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Monochromatic madness

Wax Chattels' stark post-punk is the soundtrack to a very dangerous night

New Zealand trio Wax Chattels bring the noise, but not the guitars. Photo credit: Facebook

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There are few record labels out there that have come to define an entire country's quality independent music output. Flying Nun Records did that for New Zealand. It's entirely possible that, without Flying Nun, American music nerds wouldn't have been so easily exposed to the vast majority of New Zealand exports. It's through Flying Nun that international audiences became aware of the talents of bands like the Clean, the Bats, the Chills, the Mint Chicks, and the various groups of Chris Knox. And, while those may not be household names, they produced some of the most idiosyncratic indie rock to come out of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Knox, in particular, made what I consider to be the best love song of all time, "Not Given Lightly.")

Flying Nun formed in 1981, at the peak moment for the emerging post-punk genre, and soon began assembling a roster of acts that reflected both the darker and lighter sides of the underground rock spectrum. While their most well-known bands erred on the side of jangly rock, their penchant for moody, experimental groups has persisted to this day. And so, we have Wax Chattels, an Aukland, New Zealand-based trio that has recently signed with Flying Nun, and is embarking on a U.S. tour. On their eponymous debut LP, they pursue stark, monochromatic post-punk with a kind of manic fervor. They boast using no guitars to aid their goal of assaultive noise-rock, much like Queen once advertising that their album contained no synthesizers.

Freed from the potential melodicism of guitars, Wax Chattels rely on drums (Tom Leggett), bass (Amanda Cheng), and synths (Peter Ruddell), to create soundscapes of inescapable anxiety and looming claustrophobia. On their debut's opening track, "Concrete," the song gets steadily more frantic with each passing second, following a repeating pattern and forcefully incanted vocals, giving the impression of crawling ever further into a steadily narrowing hole. "Stay Disappointed," with its rockabilly bass line and reverb-heavy vocals, mixed with an industrial rhythm, firmly place Wax Chattels in the mold of the kings of stark post-punk, Suicide. So much of Wax Chattels' music aims to put you on edge and keep you there.

Adding to the minimalist streak running through this music is the fact that Leggett is working with a two-piece drum-set, removing the balancing nuance that exists in the rhythm sections of other bands. Lead single "In My Mouth" is said to be an ode to the band's favorite bar, and it carries with it a verve and energy that isn't always present in their music. With this song, it's not so much that you can picture yourself dancing, but you can imagine convulsing to its insistent beat and rave-up madness; even then, there is a prolonged mid-song detour that detonates every bit of momentum the song had going, plunging the proceedings into a sludgy maelstrom, and building the tune back up before collapsing out of exhaustion. A night on the town is not a safe place to be, when Wax Chattels is providing the soundtrack.

While I may have made Wax Chattels sound like a dour experience, there is an underlying element of sardonic wit and playfulness to them. "Shrinkage" is about as frolicking as they get, featuring a shout-along refrain and a steady groove, and the social media indictment "Facebook" almost feels anachronistic, transporting the band from their sonic home of the early ‘80s. But ultimately, this is a band that announces, with its first notes, whether or not it's for you. Do you like living in the shadows for any period of time? Are your eardrums insured? Wax Chattels may be up your alley.

WAX CHATTELS, all ages, w/ Criminal Code, Retrospecter, 9 p.m., Thursday, July 19, donations encouraged, 2nd Cycle, 1205 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.327.1916,

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