Lost System: No Meaning No Culture

“Everyone needs a ‘local band’,” writes zine czar Jay Hinman in his Dynamite Hemorrhage review of Dark Times’ Give LP. It’s a sentiment I wholeheartedly support. I’ve resided in both sprawling urban zones and cozy college towns, the coasts as well as the country’s middle; I always seek out the freaks making strange noises, even when they’re nothing more than a handful of lonely shagsters lurking in a dank basement or a sports bar that allows bands to make a ruckus in a seedy back room. Some of my cosmopolitan pals think culture beyond their bubbles is a dead zone. That’s garbage thinking. I’ve encountered so many great artists who were perfectly content living far outside the big shitties. To this day, I rank The Sinatras, whom I fell in love with while attending Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (pop. 75,000), as one of the most talented DIY rock bands of the early ’90s. Another example is reverb-spewing psych-rocker Jamie Hepler, whose outfits Soft Opening and Nest Egg, always blew my mind when living in Asheville, North Carolina (pop. 84,000). Dude would be a badass anywhere he threw down his mattress.

Like Hinman, I’m an older dude who came of age when local culture and DIY culture were inextricably linked. Zines, mail order and, if you were lucky, a local record store with a decent indie/punk section all helped me learn about artists from around the globe. But that stuff didn’t dwarf the local scene, which was important to support and help foster whether you were a musician or a fan. Making your own scene–an extension of the “our band could be your life” ethos–was the primary focus. That was as true of little Kalamazoo in the mid ’90s as it was bustling Boston, where I moved post-graduation.

This appears to have shifted in recent years. A few years ago, around the time virtual trends (witch house, chillwave, vaporwave, etc.) began popping up, I recall perusing a handful of obnoxious think pieces declaring the extinction of scenes tethered to geography. The scenes of the future, these zealous proselytizers declared, will consist of artists from around the planet all converging in–stupid fucking phrase alert–the cloud. Such pieces were correct in sensing a significant shift in scene dynamics, yet I believe things unfolded in ways they hadn’t anticipated. It’s not that geographically based scenes have died; it’s that the internet has demoted the importance of the smaller ones while at the same time helping unleash urban super scenes that now largely dominate DIY culture in terms of media attention and stylistic influence.

Exceptions exist, of course.1 The 2006 to 2013 synth and noise crew in Cleveland (while not exactly small, yet certainly isn’t Chicago or Los Angeles) felt like a flowering of artists who shared a genuinely collective sense of exploration. There’s also Memphis’ beloved garage-punk tradition (something I don’t know too much about, but seems entirely organic) and Chapel Hill/The Triangle, which has always brought about a fierce sense of regional pride among its denizens. (Heads up: I’m using the words “local” and  “regional” somewhat interchangeably. I know they’re not synonymous, but for the aims of this piece they’re close enough.) Nevertheless, having lived in non-coastal, mid-size towns for the last decade, I do get the sense that a lot of current DIY musicians are oftentimes more tuned into what’s going on in Brooklyn or Los Angeles or the Bay Area than on the home front. They still have plenty of local shows, even their own spaces. It’s just that their brains are preoccupied with soaking up the sheer amount of content (another cheeseball term) pumped out of the big cities, where it just so happens the bulk of the country’s bigtime digital media companies reside. Entities like Vice and Pitchfork cover the scenes in their own backyards first and foremost. And because of their financial heft, social media algorithms wind up crapping out their track previews, videos, reviews and other promotional puff pieces all over the rest of the United States.

This stuff can and does get on my nerves, yet I’d say I’m ambivalent more than anything else. I tend to think musicians who nowadays live outside the urban matrix can be worldlier and possess higher musical IQs than they did when I was in college. Thanks to social media, artists in smaller towns can, in what feels like real time, keep up with the latest groups playing the warehouses and bars in whatever big city with which they’re obsessed. They then comb events pages on Facebook and track down sound clips from nearly anybody. This degree of access is rather nutty. Yet such immersion can come with a cost, and that’s an increased susceptibility to imitation. I think trends now rip through the country at faster rates and with more pervasive intensities. This mix of velocity and reach squashes the incubation time and space necessary for genuine mutation. A lot of modern outfits are nothing more than copy/paste geniuses.

