It's an old, jaded world, and nobody is more jaded than the underground-rock freak. It's unspeakably rare for a record to come along that -- for a second or two, anyway -- scares the shit outta him . . . or her (but almost always him). Nonetheless, back in 2002, the underground sucked in a collective breath and uttered a soft "holy shit" after exposing itself to the opening 30 seconds of Sightings' self-titled debut for Load Records.
The shitstorm on that LP is massive. Recent antecedents like Japan's High Rise and Siltbreeze legends Harry Pussy come to mind. But in order to find an opening salvo even remotely as assaulting, one would have to reach as far back as Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun, a 1968 classic in muscular European free jazz.
But here's the thing: The Brooklyn trio's subterranean version of the "shot heard 'round the world" was recorded in a crappy practice space with just guitar, bass, and drums. No laptops. No hippie robes. No girls with skinny white belts and caked-on eye shadow. No spray-painted cassettes with fur glued on them (it's a "noise thing"). What's more, these mere instruments were so overdriven with distortion as to be unrecognizable -- from the first listen to the 10th.
It's been roughly five years since then, and Sightings' upcoming album, as yet untitled and due out this fall, has been nearly two years in the making. And get this: It was produced by that weirdo pop star and motivational speaker, Andrew W.K. Using a full studio, he and the band are currently dragging and dropping vocal overdubs and various other effects while they mix it down on Pro Tools. Hell, the 10-track collection even boasts separate tracks for each amplifier and effect. And if you still need clues that there's a major detour ahead, one track is a cover of Scott Walker's "The Electrician," a mechanized nightmare from 1978 that kicked off the anti-crooner style Walker works in to this day.
Despite all these developments, guitarist Mark Morgan sounds as stoic as death row. "Well, there's nothing I'm gonna do at this point that'll make them [bassist Richard Hoffman and drummer Jon Lockie] go, Whoa, I've never heard that before," he explains, calling from his Brooklyn pad.
It seems as if Morgan doesn't believe radical change is even possible at this stage in the band's career. But this isn't the first time that Sightings has challenged its fans. When the trio began touring outside New York a few years back, the stories were infamous. At half the shows I saw, the crowd was so drunk with excitement that nobody could even find the drummer. Hoffman looked like one of those manly, plaid-wearing guys who probably has piles of empty beer cans scattered throughout his apartment in place of furniture. Morgan, meanwhile, was the sneering, unsober guitarist who piled on the heat-buckled tones. Nobody knew what kind of effects pedals these boys used, but they dropped one thick-n-furry log of shit. Sure, Sightings had its off nights, but the band members -- who seemed like the types who enjoyed setting the homeless on fire -- made one hell of an impression.
However, Sightings doesn't simply churn out record after record of heavy-rock over-blow like most of its Neanderthal peers. Absolutes, its 2003 album, felt dry and artier; the band left plenty of space in its compositions for tape-hiss soundscapes. Lockie also tried out electric drums, which he rather brilliantly began to overload with distortion, just as a guitarist would.
Arrived in Gold, released in 2004, dropped the real bomb, though. Searching for the nonexistent meeting ground between pummeling rock and angular post-punk funk, Gold was the first time the band sounded like it was from über-hip Brooklyn, rather than prison. Old fans immediately started rooting around for the common elements of the "old" and "new" Sightings. But whether they liked it or not, the record was an interesting experiment. After all, if a band can sit in the garage and huff glue, why not run upstairs and smoke your sister's glittery nail polish?
For those who couldn't get groovy, 2005's End Times was a return to form. On that album, the band incorporated tricks it had learned along the way. Most obvious was the wide variety of distorted textures, although there was more than just heavy-metal annihilation going down. As soon as the rhythms started teetering, the lurch became reminiscent of the Birthday Party instead of Blue Cheer.
The reason Sightings has taken so long between End Times and its latest (which will likely be co-released by Load Records and Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace imprint) has little to do with its music, really. The band is full of real people who have to pay phone bills, pay rent, score beer for the weekend, and catch the latest horror movies.
In fact, real-life hanging out is how pal Andrew W.K. got on board. Sightings befriended him when he kept turning up at shows to see what new wrinkles were developing. "I see them as a leading band in risk, vulnerability, and exposure," says W.K., also calling from New York. "And I've seen everybody in the band push the songs as a whole, and the shows as a whole push themselves further and further into that vulnerable, exposed position. That's just thrilling."
Sightings' latest push favors a grinding electronic ticking, with the kind of drums that haven't been cool since about 1987. The new disc is completely claustrophobic, malcontent, burned-out, urbane, and, well, industrial.
Will this latest move pigeonhole the band as too Brooklyn? "I think we've figured out that we're not gonna be as big as maybe we thought," admits Morgan.
Sightings is still the most dangerous band in America, sculpting its music for all-out intensity and taking any risk to get the job done. Whether you've heard their records a lot or never before, no contemporary band has a better shot at giving you your own "holy shit" moment.
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