Under the Radar
Three Bands, Three Unheralded Stunners

So there’s this show called Doctor Who that I’ve been watching.

I know I’ve been promising to continue my semi-regular write-ups on old Doctor Who stories for a couple of weeks now. Last time, I was nearing the end of the Patrick Troughton run, with only The Seeds of Death to go. Since then, I’ve dived headlong into Jon Pertwee’s time as the third Doctor, so I thought I’d jump ahead a little bit and talk about that. But let me first say that The Seeds of Death is fun, if a little overlong and cheap-looking. Oh, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Oh yeah, and the Ice Warriors look stupid and walk way too slowly to be menacing. And the seeds never look like anything other than balloons full of powder. But other than that, it’s fun.

Two stories later, Troughton bid farewell to the role of the Doctor with a 10-part story called The War Games. People were probably used to this idea by then – this was the Doctor’s second on-screen regeneration, so viewers knew what to expect. But I doubt anyone could have guessed just how many other things would change between seasons six and seven.

Let’s list them off. There was a new Doctor, of course, played by Jon Pertwee. This incarnation of the Doc was an often pompous, arrogant dandy with boatloads of charm – in some ways, an older James Bond type of character. A new actor playing the main character is shakeup enough, but this time, the entire supporting cast changed, too. The William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton transition was eased by keeping the same companions, but both Frazer Hines (Jamie) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) left at the same time Troughton did.

The solution was a radical one. At the end of The War Games, the Time Lords decided to exile the Doctor to Earth, disabling his Tardis and effectively taking away the premise of the show. Soon, the Doctor became part of UNIT, the task force run by his old friend Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadeer, was the only returning actor from Troughton’s time. The Doc’s new companion was Liz Shaw, a skeptical scientist played by Caroline John.

So, new cast, new setting, new main character. What else? Oh, right – the show started filming in color.

That ends up being the biggest problem with Pertwee’s first couple of stories. The Doctor Who team was clearly not prepared to shoot in color, because they made, essentially, the same show they were making in black and white. The problem is, the cheap sets and costumes are easier to overlook in monochrome, and they become unforgivable in color. I have seen quite a bit of Doctor Who and the Silurians, Pertwee’s second story, and man… it’s chock full of what Frank Zappa would call “cheepnis.”

But that’s skipping ahead to a story that’s not even out on DVD yet. (It’s set for January in the U.K., in a box with The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep.) Pertwee’s debut is a tale called Spearhead from Space, and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the future of the show hinged on it. Viewers had to buy the new Doctor, the new cast, the Earth-centric setting, and the bright burst of color, all at once. Spearhead from Space had to be awesome.

It’s terrible.

Really, it’s truly awful. It’s no fault of the cast – Pertwee is good right away, especially in a bit in the first episode where he makes a frantic getaway in a wheelchair. Courtney and John are quite good too, with Courtney especially digging in to a role he would play, off and on, for the next 19 years. But the story is wretched. It’s about this intelligent plastic from outer space that makes department store mannequins come to life. Seriously. That’s what it’s about.

Like The Invasion, Spearhead focuses on the people working to discover and stop the alien threat. Unlike The Invasion, it is dreary and dull and endless, even at four episodes. The Autons (because that’s what the department store mannequins are called once they start moving around) are just silly-looking, not creepy. The actors playing the bad guys are one-dimensional and hammy. And there’s a bit near the end with a tentacle coming out of a tank and squeezing Pertwee’s neck, which caused a burst of uncontrollable laughter the first time I saw it.

So yeah, color was an ill fit for Doctor Who at first, and they launched their new era with a remarkably weak script, and the show was still a massive hit. So I don’t know. The Autons made their return in the first episode of the new series, Rose, and they looked stupid there, too. But many British fans can remember where they were and how old they were when they first saw the mannequins coming to life in the department store window in Spearhead, so maybe I’m missing something iconic.

All I know is this: my Pertwee collection picks up considerably with the fan-bloody-tastic Inferno, the fourth story of his run. But I’ll get to that next week. I’m also far enough along in my viewing that I can tell you that Pertwee deserves his place as one of the most adored Doctors, and Spearhead is just a case of a new team finding its footing. It gets much, much better from there.

* * * * *

A lot of my friends think I’m pretty plugged in to the music scene. Most of the time, though, I feel like I’m racing to catch trains that have already left the station.

The three albums I have on tap this week are perfect examples. I describe them as under the radar, and I wouldn’t expect most people I know to have heard of them, but I feel stupid and embarrassed to admit that I’m just now joining all three of these parties. All three bands have been around for years, and all have multiple critically-adored albums. And yet, here I am, just catching up.

This happens all the time. I missed Sufjan Stevens’ first four albums. I didn’t find Elliott Smith until XO. The first Bright Eyes album I heard was Lifted. For every band I catch hold of early, it seems like there’s three that slip through my grasp. I’m hoping that one day, I’ll wake up suddenly with a brilliant idea for a new invention, market it, make millions and spend the rest of my life hearing every new CD that comes out.

It doesn’t help that the bands I miss out on eventually turn out to be favorites. Take Pinback, for example. The first album of theirs I picked up was Summer in Abaddon, last year – two years after it came out. But you better believe I was there on the day their new one, Autumn of the Seraphs, was released.

I’d heard the name Pinback, but it sounded to me like a generic rock band name, and I stupidly didn’t investigate further. I was dead wrong – Pinback plays some of the most thoughtful guitar-based music I’ve heard, all clean tones and driving rhythms with some sparkling melodies. It’s a very difficult sound to describe – it contains elements of the Cure, Rush, Bob Mould, and a hundred other singular artists. It’s difficult, almost math-rock in its complexity, and yet you’re never left with your head spinning, because they somehow make this concoction surprisingly catchy.

