Black Dice: Natty Light

Black Dice started out as a malfunctioning hardcore band. Formed by RISD students in 1997, their earliest incarnation bore all the markings of the era’s DIY punk scene but churned with an itchy, art-school weirdness that set them apart. In just a few years the band would be completely unrecognizable from its original state, but between 1998 and 2000 the group operated within the conventions of punk while simultaneously clawing at its prescribed norms. Natty Light compiles their recorded output from that inchoate phase, documenting Black Dice’s crude interpretation of hardcore and illustrating how quickly it unspooled.

Originally released as one-off comp tracks and 7″s on revered labels Gravity and Vermin Scum, the first half of Natty Light finds some aesthetic common ground with the frenzied proto-screamo of labelmates like Antioch Arrow or Angel Hair. Blown-out practice-space recordings sound rushed and garbled; minute-long songs with grindcore tempos fall apart more than they finish, and a whine of impatient guitar feedback floods any open space in the assault. The second half is made up of material from a self-titled EP released on Troubleman Records in 2000, sometimes known as Number 3. Recorded just months after the sessions that yielded the first batch of 7″s, Number 3 gave in completely to chaos. “Long Arm” abandons rhythm entirely, dismantling the anger and frustration of the band’s composed songs into stuttered bursts of freeform drums, feedback, and feral howling. “Pinsteaks” disintegrates from raging, Void-like brutality into a duet of chirping electronics and drums. “Reps” lasts all of 49 seconds but still overstays its welcome with the same riff repeating in nauseous chunks. When working within the confines of songs, Black Dice were volatile. When form and structure boiled away they sounded utterly inhuman.

With a creative metabolism hungry for the next idea before the first one was fully formed, these 18 songs devolve from blast beats and doomy breakdowns into circuit-bent scrapyard noise in under half an hour. In the months surrounding the recording of Number 3, Black Dice relocated to Brooklyn, shifted their lineup, and quickly diverged from their early sound. They never returned to their punk roots, but the dread and alienation that writhes on Natty Light would sink into the cracks of everything that followed. Even as their records took turns toward trance meditations or demented cartoon electronics, the caustic energy of their early years lurked somewhere below the surface.

Through all their changes, Black Dice have stayed consistently about five years ahead of the curve, exploring the raw materials other artists would eventually find success refining. Close contemporaries Animal Collective came up working in the same queasy electro-organic territory as Black Dice’s 2002 masterstroke, Beaches & Canyons, and would rise to worldwide acclaim by adding pop structure to the primal freakout. The refractions that rippled out from that direct influence would later inform the wave of tie-dyed punks that included No Age, Fuck Buttons, HEALTH, and basically any indie band using a sampler at the end of the aughts. To a lesser degree, the fried trash techno emerging as early as 2005’s Broken Ear Record predicted the claustrophobic zones of producers like Container and Oneohtrix Point Never. In the phase showcased on Natty Light, Black Dice collaged the impenetrable harshness of noise with the unhinged aggression of a punk show. The ugliness of these early recordings would help set the pace for the darkest sectors of the noise and extreme-music scenes as they mutated over the next decade.

Part of the legacy of this era is the confrontational live shows, which could see the band physically attacking the audience and each other as they thrashed through 15-minute sets. While plenty of hardcore bands expressed themselves with anger and aggression, Black Dice were intent on bloodshed. The band’s early gigs threatened to explode into violence at any moment, and on record, that antagonism translates into music that still feels legitimately scary.

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