“Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.”
Luigi Russolo – The Art Of Noises (1913)
Noise, Noise Rock, Experimental Rock, Avant Rock, Industrial, No Wave, Avant Punk, Post Punk.
A trawl through the internet produces the above genres to describe Brooklyn based trio Sightings. They are all these and more. Let’s add some Minimal Techno, Electronic Music and even a touch of Funk to the mix and you’re getting close to the sound Mark Morgan (guitar/vocals), Richard Hoffman (bass) and Jonathan Lockie (drums/electronics) have been producing since their inception in 1997 (Hoffman joined in ’98). I’d prefer not to pigeonhole them at all as Sightings are a beast that stand alone amongst their contemporaries like every great band should. Ultimately they have, over the course of 15 years, taken the traditional rock trio format and ran it through a future sound blender, consumed the contents, shat it out and made neo-glacier sized ice cubes from the stuff they couldn’t flush away. These modern shit cubes make the perfect addition to a glass of sub-standard beer served up at their frequent boiler house shows in North Brooklyn.
I first came into contact with Sightings in 2003 when my group Volcano The Bear opened for them at their first ever European show in Nottingham, England. We really didn’t know what to make of them and found them a daunting and confusing prospect. To be honest we didn’t like the music at all. A few years later I moved to Brooklyn and became friends with them. They are now my favorite NYC band by far and I try to see them as often as possible.
To witness Sightings live is an incredible sonic experience. Although they are very different musical personalities they each combine to create a singular monster of industrial proportions and I’m talking ‘Industrial Revolution’ size proportions. They sound like the future portrayed in the film Blade Runner but paradoxically like a vast piece of agricultural machinery from the mid-19th century, ploughing the living hell out of the land to make way for the planting and harvesting of forked lightning. A recent Brooklyn show I attended started with Lockie’s electronic drum pads producing what sounded like the crackle and hum of a menagerie of electric geese – then CRASH! – tight as my shoes feel after a transatlantic flight – Lockie’s convulsive machine gun drums and Hoffman’s helicopter blade bass pound out a dyslexic rhythm that’s almost impossible to figure out. Morgan starts to weave a tapestry of guitar textures and loops with finger work like a patient tailor sewing a suit of steel for Robocop and begins to vocalise. A narcotic drawl leading to ferocious vomit barking and back again (at times Morgan’s singing is reminiscent of Nick Cave). It’s manic but at the same time strangely therapeutic. There’s something undeniably sexy about Sightings live. Lockie’s pounding rhythms set the heart beating faster, pulses racing. Morgan’s pole dance with the mic stand as he shoots bolts of electric bliss and piss from the guitar. His sultry voice leads you on, teasing, while Hoffman’s unique fluid as fuck bass lines and ejaculatory facial expressions tempt you further. It’s stunning that a sound so caustic, fractured and violent can also be so erotic and strangely camp (great examples of Sightings campy eroticism can be discovered via their cover version of the Walker Brothers ‘The Electrician‘ from the ‘Though The Panama‘ album and their sleeve for their debut album ‘Michigan Haters’ which features Lockie in full drag. Tight red sleeveless dress, white framed mirror shades, fright white afro wig and a cigarette hanging from his pouting lips. Contrary to that on the reverse of the sleeve Hoffman and Morgan stand together in black t-shirts, arms folded, serious as hell and as hard as nails. Perversely, if they were each sporting a leather biker cap they could be auditioning for a Village People video! A Sightings concert is like a soundtrack to some fucked up cyber sex party from an x-rated Star Trek episode. Don’t get me wrong on that one. It’s camp like Iggy Pop, Lux Interior or Nick Cave is camp. You definitely wouldn’t want to cross any of these boys in a dark alley and pet their poodles.
The depth of Sightings mission becomes much clearer on their albums. From the all out mud and punk noise assault of their early releases, recorded by the band themselves on a 4 track machine, to their more recent albums produced in the studio to thrilling effect. Their discography tells the story of a band in pursuit of a brand new way to play music. The first 2 self-produced albums, ‘Sightings‘ (Load Records) and ‘Michigan Haters‘ (Psych-O-Path / S-S Records) , both released in 2002 are completely raucous, distorted affairs. Incredibly noisy and energetic with both feet knee deep in a thrash punk field. Difficult listening but you can hear echoes of the group’s future sound on the tracks ‘ Chili Dog‘ from Michigan Haters and ‘Don West’ from the self-titled predecessor. ‘Absolutes‘ (Load Records / Riot Season) from 2003, self produced and recorded on 4 track again is a compositional step up from the first 2 albums. Part of the album still contains the riotous hardcore noise onslaught of the past but there’s a definite move to a more spacious industrial racket. The drums are different, more machine like. The guitars are more angular and controlled. It reminds me a little of early Chrome and despite it’s distorted nature it has a groove. I know the band are fans of minimal techno from labels like Kompact and Basic Channel and you can just start to hear that sound having an influence.
