On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.
Frank Norris, the American author most famous for his novel McTeague, has summed up his artistic practice in one sentence: “I never took off the hat to fashion and held it out for pennies.” Norris’ refusal to pander to stylistic trends of his time made the writer an outsider and cost him readership. Such is the fate of many artists who unflaggingly follow their visions to the end. Yet, audiences often catch up and retroactively validate the work of such visionaries, dubbing them “ahead of their time.” What, exactly, does all this literary talk have to do with Six Finger Satellite, an on again/off again post-punk act from Providence, Rhode Island? Well, everything.
During the grunge boom of the early 1990s, Six Finger Satellite jettisoned the more commercial leanings of the Weapon EP (Sub Pop, 1992) in favor of harsher, more alienating sounds inspired by Chrome, Can, Captain Beefheart, and Public Image Ltd. The results were astonishing, but failed to find an immediately accepting audience. In fact, the band has stories about early, room-clearing gigs. Discerning listeners eventually came around, and, despite low record sales and a few pointless package tours, the band earned a cult following and some rabid, well-deserved critical acclaim. Six Finger Satellite never took off their hats to fashion, and history will, hopefully, prove to be their keenest judge.
Over the past two years, interest in Six Finger Satellite has intensified. Load Records released Half Control (2009), a previously recorded LP that sat on the shelf for almost a decade, and Anchor Brain, a label helmed by Chinese Stars/Arab on Radar frontman Eric Paul, released A Good Year for Hardness (2009), the first new record by the revamped lineup. This increase in activity fueled Anchor Brain’s decision to re-release The Machine Cuisine Companion Cassette. Originally available as a mailorder-only companion to the Steve Albini-recorded Machine Cuisine 10” (Sub Pop, 1994), these songs remained unavailable for years.
Collecting demos and outtakes, The Machine Cuisine Companion Cassette highlights Six Finger Satellite’s defining characteristic: a commitment to following creative paths wherever they lead. Anyone with half a brain and a modicum of good taste needs to hear the bizarrely brilliant tracks collected on this release. They sound just as out of time now as they did, no doubt, in the mid-1990s. Electronic drums count in “Untitled Instrumental,” the collection’s first track. Hardly as generic as its name implies, it lets listeners know what they’re in store for playful, electro post-punk marrying Suicide’s menacing swagger to Kraftwerk’s nerdy, roboticized gait. Then and now, the mark of Six Finger Satellite is their ability to synthesize a host of obvious influences and still somehow create music that sounds all their own.
Although most of the remaining songs wander through similar sonic territory, listeners will get anything but a stagnant listening experience. The disco-infused, D.A.F.-inspired “Pick Up and Move” proves the point – some great synthy organ lines and sound bytes dress up a standard disco beat while J. Ryan ditches his signature howl in favor of a stalkerish spoken word delivery. “Make your move . . . I’ll drag you down all over this town,” he warns. Creepy. Not all is darkness, though. “Thin and Pointy” shows the band’s interest in creating fun, tastefully low-tech dancey numbers. A rather catchy, cut-and-pasted sax line repeats throughout the song, making it one of few tracks, historically speaking, to achieve aesthetically pleasing results via the saxophone. Sure, you might chuckle during the song’s staccato breakdown, but that is, after all, the intended result. The amount of fun that went into making these songs never goes entirely missing on this release, which makes for an invigorating listen.
Anchor Brain’s reissue includes some bonus tracks, the most intriguing being “Deep Freeze.” Apparently a leftover from the Law of Ruins (Sub Pop, 1998) sessions, it unapologetically apes Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave.” It’s good to hear the definitive Ryan/Pelletier/MacLean/Apt lineup rip through standard rock fare. Ryan’s voice sounds sandpapery and powerful, and we hear, fortunately, just how powerful the rhythm section was during this era (unfortunately, the low end was a bit underserved by Law of Ruins’s production). Here, MacLean abandons his usual needling, metallic-sounding guitar playing and explores a more muscular, aggressive style.
Six Finger Satellite seem to be on another hiatus, but listening to this release makes a convincing case for an enduring legacy. Few bands continually do whatever they want, and, thankfully for us, Six Finger Satellite never felt pressured by trends.Visit: Six Finger Satellite | Anchor Brain
Purchase: Insound | eMusic