bring out some fine details that were mostly buried in the somewhat murky mix of the original pressing. Cul de Sac has soldiered on through the years, with Jones and Amos still at the heart of the group, which has consistently evolved musically and continued to make several excellent genre-bending records, including 2004’s incredible Death of the Sun. ECIM was just the beginning of this innovative ensemble’s journey. It was certainly an admirable start, one which can definitely be seen as an early example of what has become known, for better or worse, as “post-rock.”
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