When Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road inevitably becomes a major motion picture, Brooklyn noise-rock trio Sightings should compose the score. Apologies to Johnny Greenwood, who scored There Will Be Blood, but this is no contest: Across Sightings' unnerving, bleakly gorgeous body of work, you glimpse a future without humanity.
The sound of Sightings is the sound of civilization in reverse. Its 11-year, six-album career is one long sayonara to the 20th century, a fulfillment of rock and punk's broken promise to unravel everything—language, shape, unity. Sightings' songs give impressions not of sweaty stages and cheesy lights but of battlefields erupting and factories collapsing. Inside the wreckage, swirling within the sonic violence, the human presence of drummer Jon Lockie, bassist Richard Hoffman and guitarist Mark Morgan barely registers. They don't belong to the forces of light. They are excited, as they told Time Out New York, about evil. That said, they sound like the hunter-killers from Terminator 2: Judgment Day committing their feelings about Homo sapiens to tape.
While Sightings' three-piece makeup—drums, bass, guitar—is an old configuration, its tunes sound nothing like meaty chords and driving rhythms. It's not a matter of decibels, either, as the loudness will waylay your neighborhood metalhead. It's a matter of relentless deliberation and manipulation. Its classic-rock instruments fall behind a funhouse lens of old-fashioned distortion and processors, each familiar sound massaged into a bizarro shape, making it tough to tell guitar riffs from heavy machinery, let alone the less industrial racket of, say, a kick drum.
For its first three albums, Sightings bypassed the high-tech hijinks of its peers. The absence of MacBooks both at its live shows and in the studio was pronounced. But technology has finally entered into the band's production process, and it's benefited the final product. The lo-fi grain, which oozed underground authenticity and served the band well for three albums, was subtly smoothed over on 2004's Arrived in Gold. Psych-folk guru Samara Lubelski molded the band's primordially messy raw material into crystalline, expertly mixed songs. A world of detail came into view. You could feel the spikes and spasms of the No Wave high-art attitude. Where other noise rockers fashioned their art out of grooves and D&D fantasies (Load labelmates Lightning Bolt) or glitchy, amped-up ambience (Black Dice), Sightings followed the skronk blueprint first laid out by New York overlords Mars and James Chance. Thanks to Lubelski's behind-the-scenes sorcery, you could actually hear it.
The band's latest album, Through the Panama, sped along on this characteristically un-noise path of refinement. In a stroke of cosmic irony, Andrew W.K., that emblem of hard-partying chaos, introduced the order this time as producer. Channeling his history in the Michigan noise scene, W.K. sanded down some edges and sharpened others. Drums punched harder, landing squarely. The guitars all but phosphoresced. And Sightings realized it could orchestrate all this, down to the minutest details, with a mouse and keyboard. The whole tale could be an obliterative ad for ProTools.
But the worship of analog, like the worship of loudness, is only a romantic creed—shallow, too. The refined, technology-friendly Sightings has sacrificed none of its eardrum-singeing ferocity, live or on tape. The obsessive-compulsive, microscopic degree of control offered by the computer only offers the band a new liberty to experiment and to craft otherwise impossible mosaics and collages. Yesterday's full-tilt expressionists have become today's choreographers of controlled tumult. When the end times finally come, thanks to North Korean missiles or Escalade emissions or Oprah's deathcults, at least it will have the perfect soundtrack.
Sightings plays Nightlight with Hazerai and Bells Tuesday, March 11, at 9:30 p.m.