Graded on a Curve: Chrome,
Half Machine from
the Sun

The boundary-pushing San Francisco group Chrome is a long-celebrated staple from the fringes of the original punk narrative. In helping to establish the direction for much of the ‘80s less formally restrictive underground action their reputation is secure, but the music easily transcends historical importance and endures on its own merits. Greatly emphasizing this circumstance is the appearance of Half Machine from the Sun, an 18-track 2LP set of lost tracks from the midst of their peak era. Sharing nothing with a dish of reheated leftovers, it offers instead a copious look at how prescient and stylistically varied Damon Edge and Helios Creed actually were.

Way back in 1990, Touch and Go Records committed a true act of kindness by bringing two prime specimens from the glory days of American rock radicalism into easy availability. They were Alien Soundtracks and Half Machine Lip Moves, the second and third albums from a San Francisco outfit that began life before the movement loosely housing them even had a name.

Yes punk, but due to their expansionist sound, when those Touch and Go reissues (which were also combined onto one CD) hit the racks, Chrome was touted just as often as an early inhabitant of the Industrial arena. And while that designation surely clarified that multi-instrumentalist Damon Edge and guitar specialist Helios Creed weren’t remodeling the template of The Damned or Dead Boys, simply tagging them as industrial did nothing to relate how different they were from the style’s ‘70’s kingpins Throbbing Gristle.

Released in ’78 and ’79, those two records are just as easily categorized as dark psychedelia. In fact, Chrome’s ’76 debut The Visitation, an LP cut by a pre-Creed quartet, is inarguably psych-rock and only fleetingly punkish in orientation. And due to the absence of the guitarist and the presence of a substantially different thrust, the disc has frequently been wrongly dismissed.

It’s definitely not the place to begin, however. When Creed replaced Mike Low, a significant change occurred, and Alien Soundtracks marks the beginning of one of the most vital and unique discographies in the late-‘70s/early-‘80’s global underground. A handful of folks assisted in conjuring up the heftiness of this run, including the sibling rhythm section of Hilary and John Stench (noted for their involvement with Bay Area band Pearl Harbour and the Explosions), but the two constant shaping factors were Edge and Creed.

The first three Chrome slabs were self-released on the label Siren, but in 1980 they ended up on Beggars Banquet for the LP Red Exposure. Following that they issued two more long-players, ‘81’s Blood on the Moon and the following year’s 3rd from the Sun before Creed left for an extensive solo career. Edge continued on under the Chrome handle, but Creed’s departure ended their most important period, with many of their fans choosing to follow the guitarist’s solo pursuits instead.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Chrome’s prime stuff was just moldering away in obscurity between the release of 3rd from the Sun and those Touch and Go reissues, for in ’82 the San Fran imprint Subterranean put together a 6LP set titled The Chrome Box, with its contents holding three records of highly intriguing loose ends. Reading about it all was enough to make a certain very curious teen wish he’d thrived under better financial circumstances.

Indeed, for those lacking a thick bankroll or the pure luck of stumbling onto scarce second-hand originals, the appearance of Alien Soundtracks and Half Machine Lip Moves in 1990 became the cost-effective doorway into Chrome’s sonic world. And as such, I’ve always retained a special affection for them while holding the entirety of the ’78-’82 run in very high regard.

This makes the appearance of Half Machine from the Sun especially enticing. Subtitled “The Lost Chrome Tracks from ’79-’80,” the material on this 2LP set derives from a very productive period, not only contemporaneous to their second album (often cited as their best) but also from the point when they were looking to broaden their audience through involvement with a major label.

And the eighteen tracks here provide an abundance of musical shades, some long familiar and others less so. Along with the group’s ability to kick up a heavy punk-informed rock racket, a zone they explored at length with the assistance of the duo Stench on the last two Chrome discs (and also subsequently covered via Creed’s later solo efforts), the elements of industrial and psychedelia are very much in evidence.

But there are also moments on Half Machine from the Sun that nudge up against post-punk, and even more interestingly, spots that reveal a pop component, though it’s often New Wave-like in texture. And most impressively, neither the post-punk or melodic tendencies connect as disruptive to the proceedings.

