The Boston Phoenix
March 2 - 9, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Deep heaven

The sonic ambitions of Lockgroove

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

Perhaps the best place to begin is at the end -- though in Lockgroove's case, just where exactly the end begins and vice versa is open to speculation. Distorting time, perception, and generally scrambling one's senses is, after all, the band's raison d'être. The effect of listening to Lockgroove at work can be akin to looking at an Escher print for a really long time: guitars that appear to ascend to vertiginous heights ultimately descend to subterranean levels; instrumental passages that seem to lead to concrete resolution instead open out into endless space; and what you thought was the singer's howl for help mutates into euphoric release.

At the moment, though, we're seated at a table inside the relatively conventional confines of the Common Ground in Allston, drinking beer with Creedence Clearwater Revival blasting on the house system. Four of the five members of the Boston psych-noise outfit are present (guitarist Adam Brilla is out of town the evening we get together), and the guys are in obviously great spirits, thoroughly jazzed about their full-length debut, Sleeping on the Elephant Fog (released this past Tuesday on Krave Records). All told, the album -- recorded in three different studios (Soundstation 7, Supersonic, Vortex) in three different states (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, respectively) with producer Jon Williams at the helm -- took roughly a year to complete. Lockgroove, who'll celebrate the disc's release with a March 25 show at T.T. the Bear's, still can't quite believe the thing's finally done. "We worked pretty damn hard on it," says drummer/multi-instrumentalist Martin Rex, who founded Lockgroove three years ago with identical twin brother, singer/guitarist Ryan Rex. "We went pretty damn insane and bankrupt. We almost broke up, what, 17 to 20 times I'd say?"

With 12 tracks clocking in at just under 70 minutes, Sleeping is the long-awaited follow-up to Lockgroove's terrific 1997 EP Rewired (Krave), a disc that seemingly came out of nowhere and quickly got a band that had also seemingly come out of nowhere noticed as one of the most savagely ambitious, sonically audacious outfits in town. What Rewired implied, Sleeping makes indisputable -- the new album already represents an epoch in the band's brief existence. It's an astonishing piece of work, a texturally dazzling, melodically dynamic testament to the dual creative impulses of discipline and chaos, and Lockgroove's equal commitment to both.

Which brings us to that end I was talking about: "Never Satisfied," the 20-minute track that closes Sleeping. The song is more than two-thirds the length of Rewired. It's also an arresting composition of staggering reach and bold invention made even more impressive by the fact that the bulk of it was improvised almost completely live in the studio, with only a few first-take overdubs added later. "Some of the time, we know exactly where we're going," explains Martin Rex. "But it's usually a series of steps where . . . that will change a bit because the song will kind of tell you what it wants after a while. And sometimes you can't fight that, even if you had something in your head going in."

Keyboardist Daniel Finn says the band wanted to replicate their approach toward performing live by embracing that same sense of abandon. "While we'll put a lot of work into getting down a definitive version, a song always has a `tension factor' beyond that. Doing it live, it could be twice as long or half as long or, six months from when we recorded it, it could be chopped in half or have a whole new section. The songs are really like organic, mutating things that can grow or shrink depending on our mood."

"Never Satisfied" opens with thick, heavily distorted guitar chords that, 30 seconds in, are joined by a second guitar, drums, and God knows what else, all conspiring to create a maelstrom that keeps building until a bass line, smooth as black ink, slips into the fray. A half-hidden voice, seeming to arrive from somewhere else entirely, introduces itself at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. Then, somewhere around six minutes, everything downshifts. The musical whole seems to disengage its components piece by piece, one chord, one beat at a time, the guitar notes expanding and contracting in waves of feedback, splintering into jagged shards and hurtling into space, the drums disintegrating altogether, the voice gone. Just when you think everything's been reduced to the barest of elements, snare, cymbal, and bass materialize and the original motif re-assembles itself. At the 13-minute mark, Lockgroove resume full flight, and some six minutes after that, at the song's conclusion, a coda kicks in with even greater force. More than any other single track on Sleeping, "Never Satisfied" is an epic synthesis of everything Lockgroove is, and it opens a window onto what they may yet become.

"I think that track captures, in the studio for the first time, the sense of live oblivion we get at our shows," says Finn. That track, he goes on to explain, was inspired by "a lot of sleep deprivation and a good injection of drugs, if I remember correctly. It was two in the morning, when everyone was high and tired and we were trapped in a room [Supersonic Studios in Cambridge] that was full of brown -- and we were trying to escape the brown, escape the darkness. We were trying to rise above it."

Rising above the mundane is also what Lockgroove had in mind with the ambitious "Deep Heaven" multimedia "happenings" they've hosted in various lofts and spaces around the city in collaboration with like-minded musical explorers like Abunai! during the past two years -- experimental, Warhol Factory-like evenings that celebrated musical risk and free-spirited hedonism while leaving a lot open to chance. That approach produced a few less-than-ideal occasions when somebody decided to pilfer the money collected at the door or city police dropped by to check out what those kids were smoking. But at its core, "Deep Heaven" was an inspired idea designed as an alternative to what the band believed was the oppressive hegemony of the local club scene. Given the number of unpleasant setbacks, however, the group's plans for future events are up in the air. The band contend that too many compromises were made along the way and that the purpose and point of "Deep Heaven" were sometimes lost.

The band took a similar view toward recording Sleeping. "We all felt that we had compromised, to a certain extent, on Rewired," says Martin Rex. "We're all proud of it, but we realized that we could have spent more time, it could have been better, we didn't have enough money. For this one, we were like `no compromises, no compromises, no compromises.' " As a result, he says, "I don't think there's much of a comparison between the two albums. I think we accomplished so much more on this one. I'm just way more proud of it."

Ryan concurs: "I don't know if this sounds cocky, but very early on, I think we knew from the start that we'd have lots of good songs. And as long as the outside factors fell together, we were going to be fine. I think we knew going in that we were going to make a much better record."

Sleeping veers from the whisper-to-scream acid psychedelia of the opening track, "Safer Side," to the ethereal ambiance of "Chinese New Year" (with bassist Dave Goodman on vocals) to the pipe organ-laced, Velvet-Underground-by-way-of-Spiritualized hymn "Secret Devices." The technology likewise ranges from state-of-the-art studio gear to the most primitive of home-recording techniques (the acoustic, softly shimmering "Wait for the In Between," for instance, was recorded entirely using a Radio Shack microphone) -- a strategy intended to give both band and listener the widest exposure to a variety of moods and settings.

"Marty and I have been doing this since we were 15 or 16 years old, and we always wanted to be in a band that was over-the-top," explains Ryan Rex. "All of our favorite bands -- like Jane's Addiction or the Smiths or the Cure or Spacemen 3 -- took it to the next level but were still connecting with people. We've always wanted to connect with people and do what those bands did for us when we were young and do for us now -- which is get you through your day or save your life." Bassist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Goodman agrees: "We look at what we're writing, and we look at our favorite albums, and we try to measure up. I mean, that's what we love most in the world, so we want to see if we can make something that's like that." As happy as they are with the new album, Lockgroove insist that they've only just begun to tap the range of possibilities available to them.

"I'd like to take all the great sounds that haven't been put on record yet and create a symphony, or a series of jams, that totally unearth everything that's never been heard before," Finn says brightly. "Ultimately, with this band, I'd like to pioneer some new space and do something that someone's never done, and explore it in a way that's never been explored."

That's really the essence of Lockgroove's open-ended expedition: the search for both the undiscovered and the forgotten. Sleeping on the Elephant Fog represents a significant step in that direction. "We're trying to do it all, I guess," says Martin Rex. It's easy to believe him.

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