cholars of the classics, notorious hardasses all, will often pass judgement on those who claim to have some general idea of what Dante’s on about by claiming that you can’t understand Inferno until you’ve clambered your way through Purgatorio and Paradiso. A similar statement could be issued by the rock critic, regarding thematic unities that underly the Stooges’ discography (for the sake of simplicity, we’ll avoid the countless tossed-out retrospectives and outtakes collections that have surfaced on labels like Bomp; similarly, the Funhouse Sessions box does paint an interesting picture of a band quite willing to rein in its chaotic tendencies for the sake of power and precision, but it’s inessential). And you could stretch this formula further when discussing the Swell Maps.
There’s just one problem: the group’s output has no discernible unity. It’s been said that, like the MC5 (or, literally, Amon Duul), there might very well have been two bands who labeled themselves as one; in the case of the former, it was Detroit amphetamine-punk suddenly and confusingly diffused itself into guitar-jam morass hell (as admirable as it is to “cover” Sun Ra, it’s still something best left squarely in jazz territory, but watch me make a prompt about-face on the issue if Radiohead decide to do it on a future B-side), which is pretty tragic indeed. The Maps, however, found their efforts dispersed among sloppy post-punk – albeit with a more freespirited, lunatic edge (probably, if we’re going to get technical, derived from bands like Faust) than their contemporaries – and bizarre sonic experiments that remain indulgent by just about anyone’s standards. If, after perhaps replacing “post-punk” with “noise-pop” (or whatever other adjective may suit you), you’re reminded of Sonic Youth, that should come as no surprise; Thurston Moore was an early advocate of this band, championing a liner-notes encomium in one of its many retrospectives.
Ah, the restrospectives. For a band who only had two official studio albums (the first of which was issued in 1978; however, they had been, like fellow difficult-to-rein-in subversives Cabaret Voltaire, a functioning unit since 1972), there has been a near-epic amount of posthumous vinyl fallout to issue forth. In the years following the band’s dissolution, no less than three retrospectives were issued. Each was thought to have had its worthy moments – and each had its share of unreleased tracks – but suffered from redundancy and overlength. With its original albums long out of print by 1999, it seemed the Maps were deemed to collector-fetishist obscurity, until another compilation, International Rescue, was released. Because of its wise decision to stick to the band’s punchiest, most economic singles – the mildly T.-Rex-esque “Let’s Build A Car,” the spazz-out dementia of “Read About Seymour” – many critics labeled the album near-revisionist in its presenting the band as far better than they actually were. Even those who didn’t say this still maintained that it was the only record any sane fan need purchase, a sort of analog to Bauhaus’ singles disc.
Some weirder souls, however, hungered for more, and this album, replete with almost apologetic title (even as it seems to give an almost heroic nod to those who dare to explore these forbidding reaches), was the result. It, of course, has its wonderful moments of classic Maps in the form of skewed garage-punk. Take, for example, the bewildering “Full Moon In My Pocket/BLAM!!/Full Moon (Reprise)” suite, which recently made an unlikely – if entirely appropriate; no finer driving song exists – appearance in a Mitsubishi ad. With its rampaging, down-and-dirty riffing, heavily reverberated nonsense moans and verbal ejaculations (more suited to Yamatsuka Eye than contemporaries of the earnest, dour Gang of Four) and sheets of noisy ambiguity leading into a classy piano outro, it’s simply one of the best slices of pure rock that its era produced. The same goes for the slightly more mysterious, abstruse “Midget Submarines,” a punishing spy-theme assault with lisped full-band vocals and bizarre percussive textures, an unlikely stew that makes for truly compelling listening.
Unfortunately, though, one has to get to the infamous “other stuff.” Whether it’s the expansive death rattle of “Big Maz In The Desert” – some early-Floyd guitar, what sounds like a melodica, and wallops of scrap metal amid beats-and-dub-bass lassitude (there’s an alternate take provided, for some reason, and then there’s the fact that “Bridge Head Pt. 9” offers more of the same, only without even a hint of musical structure) – or the splendidly eerie but unfortunately aimless Keith-Levene-like guitar soundscapes and tape splices of the eight-minute instrumental “Collision With A Frogman Vs. The Mangrove Delta Plan,” one senses a band overflowing with ideas but lacking in willingness to discipline itself. I’m not complaining, it’s just that all this uncompromising experimentation – when, that is, concessions aren’t made towards conventionalism in terms of integrating it into songs – results in, well, something of a headache. I keep waiting for something on par with “Midget Submarines” to re-emerge (or, for that matter, the contemporaneously-recorded work on International Rescue), but all I get is the jackhammer-and-string-scraping affront of “Avalanche,” after which issues, as if from some bottomless cornucopia, lots more freeform zaniness. So, obviously, by the time the record’s over, my head’s not feeling any better, but maybe that just means the desired effect has been achieved.
Reviewed by: Chris Smith
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01