In the late '90s, Black Dice was in the middle of a show in Minnesota when an angry mob emerged from out of the crowd and proceeded to beat the shit out of the band's members.
"We basically got beat up by a bunch of people while we were playing," says guitarist Bjorn Copeland over the phone from Brooklyn. "They also slashed the tires on our van.
"It certainly wasn't provoked," he goes on to explain. "But a lot of times I think people hear things word of mouth, or read things about people or bands, and it's easy to formulate your opinions, maybe incorrectly, based on the stuff you hear. I think a lot of the time people have their minds made up about us well in advance before ever seeing us."
Hence the mob of skinheads waiting in Minnesota who, Copeland speculates, had heard about this "crazy band" acting all tough and decided to stage an impromptu big-dick contest with the four emaciated bandmembers.
But you almost couldn't blame the Oi boys for getting the wrong idea. As part of Providence, Rhode Island's burgeoning noisecore movement of the late '90s, Black Dice earned a reputation as one of the noisiest, most violent acts around.
In its early days, a typical set lasted less than fifteen minutes and consisted of the bandmembers playing a little game of prison riot while screaming, thrashing, and tossing whatever they could. You know when you take one of those long ribbons of firecrackers and light it off and it explodes for fifteen minutes and it's like BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM CRACK BAM BAM? Well, that's pretty much what the band was like, except that it just happened to look and sound like a hardcore band with a guitar, a bass, a few effects, and some drums.
Word about the spastic early shows spread quickly, and before long the music press was writing accounts that read like war correspondences. Here's one from Jesse Ashlock at Epitonic.com: "The band's startling mix of earsplitting sonic chaos and audience intimidation can be so traumatizing to those who attend their shows unprepared that it can lead to their institutionalization."
However, what was ignored most of the time were two things:
1) The majority of the injuries at Black Dice shows were sustained by the bandmembers themselves; and
2) They were creating awesome fucking music -- and not just revised hardcore or punk, but a kind of visionary psychedelic noise.
The early material, played by three art-school students and a high-school senior, ignored the conventions of music that had ignored the conventions: It was aggressive but not directed at anything (like, say, the establishment); it was chaotic yet distinctly formal; it was angry but also playful. Many failed to notice this, since most were expecting a bunch of pugnacious, Tourette's-stricken punks.
And so, for its first few years, Black Dice enjoyed moderate underground success based on the extreme-sports appeal of its live performances. Even as those sets quadrupled in length and became more meditative, many fans and pundits still associated the band with violence.
But thanks to the release of its first full-length, Beaches & Canyons, the band seems poised to squash all misconceptions once and for all. A sixty-minute collage of electronic and acoustic sounds, the record is glacial in both pacing and force, and functions like a pair of 3-D glasses that you can use to look back at their old material. With those glasses on, it's easy to see that these transcendent ideas were actually the driving forces for Black Dice from day one.
In 1996, guitarist Bjorn Copeland, drummer Hisham Bharoocha, and bassist Sebastian Blank met at the Rhode Island School of Design and began writing material under the name Black Dice. Copeland's brother Eric joined the group soon after its inception and commuted regularly from Maine, where he was still finishing high school.
At that time, bands like Lightning Bolt and Arab on Radar had already put Providence's thriving noisecore scene through boot camp with their confrontational live shows. Now it was up to Black Dice to pick those scabs and draw fresh blood. This was the "firecracker" period, when sets were designed as short bursts of pulsing, industrial noise. Objects were thrown (rumors speak of chunks of metal and broken glass) and bandmembers were injured regularly. What's more, the band never played the same set twice.
"I think a lot of it had to do with the ideas of commanding attention and control over a space," says Copeland. "I know we were all interested in how that changes the role that the audience plays in the performance." Aha! There it is: Did you hear it in his voice? That art- student speak?
Actually, don't get the wrong idea: Copeland is more of a gentle stoner than an art snob, but that special awareness one learns in art school -- that a work should function on multiple levels, that an artist's intentions are undeniably relevant and must be considered -- these notions have always lingered in his remarks.
And maybe it sounds lame to say it, but it's this overwhelming "art" that ties the band's material together. You can discuss those earliest and goriest fifteen minute sets in terms of Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Blood" as easily as you can discuss Beaches & Canyons in terms of Jean Baudrillard. Hell, you could probably write your thesis on this band and call it "Black Dice and Bertolt Brecht: Getting Your Attention in a Post-Postmodern Society." But then you'd be a freakin' nerd.
"There's definitely a lot of critical thought that goes into the music and the presentation," Copeland explains, "but we try to make the live presentation of it enjoyable."
Enjoyable? Try overwhelming.
These days, at their live shows, feeding off one another as if networked, the bandmembers churn the sounds like weather, creating sweeping compositions that function as aural metaphors for the most primal experiences, like pain and passion and death.
Among the sound sources used are drums, percussion, processed vocals, guitars with various effects, electronic tamboura (whatever that is), and tape machines with different loops running through processors and effects boxes. Copeland points out that at any given time there are about seven different delays going simultaneously. The rhythms are mostly Eastern, and they are more like clouds than thunder. Melodies helix around one another like paint in a Jackson Pollock -- with each listen, different patterns jump out at you at different times.
But whether the musicians were kicking the shit out of each other as fast as they could or creating sound sculptures that unfold over the course of an hour, Black Dice has never been about retracing other people's steps. After six years in which the band has never played the same set twice, it's even avoided retracing its own. Think about that next time you see a good-looking rock band ripping off the Stones or hear a remix of a remake of a retread of an old funk song.
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