Autumn of the Seraphs brings their season cycle to a halfway point with 11 of the best songs Rob Crow and Zack Smith have yet written. It is their most polished recording, with looped drums cropping up on half the tracks, and criss-crossing, silky guitars tickling your ear just about every second. “From Nothing to Nowhere” kicks things off with a backbeat, while “Good to Sea” will burrow into your brain. But it’s the gentler songs, like “How We Breathe,” that really set this album apart. It’s been a constant evolution to this point, where the pianos are as prominent as the six-strings, but songs like the almost Beatlesque “Devil You Know” ably show why the journey here was worth it.

One quibble – the opening riff of “Blue Harvest” was clearly ripped off from “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, although the song goes some fascinating, almost Yes-like places from there. But that’s it. The whole album is kind of amazing, and will easily factor in my top 10 list decisions this year. I know I prefaced this review by shining a light on my own ignorance, but I still feel confident in saying that there really isn’t another band out there quite like Pinback.

Well, there is Minus the Bear, although the similarities are surface-level. Both bands play complex, clean-toned, driving nerd-rock, and both have been on a road towards more atmospheric works. But where Pinback goes for otherworldly beauty, Minus the Bear just flat-out rocks.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Minus is a band that’s only recently grown up. In truth, all of their albums are serious-minded and complex, but the early ones were saddled with non-sequitur titles like They Make Beer Commercials Like This and This is What I Know About Being Gigantic. Their new one has a much more straightforward title: Planet of Ice. The song titles have all been taken seriously this time too, with the possible exception of the witty “Double Vision Quest.” It’s almost as if the band has decided to finally make the packaging suit the sound.

And what a sound it is. Minus the Bear is clearly a band that works out every second of its music, determining which notes from which instruments will fall on each beat of each song. Their music is intricate and moody, disparate strands of sound spinning out into a perfectly formed latticework. They’re not as catchy as Pinback, but a song like “Knights” works overtime to pull your ears 12 different ways, and the result is enthralling.

The album’s centerpiece is the six-minute “Dr. L’Ling” and its sequel, “Part 2.” Together, they form a 10-minute mission statement, exploding with rhythmic force one minute and drenching itself in fog the next. That they follow it up with the 2:46 “Throwin’ Shapes,” the closest this album comes to a potential hit song, is almost gilding the lily – Minus the Bear is a band that has carefully carved out its own niche, and they’re now exploring it with all they’ve got. The album concludes with the nearly nine-minute “Lotus,” a prog-rock epic that almost serves as a crash course. Planet of Ice is the best record Minus the Bear has made, and another step on a fascinating and unique trip.

But as much as I love both those records – and if it’s not clear, Planet of Ice is another contender for my year-end list – they’re both just refinements, not massive upheavals. For that, you need to turn to multi-national trio Liars.

I have to give Pitchfork credit for this one. They named Drum’s Not Dead, Liars’ third album, as their 6th favorite record of last year, and wrote about it in such descriptive, dazzling language that I simply had to check it out. Of course, now I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t on this train to begin with, but what can you do. Drum’s Not Dead proved impenetrable for a long time, but I stuck with it, and now I consider it one of the most intriguing albums I’ve heard all year.

And then I bought the back catalog, and I was blown away by how far the sound has come in just three albums. The first record, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, is angular, guitar-fueled, stabbing rock – short bursts of near-punk songs with a Fugazi meets Franz Ferdinand feel to them. But the second, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, sets off in a much more droning, atonal direction, taking cues from Japanese noise artists and hypnotic ambient music.

That evolution reached its peak on Drum’s Not Dead, a concept album about doubt and creativity. It’s a strange, off-kilter masterpiece, full of tribal drums, single-note drones, and some of the most unsettling falsetto vocals you’ll hear anywhere. It’s a shambling noise sculpture, miles away from the simplistic rock of their debut, and though there isn’t a single catchy song on it anywhere, it’s an immersive listen from beginning to end.

I read the advance press on their fourth record, Liars, with some dismay – they seemed to be heading back to three-minute rock songs, with verses and choruses and everything. I do realize how odd it is for me to be dismayed at the prospect of structured pop songs, but there you are. Not to worry, though – the self-titled album isn’t quite the return to rock we were led to expect, and thank God for that.

What this album does do is refocus the band, to great effect. Liars is just as noisy and off-balance as Drum’s Not Dead, but it’s performed largely on guitars, with a definite emphasis on sharper songwriting. A song like “Houseclouds,” with an electronic beat propping up a decent hook, is this band’s version of pop, and “Cycle Time” sounds a bit like an attempt to do Led Zeppelin, but then there are tracks like “Leather Prowler” that shamble forward, out of phase and covered in static, and drones like “The Dumb in the Rain” that set your nerves on edge.

This is the sound of Liars taking stock, of trying to graft the strange trips of the last few records onto the rock band they used to be. Strangely enough, it works – this is a weird record, but in comparison to the last two they’ve made, it’s almost catchy, and it cements Liars as a band to watch. Some may listen to this and feel like the band is trying to put one over on everyone – why would they choose to sound like this? But delve in, and you’ll see that this is absolutely purposeful work, taking from a wide range of influences and melding them all together into something new. It’s so new that what you’re hearing is its infancy, its first few steps, its first attempts at words. And I’m excited to watch it grow up.

Next week, probably the final Ministry album, but maybe also new ones from Foo Fighters, Nellie McKay, the Weakerthans, Eddie Vedder and Mark Knopfler.

See you in line Tuesday morning.