The Anniversary

Beaches & Canyons Turns 20

DFA
2002
DFA
2002

One of electronic music’s essential tools is the mixer, where the slider on the box takes you from 0 to 10. Move it all the way down and you get silence, and you’re listening only to the hum of the room. Move it to the maximum and you get violence and destruction, broken speakers and shattered eardrums and damaged psyches. Then there’s the crossfader, where you blend two signals in varying proportions. Put some gnarly overdriven brown noise with chopped-off square waves in one channel and then, say, the lulling sound of a child’s music box turning slowly in the other, and you get a vast range of feeling that can be managed by sliding a fader from left to right.

Beaches & Canyons, released 20 years ago this month, is where the Brooklyn band Black Dice found the perfect setting between two poles. If they had pushed slightly in one direction, they might have landed on something closer to their early ’00s collaborative releases with Wolf Eyes, which are dense and wonderful but never pretend to be trying for pretty; if they had pushed it a little further in the other, they could have landed somewhere closer to the New Age that would return to the conversation in the decade following, when Laraaji experienced a career resurgence and everybody in your immediate circle could tell you the difference between sun salutations and baby pose. But on Beaches & Canyons they found an ideal middle point, the setting where the music allowed everything in at once, where beauty and ugliness combined in an all-inclusive third quality.

In the 2000s, Black Dice’s defining quality wasn’t noise or drone or abstraction, it was change. During the group’s formative late-’90s years in Providence, Rhode Island, where guitarist Bjorn Copeland met drummer and vocalist Hisham Bharoocha — both were visual artists — one could confidently label Black Dice as a jagged hardcore outfit that could be bizarre and arty at the edges. They were one of many important bands that emerged from this scene, which was based around a venue called Fort Thunder, including Lightning Bolt and other acts that would record for the label Load. But by the time Black Dice moved to New York after Bjorn’s brother Eric and Aaron Warren joined, they entered a prolonged period of experimentation where each release seemed to introduce a new band. The glorious centerpiece of this creative run was the 2002 LP Beaches & Canyons, which found all the aesthetic tensions in the foursome’s work stretched to the breaking point. It was beautiful and ugly, precise and messy, quiet and noisy, and it helped to define experimental music during a rich decade of development.

Think of the post-9/11 New York music scene and the first bands that come to mind are the Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, but it was also a rich time for musicians who had no designs on the mainstream. Black Dice began recording Beaches & Canyons over a few days in December 2001 with Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room, a studio that would loom large over the underground through the rest of the 2000s. A two-track single, Lost Valley, was another stanchion connecting the explosive punk thrash of the early days to the more expansive instrumentals to come. “Beaches & Canyons was about getting radical with our ideas of songwriting: what constituted a part, what constituted an instrument, what constituted a song,” Warren later told The AV Club. “Prior to that, our songs were short, and they were basically like hardcore songs. We kind of exploded that notion and made our songs really long and really slow. We tried to introduce a lot of melody and New Age-y kind of sounds — shit that was just totally alien to the hardcore world.”

Black Dice recorded Beaches & Canyons without knowing who would release it. In a 2002 Pitchfork interview with Andy Beta, they discussed the anxiety of the sessions, from a combination of inter-band tensions and the worry that they were going into the hole financially by paying for studio time on their own. They were friendly with people in DFA’s circle, and the label approached them about a future record, unaware that they had recently completed one on their own. Black Dice sent them Beaches & Canyons and the imprint agreed to put it out.

While DFA was in a period of ascendance — the debut singles by LCD, the Rapture, and the Juan MacLean all arrived in 2002 — Black Dice was a canny signing that showed that the label was thinking beyond danceable rock. The downtown New York milieu from the early ’80s was coursing through underground music culture, and that scene was defined by its wide range of sounds and aesthetics. From the outside, it looked as though DFA was staking its claim in this big-eared lineage by working with Black Dice.

