Timelessly Now – Chrome and the “Half Machine From The Sun”

Half Machine From The Sun
King of Spades Records

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It helps to know where people are coming from. In the case of Chrome and its surviving, still-active member Helios Creed, it’s essential. In my separate, non-Stereo Embers-related role as DJ with a weekly post-punk radio show, I frequently include the San Francisco/Paris/outer space-based band in my playlist even as I attach the caveat that Chrome’s origins actually pre-date punk itself, never mind post-punk. But when you know the specifics of their formation – Helios, a wandering psych-obsessed guitarist searching for a place to land, coming on board post-Visitation and melding his burning need to experiment with founder Damon Edge’s adventurous sound collagist tendencies as cultivated under Allan Kaprow at Cal Arts in the late 60’s – you understand that, like Television, the chronological details get subsumed by the end result, that result a sound that, aesthetically, plunks Chrome squarely in post-punk’s crosshairs. And though it perhaps risks an accusation of Freudian simplification, it’s also useful to know that, with a military stepfather, Creed moved a lot as a child, as it may help explain his innate restlessness as a musician, always seeking the further – and thus more unknown – horizons.

The first Chrome LP featuring the new partnership was Alien Soundtracks, arriving inside the full anarchic bloom of punk in 1977. Though aligned in terms of energy and barrier-smashing – as well by their frequent appearances at San Francisco’s punk nerve center the Mabuhay Gardens – Chrome didn’t exactly fit the punk strictures. Laced with experimentation, flooding their songs with sci-fi tropes and never beginning a song ‘wuntoofreefoe!,’ their only nod to anarchy was in the sonic character of the songs themselves. Regardless, the wave, which crested as high in SF as in NYC, picked them up and carried them forward, and in fact carried them all the way across the Atlantic to the much more appreciative UK, where their next and most well-known LP, 1979’s Half Machine Lip Moves, caught the attention of Beggars Banquet, who signed the band for their next two releases, Red Exposure (1980) and Third From The Sun (1982).

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By the time …Lip Moves was crashing the pages of the NME the band had essentially been thinned to just Damon and Helios and the pair were white hot and bursting with innovative energy, writing and recording with such a fervor one gets the impression that they were afraid their flesh would burn right off their bodies if they stopped even for a moment. Proof of this comes not only from the searing comet trail left by that original record itself – HMLM gained almost instant legend status in the punk underground – but even more convincingly in the just-released (on King of Spades Records) Half Machine From The Sun – The Lost Tracks from ’79-’80, a collection culled from tapes not so much lost as forgotten about.

Some 73 minutes long, it’s difficult to decide what’s more astonishing about this new Half Machine, that this trove of unused songs is, track after track, so consistently, bracingly strong, or that there’s a full two LPs worth. How many bands not named Can, from that or any era, can lay such a claim (answer from the fingerless man in the back). In his liner notes, Creed describes listening to this material last year for the first time since it was made and “asking the same question after each piece, ‘why didn’t we release this song?’..then remembering why..all the debates, all the head trips.” Indeed, a good deal of what you’ll find on here is remarkable for its relative accessibility. “Something Rhythmic (I Can’t Wait)” is a track that Creed felt was special enough to possibly warrant hit status and hearing it now thirty plus years later one hears his point, the only argument being, why limit its potential to then? With its low boil throb, the guttural sinew of a synth hook, a steady insistence of beat just begging for hand claps and a chant hypnosis of lyrics rife with the always appealing theme of sexual impatience, it’s not the type song goes out of fashion. Comes down to it, gems of that stature dot this record, roaming styles, nailing results.

The lyric-less “The Inevitable,” though slower of foot, mines a similar vein, hooky nimble and trancey, its intention, one senses, to lure us down a canyon into a darkness we can’t – don’t wish to – resist. “Anything” puts the words ‘disturbing’ and ‘pop confection’ in the same sentence, “Sound and Light” uses a sheeting effect and one of Creed’s most infectious guitar turns – as well a wickedly tumbling-forward rhythmic pulse – to once again suggest a single suitable for Peel’s Festive 50, buried vocals and all, while “Autobahn Brasil” takes the atmospheric route, the guitar work here prowling and insinuating and just generally clearing the road ahead as sampled, double-tracked dialogue – off a late night studio television, perhaps – lines the edges with an eerie humanity. Then there’s “Looking For Your Door,” a shaken up ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ spiked with a bit of psychobilly, hiccup vocals, layers of dog-pack menace, and a shadowy, machine-murmuring anxiety lasting eight and a half minutes and never wearing out its repetitious welcome.

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Of the signifiers that thread through this album, and in fact all of Chrome’s output during this period, an undercurrent of dread is possibly the most prominent, from whence, it might be suggested (getting all Freudy again), came the countervailing impetus to try and escape into the freer, farer reaches of space. The short “Ghost” shows dread’s heavy emanations, tracers of the stuff shoot through the air above “SALT” and it goes off like audible red lights all during the eerily prescient “Fukishima (Nagasaki).” But before we go labeling them princes of darkness, it’s best to remember the context of the times. There was a lot of dread about in the mid-to-late 70’s, early 80’s. Cold War as cold as ever (hence “SALT“), the original oil crisis and the runaway inflation that followed it and the rise of Reagan and Thatcher that followed that, which isn’t even to mention Soviets in Afghanistan nor hostages in Tehran. Much of post-punk’s most trenchant commentators – whether responding directly or simply via the agency of sound – emerged in reaction. Suicide, Pop Group, Slits, Throbbing Gristle, scores more. Stark, uncompromising, confrontational, it was a time when music went to the edge of the mat and beyond looking for a way – a meaningful way, one with teeth – to respond to what was seen as a budding madness.  Sonically, at least, Chrome fit like a crudely cut dovetail with this outlier group, their sound something of a visceral buzzsaw that couldn’t help but reflect the collective glower of, well, dread. With that in mind, one can’t help but wonder if the “debates” and “head trips” Helios mentions were of the ‘this sounds too much like a conventional rock song’ variety. Not an unheard-of criteria, of course, and there was, one supposes, the ‘Chrome sound’ to consider, but, were that the case (see interview), the relentlessly approachable nature of nearly all the eighteen tracks that comprise Half Machine From The Sun, besides just being an exciting, satisfying listen A-Z, elucidates the dangers of editing with respect to a perceived reputation.

The irony is, the corrugated edginess and boundary-threatening experimentalism on which that reputation was staked is everywhere present here, it’s just quite frequently in the spry company of head-nodding beat structures, unabashedly crunchy guitar motifs (Creed’s solo on “Fukishima” could set any psych single from ’67 on fire), and Nuggets-friendly melodies suitable for framing. It is exactly that commingling, the alien fringed with earthy, the arty with the funky (check out the warm seductive bass groove on “Sunset” as it’s hounded by swarms of Alpha Centaurian space waves), that makes Half Machine From The Sun essential listening, whatever decade, future or past, your time machine landed you in when you woke up this morning. A timelessly now document of two insatiably creative minds at the warp-speed tip of their partnered abilities, make it your mission to hear this record. You’ll marvel.