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Blonde Redhead

As far as chance meetings go, the one that took place between Japanese art students Kazu Makino and Maki Takahashi and Italian twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace in 1993 in a New York City Italian restaurant was particularly fortuitous. The result was a rather cosmopolitan rock band called Blonde Redhead, a name they grabbed from New York No Wavers DNA. Their sound was also somewhat No Wave-influenced (and remains so), in its dissonant, wall-of-guitar atonality and alternate tunings, much in the manner of early Sonic Youth. All right, they get compared to Sonic Youth a lot, and there are lots of good reasons for the comparison. But nowhere else will you hear anything quite like the midnight hurricane of Blonde Redhead's swirling, sharp-edged guitars, insistent upper-register keyboards, and tempestuous drumming.

And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- can prepare you for their fractured, spectral harmonies. Kazu Makino's high, ragged soprano -- which sometimes claws and scratches, sometimes shrieks in utter desperation, sometimes surrenders and floats on the wind -- plays against Amadeo Pace's noble, sincere tenor to create an ongoing feeling of ethereal pursuit, of flight and return, of reassurance and rejection. The wonderful thing about Blonde Redhead is that unlike other experimental avant-rock, which often comes across as cool, detached, and overly intellectual, their records are suffused with violent, lava-hot emotions. Sometimes the music makes you feel the way a meteor might if it possessed a consciousness: intensely (terminally) hot, consumed entirely with the sensation of motion through vast space, acutely aware of the silence and emptiness and coldness of the universe.

Blonde Redhead has evolved with each release. Takahashi left the band after its first eponymous release on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records label, and the remaining members retooled to release La Mia Vita Violenta as a trio. For their third record (and first on Touch and Go) in '97, Unwound bassist Vern Rumsey joined the band, which then began moving towards a more skeletal, rhythmic, and experimental direction.

On 1998's In an Expression of the Unexpressible and 2000's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, they have elected to drop the bass entirely. In its absence, Blonde Redhead sometimes wander even deeper into the avant-experimental vein of rock music, as is evidenced by the sublimely damaged "Missile ++" (from In An Expression of the Inexpressible). 'In Particular' (one of the most accessible songs on Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons) is an understated beauty, marked by Amadeo Pace's gentle guitar flourishes and Makino's mournful keening. That song begins with the lines "Lying on my back/I heard music/Felt unsure and catastrophic/Had to tell myself it's only music/It blows my mind/But it's like that" -- not a bad way to describe the experience of listening to Blonde Redhead.

For their fifth record, Misery Is a Butterfly, Blonde Redhead moved on to 4AD, perhaps an appropriate choice as their increasingly crepuscular, spidery sound has begun to mirror some of that label's storied history. The band took longer than usual to put together this one, thanks in part to serious injuries Kazu Makino incurred after falling from a horse, an incident alluded to in the album's remarkable closer, "Equus." While many hallmarks of Blonde Redhead's earlier sound remain -- Amadeo and Kazu's vocals alone make them unmistakable -- they're also not likely to get compared to SY anymore. The strings, keyboards and vaguely exotic instrumental flourishes which have come to dominate their compositions now give their sound an increasingly cinematic, atmospheric and darkly romantic mood. Blonde Redhead's early stuff was great, paradigmatic '90s post-punk/post-rock, but after a decade together, one looks at Blonde Redhead and sees a band that has truly come into its own.