The guiding theme of Modern Dance (Blank, 1978 - SIlver Line, 2006) is that of alienation and anxiety in the industrial society. Mutatis mutandis, Pere Ubu take the fear of the nuclear holocaust and transplant it into a different scenario, in which death is not physical but spiritual, not due to bombardment but to economic and social mechanisms.
Their sound starts out from the spirit of old-style garage-rock,but distorts it with harmonic and rhythmic grotesquery. The surreal lyrics and the student humour attenuate the dramatic force of the performance, but at the same time increase the feeling of collective madness, of resigned fatalism, of ineluctable slavery. It is, mutatis mutandis, the same rational fear that seized the young of the post-war era, when the atomic threat held everybody in suspense: now, however, the situation is more real, because industrialisation has already reaped its holocaust, and more grotesquely, because it has been able to do it with the complicity of its own victims.
Their "modern dance" is composed of free-form phases (woodwinds, cacophony of the keyboards, rattling guitars, psychotic thrills) alternating with sudden powerful rhythmic flarings, veritable flashes of hallucinatory violence in the calm of the urban neurosis, in which Thomas gives vent to his raging vehemence. The schizophrenia of the singing is the schizophrenia of the sound as a whole.
The work opens with the piercing hiss of Non Alignment Pact, which plunges into a furious, deafening bacchanal of cryptic slogans, ungainly vocals, discordant strumming, electronic distortions and primordial pulsations, in a grotesque dance of bodies possessed by the restless, exhausting rhythm of a tribal ceremony. The sound of the Modern Dance is a devolved funk, primitive and technological, which reproduces the ambience of the office, the cyclic movement of the throng, the smoke of the factory chimneys and the inorganic bawling of the mob, and cadences the working day like a real mechanism, while the singing vibrates in despair to the hammering rhythm of the dance. It is a dramatic, perturbing fresco of the condition of working life, although unfolding to an almost jovial rhythm. The use of "concrete" sequences and electronic sounds, as a means of emphasising the climate of tragedy, makes it the archetype of the "sound collage" for the entire new wave. The third great rock and roll song of the disc is Street Waves, swept by an ominous wind (which evokes the miasmic gust after an atomic explosion) and driven at supersonic speed by a stop-start rhythm. The braying of Thomas and Herman's machine-gun fire ride the infernal pandemonium, giving it the stamp of a prophetic vision of the apocalypse.
The forebodings of the larger trilogy also inform the android litany of Real World (syncopated rhythm, buzzing interference, metallic, discordant guitar), the slow spirit-dance of Over My Head, pregnant with agonised suspense, and the clownish, desperate disco music of Humour Me and Life Stinks, which throw Thomas's incoherent cry and bubbling synth into the general uproar. The ferocity and the icy obscurity of these emotionless ballads place them at the antipodes of the original spirit of rock and roll.
The eclecticism of their sound is demonstrated by Laughing, which opens with a mini-jam of free jazz for winds, guitar and drums, and suddenly explodes into another mad and brutal boogie fanfare. Even more disarticulated and chaotic is the harmonic tissue of Chinese Radiation, with wandering guitar chords, Thomas's unrestrained raving and his epileptic fit in front of an exulting audience and then piano notes amid general silence. Sentimental Journey, chamber music for breaking crockery, disconnected phrases of synth and a somnambulant lament, is nothing other than a random mass of dissonance in the proudest traditions of psychedelia (once the experiments with gestural musique concrŠte are taken into account), but it is also a manifesto of Dadaist music, of music akin to screeching and hubbub. A singular hybrid of emphatic agit-prop (but without militant intent), of deformation by overdose (but without indulging in the emotions of the trip) and of aleatory music … la Cage (but without his academism), Ubu's Dadaist piece is a product of the industrial civilisation, its perversions and its anxieties. And Thomas, who dissertates imperturbably in the most absolute chaos and in the end remains alone raving amid the fragments of crockery, coins a new type of absurdist lied which might be the analogue of folk in the industrial era.
An extreme synthesis of the anarchic and the rational, a troubled projection of obsessive libidos and negative emotions, the body music of Pere Ubu pivots on the expressive crudeness of the singing, on the ungrammatical syntax of the electronics and on the ludic impetus of the rhythmics. It gives voice to the expressionist howl, to the informal chaos of abstractionism, to the commercialism of pop art. Cultured and primitive, refined and naif, Ubu march under the banner of contradiction, perhaps thus pursuing the ultimate end of pataphysics, the science of laws that regulate exceptions. Altogether their sound is very innovative: the singing of Thomas is uncouth in the worst "Beefheartesque" tradition, the rhythm section grinds out a paradoxical rhythm, a rough and elemental danceability, to the twisted accompaniment of Herman's primitive, strange and hypnotic guitar playing, and Ravenstine injects crude and anti-aesthetic effects, using electronics in a way antithetical to that of flash-rock or of disco music (anti-melodic and anti-rhythmic, earthy and disarticulated), as an ironic counterpoint to the maniacal anxiety of the band.
Thus unbalanced, the music is ambitious enough to function as the soundtrack of the industrial landscape of Cleveland, and, by extrapolation, as that of the holocaust, of the "final solution". Theirs is a philosophy of auto-destruction. The references to Jarry's pataphysics are not accidental; they allude to the sense of deformity, of the absurd, of the grotesque (which is never burlesque), of the brutal cynicism which informs the relations beween the inhabitants of the ruins of technology.
The modern dance of Pere Ubu is a funeral rite for humanity after the catastrophe: there is the anguish of an inescapable fate, there is the agony and the delirium, the slow decay into the shapelessness, the immaterial chaos of the soul. They are visions of the Apocalypse sung by survivors, gangs of hooligans roaming the debris, faces ravaged by the explosion which and surges and vanishes in miasmic gusts, barbarians advancing in a jungle of tangled piping and electric wire. They are dark and indecent ballads, with a neurotic rhythm of hisses and clangorous crockery. The voice of desperation and madness, of disgust and violence, rises, impetuous and scornful, above the hubbub of the Universal Judgement.
The musical references are innumerable: the most down-at-heel garage psychedelia, an urbanised version of Beefheart's vandalic blues, the most spectral and chaotic free jazz, the tribalism of primitive peoples, musique concrŠte modernised and fused with an abundance of electronic contortions and vocal acrobatics in a harmonic babble laced with blasphemies and laments.
Modern Dance is a pagan representation of the end. -Piero Scaruffi-