If you’re a younger person who grew up with the internet as a given (i.e. you don’t even call it “the internet,” like this fogey), then you probably just assume that places like Brooklyn have always loomed over American DIY, that musicians always longed to sound like their cosmopolitan counterparts. Not true. In fact, I will go so far as to say that in the ’80s and ’90s, back when the indie network was linked through zines, record stores and word-of-mouth chatter, New York City wasn’t any more important than Chapel Hill, Louisville, Olympia or Austin (which wasn’t the tech-soaked hub that it now is). DIY was egalitarian in how influence flowed, like feedback loops, between small towns and big cities and back again. Not only that, these scenes possessed their own sensibilities and sounds, and that’s because they, despite belonging to a bigger network, operated with a certain degree of regional autonomy.

And let me tell you something, I’m a sucker for regionalism. I buy no shortage of cool records from metropolitan bands who live hours from me, yet I can’t overstate the joy I experience when discovering local artists who aren’t just good, but who also feel indelibly linked to whatever uncool town I’m calling home. It’s a thrill without expiration.

This (finally) brings us to Lost System and No Meaning No Culture, their debut EP released as both a seven-song cassette on Chromatin Records and four-song seven-inch by Neck Chop Records. Since my relocation to Gerald Ford’s birthplace (Grand Rapids, Michigan) at the end of 2016, they’ve become my local band. Emerging from the ashes of another exciting outfit, Black Monuments, who smacked synth-punk up against hardcore, the foursome of singer Michael McFarlane, synth player Nicholas Alcock (though it’s Matthew Maier heard on the recordings), bassist Adam Niemara and drummer Michael Houseman create a significantly more nimble style of throbbing DIY art music, one still informed by synth-punk yet primarily swimming the chilly atmospherics of Factory Records-brand post-punk and darkwave. The two qualities that instantly hooked me were (1) they pen emotionally driven yet carefully crafted tunes (their songwriting chops are impressive) and (2) Houseman, whose kit includes traditional and synth drums, is a badass, both metronomic and crushing. I dare say he nears the human drum machine zone, a phrase I don’t take lightly.

They’re also living proof that underground regionalism still has some gas left in the tank. It’s apparent from the sharp focus of their music that Lost System possess a voracious appetite for modern DIY sounds from around the world. Ultimately, though, they’re 100% Midwestern and belong to a lengthy lineage of outfits (think Die Kreuzen or the more damaged God Bullies) who take traits from British and European post-punk and Goth, including icily slashing guitars (or synths), doomsayer vocals and desolate atmosphere, and graft them to sweaty, hulking, muscular grooves that reflect hard rock’s bedrock-level influence on Midwestern underground music (present even when the musicians themselves don’t actively listen to hard rock). But that’s not all. Their quirky synth tones are equally Midwestern. Rather than sticking exclusively to the darkwave gloom of Joy Division, they also hurdle shards of the plastic buzz ‘n’ wheeze common among Middle American art weirdos like Dow Jones and the Industrials and Devo.

These are refreshing twists in 2017. To my ears, there currently exists too many artists inspired by post-punk, darkwave and minimal wave who smother whatever raw physicality their music may possess in the kind of grayed-out fuzz and effects-laden shoegazing heard on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones label, as well as among those techno-associated projects–Tropic of Cancer, Sandra Electronics, DVA Damas–championed by the Mount Analog record store in Los Angeles. (Another label inspiring hordes of similarly minded imitators is Copenhagen’s Posh Isolation, which like Sacred Bones bridges post-punk, industrial and synth-pop/minimal wave.) I definitely own and dig music from a bunch of these labels and artists, but I think their heavily mannered aesthetics (all that coolly mysterious detachment) and highly conceptualized visuals (boutique industrial meets bourgeois techno chic meets alt-right haircuts) have become too pervasive and rote. It’s common.2

No Meaning No Culture, in stark contrast, boasts a big, clean sound that wisely emphasizes the tension between shaggy, brutish force and streamlined songcraft underpinning Lost System’s music.3 This creates no shortage of thrilling moments. On the maniacally careening opener “Medical Study” (freakers still pop experimental pills for cash, apparently) the quartet ride an Adderall-like meltdown, one that threatens to jump the rails into something ugly yet somehow manages to maintain a quaking, speeding equilibrium. “No Regrets” shifts into downer suspicion and self-loathing, with singer and band squaring off against one another. While McFarlane–who doesn’t sound far removed from Glenn Danzig on the Misfits’ debut single, Cough/Coolretreats into the dark, gooey recesses of his brain fluid (“I’m tired of faces, the less you see. I’m tired of begging. I’m down on my knees. I needed you know, but I can’t see your face.”), Houseman’s patiently thumping skins (nifty percussive breakdown at the 2:10 minute mark) and Niemara’s wavy, Peter Hook-style bass climb all over his words, as though they’re hellhounds trying drag the vocalist deeper into dreary mental shit.

