It’s not difficult to understand the motivations behind a solo side project – that is, a musician best known for their work in a band releasing music made by themselves under a different moniker. Musicians’ appetites are, in general, pretty broad, and working within the confines of a band with a defined aesthetic must start to chafe after a while (unless that band is as musically restless as, say, Sun City Girls – and even that band’s members found time amidst their prolific recording schedule to write some solo works). The solo side project offers a musician the opportunity to work in a different genre or style, to showcase a different part of their musical personality than is usually on display, and to indulge in the atavistic fantasy of ‘going it alone’ – at least for a while before returning to the fold of their main gig.
Less apparent, though, is the appeal of these projects for the listener. Part of the appeal of any given band – or at least any given great band – is the sense that it is more than the sum of its constituent musicians. Take The Beatles as an example: while there have been countless heated debates about which of the Fab Four was the group’s best talent, few would argue that any of the band’s members did their best work outside of the confines of the band (with perhaps the exception of George Harrison’s expansive All Things Must Pass).
Solo side projects therefore only offer a portion of the pleasure of the fully-fledged project – at least in theory. In practice, however, listeners flock to them with a sense of curiosity, if not always with joyous anticipation. The twinned impulses of completism and reverse-engineering are at work here: in order to better understand the alchemical transformation implicit in a band’s work, we examine the base metals before they have been touched by the philosopher’s stone.
The results of this kind of listening are often instructive. One of the joys of familiarising yourself with the back catalogue of industrial music progenitors Throbbing Gristle – as well as that of the group’s seemingly endless side projects – is coming to terms with the oftentimes antagonistic roles that each of the four members played. Genesis P-Orridge’s interest in the wild edges of rock and psychedelia meets Chris Carter’s sense of melody, which meets Cosey Fanni Tutti’s interest in the radical power of disco’s repetition, which meets Peter Christopherson’s abiding love of noise and audio grit. A dynamic tension holds the four together; their diverse side projects, often as good as the band once labelled ‘wreckers of civilisation’, illuminate what each brought to that four-way exchange.
On the other hand, solo side projects can sometimes obscure more than they reveal. Two recent releases by British noise duo Fuck Buttons’ members Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power – Hung’s Rave Cave EP and Blanck Mass’s Dumb Flesh album – seem determined to confound any easy narrative of how the duo make their magisterial blend of noise-rock and dance music.
Dumb Flesh is Power’s second full-length album under the Blanck Mass moniker. His first, a self-titled LP brought out in 2011 by Mogwai’s Rock Action Records, was a gorgeous – if sometimes chilly and unaffecting – wash of sonic textures, akin to a glittering version of Brian Eno’s famous ambient albums. There are no drums or percussion present these long, stately songs, which often reach for the same sense of tone-poem awe that animates Fuck Buttons’ album Tarot Sport – particularly ‘Sundowner’, which found its way into the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic games via a judicious edit and the addition of the London Symphony Orchestra. In the absence of a complementary release by Hung, Blanck Mass (the album) crafted a simple narrative of Fuck Buttons’ process: Power would be the group’s composer, crafting those gorgeous, uplifting chord progressions, while Hung would be its producer, realising Power’s themes through clattering percussion and abrasive feedback.
This picture is complicated by both Rave Cave and Dumb Flesh, which were recently released within a few weeks of each other. Despite its name, Rave Cave isn’t exactly an EP full of dancefloor bangers: the three tracks, composed on a Nintendo Game Boy while Fuck Buttons toured, offer instead a charmingly lo-fi vision of Hung’s compositional prowess. ‘Fables’ glides queasily along on a bouncing bassline, with an off-kilter lead melody that seems to lag behind the primitive Game Boy beat – a more daring version of a similar timing effect that gave Fuck Buttons’ 2013 single ‘The Red Wing’ its woozy feel. ‘Korea Town’ staggers syncopated bleeps and bloops across the left and right channels, creating an expansive sound; ‘The Plane’ fizzles and gurgles over a regimented 4/4 beat that’s slightly too fast for dancefloor satisfaction. The overall impression Rave Cave generates of Hung is that of a producer who is not in full control of his machines – someone who is open to fortuitous accidents and who doesn’t care to buff his work to the high gloss of Fuck Buttons’ previous two albums.
If Rave Cave challenges preconceptions, Dumb Flesh blows them out of the water. Lead single ‘Dead Format’ eschews the beauty of Blanck Mass for a noisy blast of power electronics over pounding drums – a sound so abrasive that when I played the video for it on the lounge room TV my partner immediately yelled in surprise and pain from the bedroom. While not all of Dumb Flesh is quite so antagonistic, it certainly sounds oppressive throughout, from the sludgy, reversed vocals that open the album through to the three or so minutes of white noise and feedback that open the final track, ‘Detritus’. Human voices are present in the form of samples, but these samples have been chopped up, processed, and mangled beyond recognition. If Blanck Mass was about showing the world Fuck Buttons’ more melodic side, Dumb Flesh explores the link between Fuck Buttons and the avant-garde of industrial music: its unpleasant, unremitting sonic textures are reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, and perhaps the most disturbing sonic terrorists of all, Whitehouse.
In the light of both Rave Cave and Dumb Flesh it’s now harder than before to imagine Fuck Buttons’ creative process – the base metals have turned out not to be so base after all. While these releases might short-circuit the pleasure of constructing a narrative of Fuck Buttons’ musical alchemy, they offer the even greater pleasure of bewilderment and mystery. Contemporary stage magic, after all, descends from a long tradition stretching back to medieval alchemists, and every good stage magician knows that you should never reveal your techniques to the audience.