On a recent warm evening in the courtyard of Westwood’s Hammer Museum, the L.A. duo No Age evoked, well, another age, previewing its new fourth album – “An Object” -- for a small crowd.
With thrashy chords, stun-gun beats and lyrics of defiance, dissatisfaction and disaffection, the song “No Ground” opened the show, as it opens the album, with echoes of the city’s ’70s punk pioneers Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. At the Hammer, those echoes reverberated around the courtyard walls, matched by a small but earnest group of young fans bouncing off each other in a nascent mosh pit.
But there was no real anger in the music, nor in the cheerfully high-spirited manner of drummer, singer and occasional bassist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall — nor in the moshing. And as the song ended, tall, lean Randall good-naturedly admonished the fans to make sure not to trample the succulents lining the small stage.
No Age? This is punk for the Nice Age.
As such songs as the itchy “Lock Box” make clear, No Age isn’t really a punk act at all. This is an art band, which uses some of the aesthetics of punk as just one of its tools, predominantly alongside sheets of manipulated noise in a high-tech, lo-fi soundscape. It earned No Age considerable buzz. Its last album, 2010’s “Everything in Between,” was embraced with rising-star passion in the hipster underground. For all that, on past much-praised albums it seemed a limited approach, stuck in a sonic gray scale. On “An Object,” though, new colors emerge, often with a heightened sense of melody and song structure.
The basic No Age M.O. is intact: Many of the songs start with a sort of sonic miasma, a primordial stew from which musical life grows or explodes. And then anything can happen as shifting, pulsating, impressionistic masses of sound vie for dominance with the stark rock. Often, in New York terms, it mixes Sonic Youth sound washes with a Ramones rush. Stripped down, as on “An Impression,” it calls to mind Brian Eno’s ambient minimalism.
Also on the art side, “C’mon, Stimmung” nods to German avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen and his 1960s landmark, semi-improvisational vocal tapestry “Stimmung,” the term meaning mood or atmosphere. Ironically, perhaps, the No Age song is the album’s least atmospheric and most straight-ahead rocker. And very effectively so. On the other hand, the closing “Commerce, Comment, Commence,” goes to the other extreme of the formula: all atmosphere, pure noise, buzz and distortion, with no melody, no beat, nothing concrete, as if all the music is being returned to the miasma from which it came.
Now, is this a transformative artistic breakthrough along the lines of, oh, U2’s “The Joshua Tree”? Probably not. But the way Spunt and Randall have matched an uncompromising, challenging artistic vision with an uncontrived desire to reach out, to entertain even, is notable. And each side of the equation enhances the other. With the song “I Won’t Be Your Generator,” for example, the words bespeak a lack of interest in playing games. But the music is forcefully, happily inviting. It’s a perfect anthem as No Age, perhaps, moves into an exciting new age.