This up/down emotional seesaw is repeated when “Discipline” downshifts into “Lost System.” The former is two minutes and 45 seconds of bubbling lava that eventually explodes into an obsidian fireball; McFarlane unloads feral grunts, and Maier’s synth is classic horror flick creeps injected with a mega-dose of paranoia. The latter tune, in contrast, opens with spiky, Doors-like keys and ominous, John Carpenteresque bass chords before the vocalist, subdued yet brooding like a mofo, lays out what is essentially a fiery, Babylonian prophecy: “You can forget all those scriptures. We can watch this city burn. No meaning no culture, in anything you’ve ever learned… and it all comes down, comes down to us… we are the lost system.” And yes, the group manages to work not just the title of the EP, but also their band name into the lyrics. I’m into that.

The society-is-fucked theme rippling through the “Lost System” returns on the militantly clanging “Future Shock” (presumably named after Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book). I’m not a big fan of generation identity, but I can’t help but think this song feels like an anti-capitalist anthem perfect for Millennials socialists.4 Instead of echoing the resolutely existential angst expressed by older manifestations of bohemia (Example: “When do we live? That’s what I want to know,” declares Mick Travis in the 1968 film If…), Lost System ground their alienation in the socioeconomic realities of daily life in America in 2017. “Put your trust in standardized testing,” chants McFarlane. “Acquire debt. Become overqualified. Build your credit up. Buy the house you can’t afford. Car payments, utilities, too. The latest technology. Consume! Consume!” He totally nails the current dilemma of young adults who find themselves living in a failed democracy that has been reduced to a corporate feudal state (not to mention police state), where drowning debt and smartphone addiction are the only constants.

It’s bleak, no doubt. At the same time, I can’t help but think there’s something rousing and unifying in the song’s catchy hook. When McFarlane barks, “Unsure of the future. Unsure of what is next. Unsure of what I want, but it’s not you!,” it’s a goddamn rally cry. He’s bringing about catharsis through shared experience: come on, comrades, let’s all shout and rail and be pissed off together! This is where the local comes back into play: like unruly weeds, Lost System and their seething rejection have sprouted up in the very region that has played a key role in the creation of their alienation (i.e. our corporate feudal state). After all, the posh suburbs surrounding Grand Rapids are home to DeVoses, Princes and the entire Amway empire. These are the powerful elites who are unleashing  school vouchers, school choice, charter schools, pyramid schemes, Christian dogma and, hell, even contract armies and intelligence upon this planet. The very city that Lost System want to “watch burn” is dotted with building upon building on which the names of these zealous oligarchs loom over us struggling nobodies. So yeah, Lost System’s very existence is a big FUCK YOU to these lizardy creep-a-zoids. And that’s awesome.

***

Future Shock cassette (November, 2016): Chromatin Records.
Future Shock seven-inch (Janaury, 2017): Neck Chop Records.

Notes
1. My take on the evolution of DIY scenes is restricted to underground rock and noisy/experimental music. I suspect hip-hop scenes develop differently.
2. Not every artist on these labels explores post-punk, synth-pop, minimal wave, etc. Far from it. Uniform’s new full-length, Wake in Fright, is a brilliant mix of hardcore aggression, noisy hell and industrialized marches. They rule.
3. It should be pointed out that Lost System seem to self-identify as punks rather than darkwave art school types. In this sense, they’re not unlike Nots. The Memphis outfit clearly worship jagged, frigid post-punk, yet they’ve come up through the city’s garage-punk scene.
4. Previous generations of punk and art rock bands certainly have expressed their alienation through a socialist/anti-capitalist lens. But where a band like Scritti Politti tends to lean on theory, Lost System on “Future Shock” detail a very personal relationship to these ideas. It’s all about the immediate conditions.

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