Sightings – Chili Dog (from Michigan Haters - Psych-O-Path / S-S Records – 2002) (right click + save as)
Sightings – Reduction (from Absolutes‘ – Load Records / Riot Season – 2003) (right click + save as)
By 2004′s ‘Arrived In Gold‘ (Load Records) that minimal techno influence is much more apparent. There’s a much more industrial feel about this album, in parts comparable to Einsturzende Neubauten’s more abstract work. Entering a studio for the first time and relinquishing some control (the engineer is Samara Lubelski who also contributes some violin) Sightings were at last able to hear what they could potentially sound like. It shows! ‘Arrived In Gold‘ is a fascinating record. Remarkably different from their previous albums in it’s minimalist approach. It’s such a spacious record and very bold and successful because of that. The distortion and full on chaos of previous albums is replaced with a calm, mannered almost polite division of sounds. This division gives an order to the drums, guitar and bass as they move in and around each other to create one unified cell, no longer a trio but a combined futuristic sound machine. Subtle as fuck and an album any budding (or old in the tooth) experimental musician/experimental music fan should hear. The same year saw the release of ‘Gardens Of War‘ (The Smack Shire). A collaborative album with Tom Smith (To Live And Shave In L.A.) using a lot of post production with strange edits and digital fuckery. The music is great and typical Sightings with Smith taking over vocal duties. His voice is an acquired taste, sleazy but filled with character. ‘GOW‘ is a successful album and worth tracking down.
Sightings – Internal Compass (from Arrived In Gold - Load Records – 2004) (right click + save as)
Post ‘AIG‘ Sightings hit a difficult period of a personal nature with Morgan moving out of New York to his home state of Michigan for a while. This is reflected in their next album ‘End Times‘ (Fusetron) from 2006. Featuring 3 tracks from a limited EP (2005) on the En/Of label and filled out with new 4 track recordings. ‘End Times‘ is a deranged and raucous affair, much like a combination of all their previous albums but lacking the subtleties of ‘AIG’. It’s angry and obnoxious with a quality fuck you attitude. The production is rougher than ‘AIG‘ and it’s a long haul at 52 minutes though it definitely has it’s energetic moments. One of the highlights is the stoned monster ‘Carry On‘ which sounds like The Birthday Party slowed down to a nihilistic crawl. Another is the epic Chrome-like ‘Only Below’.
Sightings – Carry On (from End Times - Fusetron – 2006) (right click + save as)
The work ethic of Sightings is admirable. For most of their existence they have rehearsed 2 or 3 times a week. Constantly honing their sound and exploring their instruments and sonic ideas together. They are constantly composing and each time they play they always have new pieces to perform. They definitely don’t play the hits. This tireless approach to experimenting with their format reaped it’s rewards on their next 2 studio albums. In my opinion their finest works.
‘Through The Panama‘ (Load Records / Ecstatic Peace!) from 2007 was their most ambitious studio recording to date produced by long time friend and associate of the band Andrew WK. It’s a step up from the minimal ‘AIG‘ with much more electronics courtesy of Lockie’s electronic drums (he plays a mixed acoustic/electronic kit). The minimal techno feel is back and coupled with Hoffman’s bass they provide some serious grooves for Morgan’s searing guitar work. But the major difference with this album is Morgan’s vocals. At last they are at the front of the mix and surprise, surprise, he’s a great lead vocalist! Up to this point all the previous releases had the vocals way down in the mix or were performed in such a way as to make them indecipherable. Now installed higher up and clearer in the mix the band is raised to new heights and the songs achieve greater depths and significance. The sounds on ‘TTP‘ are so clear and precise you can hear every nuance. The bass throbs like a WWII bomber plane while the crisp drums and electronics fire rapid machine gun crackle through the air raid guitar. Electric pterodactyls do battle with airsick helicopter techno typewriters as the disturbed vocals lure you like a siren to perish on those metal teeth the police use to burst the car tyres of villains on the run . Perfectly executed and sexy as an alien invasion surfing in to the sea shore on a tsunami wave. ‘TTP‘ is Sightings matured. The album means so much. I don’t know what it means but I believe it without doubt.
Sightings – A Rest (from Through The Panama – Load Records – 2007) (right click + save as)
‘City Of Straw‘ (Brah Records) from 2010 is almost as good as it’s predecessor. Again it’s a studio recording. Recorded by Shahin Motia and Kid Millions from Oneida at their studio in Brooklyn. It’s in a similar vein to ‘TTP‘ but a little more dirty sounding. The drums are less powerful and precise in the mix but on tracks like ‘Tar And Pine‘ and ‘We All Amplify‘ Lockie’s electronic percussion add another level to the sonic interference. It’s still a superb album with some of Morgan’s best guitar work featured. A claustrophobic album, very dense and humid in parts. Like being trapped in a steel room floating on a boiling lake. Through the small porthole window you can see the desolation of a post-apocalypse world outside.
Sightings - Sky Above Mud Below (from City Of Straw – Brah Records -2010) (right click + save as)
Sightings last album, 2011′s ‘Future Accidents‘ (Our Mouth Records) is a vinyl only release. A collection of tracks left over from the ‘City Of Straw‘ sessions. Side 1 is typical of later Sightings but with less electronic rhythms and more acoustic drum work. It’s not as immediate as the previous two albums but still excellent. Side 2 is a very different beast altogether. ‘Public Remains‘ at almost 20 minutes in length takes up the whole of the side. It’s quite unlike any Sightings track. It’s a very meditative piece, looping and droning. It could be an old Faust jam. It’s definitely got a krautrock vibe. Pat Murano (NNCK) guests on this track on keyboards (he’d played keyboards with the group on a couple of ‘COS’ tracks and has recently played with them live).
Like a lot of Sightings material the album is futuristic sounding and highly unique. A post-apocalyptic future. As an over populated world comes to terms with a perpetual energy crisis feeding environmental disasters and oil wars Sightings provide the soundtrack to our decaying industry and infrastructure. Luigi Russolo would have been proud.
Sightings - The Knotted House (from Future Accidents – Our Mouth Records -2011) (right click + save as)