Beaches & Canyons in a single word? Exhilarating: It’s a record that gets my blood pumping and sends shivers down my spine, sometimes because I’m in awe of its beauty and sometimes because it scares me. With instrumental music, album titles and sleeve artwork can assume an outsized importance and the power of suggestion can be strong. Im not immune, and this record, without question, makes me think of nature. Listening to it can feel like standing on a cliff and gazing at a gorgeous landscape while feeling simultaneous unease that you’re too close to the edge, steps away from falling to your death.

It also feels like a weather system, some potentially destructive bearing that you can’t help but admire for its beauty. The first two tracks are created from a similar palette and I think of them as a pair. After the opening “Seabird,” which mixes gurgling electronics with quaking bass drones, comes “Things Will Never Be The Same,” a swirl of rushing cymbals, dubby, echoing synths, indeterminate crunches, and distant chimes. It floats in, bringing to mind dark clouds with flashes of lightning materializing on the horizon. Bharoocha’s drums almost congeal into a Bo Diddley beat, clearly drawing from the upright rumble of Mo Tucker, and then a howling voice that sounds like the wail of the baby from Eraserhead if it had lived long enough to become a disturbed teenager. The howl evokes the pain and trauma of birth and death in equal parts — two life passages after which things truly never are the same — and it never fails to raise my blood pressure.

The nature theme is made explicit two tracks later on “Endless Happiness,” which for its first nine minutes is an angular jam for whistling synth and percussion and for its final six is the sound of waves lapping at the shore. There’s something lo-fi and strange about the recording, almost as if it’s an electronic device’s dream of the ocean, akin to the manufactured soundscapes found on the Environments records. Both “The Dream Is Going Down” and the closing “Big Drop” bring the wide-screen instrumental sensibility of this album into conflict with Black Dice’s punk beginnings. Sweet sections are interrupted by blasts of drums and screamed vocals, as if a hardcore band broke down the door to a Popol Vuh session for a Herzog film.

Black Dice and Animal Collective were sister bands throughout the 2000s, and on both tracks, you can hear just how closely they were connected. In June 2003, Animal Collective would release Here Comes The Indiansince re-titled Ark — and that set can be heard as their version of this Black Dice record, though Panda Bear’s drums never could match the propulsive power of Bharoocha’s. The feral chants and shrieks on “Big Drop” sound uncannily like the music Black Dice’s friends were making around this time.

When I listen to Beaches & Canyons now, I’m reminded of the turn-of-the-millennium moment when my mind was completely blown by the late-’90s work of Boredoms. The Japanese band casts a long shadow over the experimental music of the 2000s. Super Roots 7, Super Ae, and Vision Creation Newsun, along with the latter’s subsequent remix records, represented to me a new breakthrough in rock, where imposing heaviness, dadaesque pranksterism, delicate folk, and psychedelia all came together in the spirit of communal release.

For a while, I labored under the delusion that Boredoms and followers including Black Dice would change rock forever, and the growing popularity of Animal Collective suggested that it just might. In 2007 and ’08, Bharoocha served as musical director for two grand experiments in rhythm in noise by Boredoms: 77 Boa Drum and 88 Boa Drum, concerts featuring the number of drummers featured in the title. In late 2009, Marc Masters wrote an essay for Pitchfork called The Decade In Noise that tracked developments across the previous nine years, and it, too, hinted we might be on the cusp of a new era. But alas, it turned out to be an ending more than a beginning, and the mainstream moved on. There’s as much brilliant and groundbreaking experimental work as ever being made, but changes in taste and media in the 2010s pushed it once again to the margins.

Through it all, Black Dice kept going. They’d make one more record with Bharoocha, 2004’s excellent Creature Comforts, and then he left to form Soft Circle while the remaining trio burrowed deeper into synths. Over time, their approach developed into a weird and funky urban cacophony, a version of Miles Davis’ On The Corner played by a trio of tabletop-electronics freaks. Black Dice have not since made an album that’s less than good, but none of them sounded like Beaches & Canyons, which 20 years on still burns with possibility.

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