Sharp Darts: All by Themselves | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: All by Themselves 

The Eternals' most out-there album yet was made entirely at home.

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Eternals, Watchers, Low Down Brass Band

WHEN Fri 2/16, 9:30 PM

WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

PRICE $10

INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Plenty of people who've merely heard of the Eternals, including some of my friends, think of them as an indie reggae band. But folks who've actually heard them know there's a lot more going on. Front man and keyboardist Damon Locks and bassist Wayne Montana, who used to play together in Trenchmouth, and drummer Tim Mulvenna, formerly of the Vandermark 5, not only combine the eerie chill of deep dub with the righteous fire of 70s rockers reggae but play around with hip-hop, electro, ambient noise, art-rock, punk, and pretty much every other revolutionary sound from the past 30 years. In an article about black people in indie rock last month, the New York Times called the Eternals "hardcore," which is inaccurate as a genre tag but true in the sense that they're way serious about basically everything they do. Which for Montana, as I recently learned, includes making soup.

At Locks and Montana's apartment, after a browse through a new batch of reggae vinyl, I sit down with the band for a powerful serving of soba noodles with veggies and dumplings. The Eternals' third full-length, Heavy International, is coming out on Aesthetics in just a few days, but the talk turns, as it often does among people with a profound level of emotional investment in music, to the downfall of the underground scene--something Locks and Montana haven't felt connected to since the mid-90s. "God, how many more people are going to come out with a disco-punk beat?" Montana asks. "When they go to band practice are they like, 'I want to express something,' and this is what they express? Something they've heard in 25 other bands?" Locks sees a change in attitudes that's just as pernicious. "We're in an era where poseurism is accepted," he says. "So bands that are just starting seem to adopt whatever kind of horrible affect that used to only be attributed to rock stars. The underground is just filled with people who have the expectation of being rock stars."

The Eternals don't entertain such hopes--when it comes to music they're lifers, not dilettantes banking on a big break. "There's no end to being inspired," says Locks. "I can't stop buying records, and I can't stop making music. Every record I buy makes me want to play more music." Both Locks and Montana are also DJs, and Mulvenna teaches private drum lessons. Locks is a visual artist too, and has done all the band's album covers, as well as work for At the Drive-In, the Dismemberment Plan, and others. On Heavy International the three of them share drum programming and sampling duties, Montana contributes the occasional keyboard, guitar, melodica, or vocal track, and Mulvenna adds some keyboard too. It's lucky they don't care about commercial success, because for all the variety in their sound, their roots are in forms of reggae that were popular in Jamaica in the late 70s but aren't even on the radar in America now. And even if reggae purists--not the biggest audience in the first place--were tipped off about the new record, they might be driven away by the disjointed jazz breakdowns, the spacey post-Timbaland synth bleeps, and Locks's idiosyncratic vocals, which split the difference between straight-up singing and his own take on traditional toasting and include what seems to be an impression of an enraged jaguar.

TV on the Radio, with their similarly genre-agnostic sound, make postmillennial tension seem kinda romantic. Heavy International, on the other hand, conveys in even its most uplifting moments the knowledge that shit's really fucked up right now. On "Too Many People (Do the Wrong Thing)" Mulvenna and Montana work up a pleasantly bumping beat, but Locks asks, in an ominously overdriven voice, "If you take away the future / Where will children run?" Locks calls the Eternals "difficult," but he doesn't mean "hard to listen to." The music's actually shockingly addictive, considering how unpoplike its component parts are. The challenge he's talking about is to our complacency, both in our roles as music consumers--buying the same disco beat 25 different times--and in our lives outside our headphones.

"In this time period I think it's hard to avoid being political," he says. "Even if you have the urge not to be political, you'd probably be forced to be." And like Burning Spear in the 70s, Minor Threat in the 80s, and Ice Cube in the 90s, the Eternals don't just address politics in their songs--their music actually sounds like politics. "The Origin of the Heatray" doesn't have any lyrics at all, aside from some unintelligibly distorted chanting, but it captures the furious freaked-outness that is 2007 in a lot less time than it takes to read Seymour Hersh. There's something in the synth-drum drops and Echoplexed melodica lead that just sounds like a street full of people who are ready to go from "crowd" to "riot."

In the songs with lyrics, Locks treats his subjects abstractly, poetically, or playfully--"I don't want to be sloganeering," he says, "because if you give someone the answer, there's nothing to think about anymore"--but his core message is clear and consistent. Public Enemy, Charles Mingus, and the Dead Kennedys were among the artists that inspired him to connect politics and music, and he shares their populist, personal vision of revolution. "I feel like I almost owe it to the people that influenced me to return that message," he says. "Those people helped me form what I am today."

Granted, bringing radical politics to an audience that's already receptive to radical musical concepts isn't as daring as smuggling them into the mainstream, but Locks doesn't worry about preaching to the choir. "I think it's dangerous as a musician to think about crafting your art based on the audience that you're trying to reach," he says. "For me, that's where music can cross the line to becoming a product."

Heavy International is definitely art, or at the very least artful. For the first time the band didn't bother with a studio at all, instead working strictly in Locks and Montana's apartment. That arrangement let them take plenty of time to experiment--they recorded the basic tracks in the basement, mostly live, on a six-track cassette machine, then played around with combinations of overdubs at Montana's Pro Tools station upstairs. Sometimes the transformations are almost total: the sparse groove of the album closer, "M.O.A.B. (Lickle Barfe Strikes Back!)," ends up a dense tangle of psychedelic heat. "I don't think any of the effects on any of the instruments obscure anything," says Montana, but the truth is that the mixes are so eccentric it's sometimes tough to tell a keyboard from a guitar, Locks's processed voice from a synth, or the real percussion from the programs and loops. If all you're trying to find in the Eternals' music is the spot where street protest meets block party, though, everything's crystal clear.

The Eternals celebrate the release of Heavy International next Friday at the Empty Bottle.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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