While lost tracks are often misplaced for a reason, what’s here is far from barrel scrapings assembled with the intention to sate those who just can’t get enough. To the contrary, the selections cohere into a hefty statement that stands tall in comparison to the best from ’78-’82 era and also intensifies the less-demanding atmospheres of the somewhat neglected Red Exposure.

Half Machine from the Sun’s release is the direct result of Creed accepting the stewardship of Chrome’s legacy after Edge’s death from heart failure in 1997. Since then he’s toured and released new albums under the name, extending the unit’s continued relevance right up to the present, but in completing and releasing these shelved tapes through a Pledge Music campaign he’s significantly broadened the scope of an already striking and hugely influential outfit.

The operative word is completing. This doesn’t sound like a bunch of unearthed demos that in an attempt to satisfy a dubious “accuracy” are lazily dumped onto plastic. Instead, Half Machine from the Sun exudes contemporary sharpness and spark (but not polish) as it pushes out of the speakers, and this boldness, which clearly succeeds due to Creed’s knowledge and involvement with the material, is very welcome.

While the music spans four sides of vinyl, its overall coherence doesn’t shape up into a “double album” affair. This is truly a collection, and can be absorbed in one big gulp or taken a side or two at a time, a situation that’s deepened by its survey of a relatively concise burst of activity. However it’s approached, the lingering impression is that the work Edge and Creed elected to set aside is stronger than most acts’ defining recordings, then or now.

Right from the outset it’s apparent that Chrome had an even firmer grip on a wide musical spectrum than simple familiarity with their albums would indicate, for the post-punk of “Anything” integrates with their psychedelic qualities extremely well, the manipulated voices and splattering synthesizers intensifying the whole and drawing it right into their sphere of operation.

Likewise, “SALT” (about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, not the flavor enhancer) has a beat that could appeal to many thousands, but it’s combined with raw, outward-bound guitar from Creed and gradually attains a muscular pulse. And the lengthy “Looking at Your Door” possesses a rhythm that could surely move some backsides, though its agitated structure is happily remindful of the early days of the Fast Product label.

“Tomorrow Yesterday” anticipates the Butthole Surfers while twisting up the precedent of late-‘60s Detroit and maybe even a little Richard Hell. This segues nicely into “The Inevitable,” the biggest part of which is a bit reminiscent of a riff-jam first LP Floyd would’ve came up with if they’d hailed from Texas. But then there’s the dicked-with vocal grumbling and the glistening synth tones to consider. And “Fukishima (Nagasaki)” is fine punk gnarl being given a detailed acid bath.

The brief percussion and piano focused “Charlie’s Little Problem” is an unexpected treat, and the ominous vibe that “GHOST” summons up in just a little over two minutes is like a spoiled hard-rock carcass rolling down a mountain in slow motion. From there “Sound and Light” is like the Surfers conceived “Human Cannonball” as a dance club mover, and the lengthier “Autobahn Brazil” lands comfortably in their industrial sweet spot through the use of preexisting audio sources as it melds with both Creed’s stinging guitar and a robust and accessible rhythmic bed.

Continuing in the extended mode is “Sub Machine,” which is a tutorial in how to successfully mingle the commercial gestures of later new wave/post-punk with a heavier rock execution. Unlike the labored, over-studied qualities of many recent examples, the track unwinds with natural ease. If much of Half Machine from the Sun is noted for its pop aspects, “Morrison” is dense industrial-psych, though it continues to tap into post-punk’s thornier attitudes.

In sharp contrast comes the moody rocking of “The Rain.” In truncated form (its duration runs for six minutes), it could’ve easily been released as a single. And that happens to be Creed’s assessment of “Something Rhythmic,” a brawny mid-tempo hunk of rock that draws on Iggy for inspiration, and upon hearing it I wholeheartedly agree.

The resemblance to early Devo on the one minute “Housewarming Party” is inescapable, but it’s also far from a blatant style cop, being harsher and also obviously lacking in the Spud Boys’ constant focus on ideology through lyrics. Like much of what’s here, the human voice is utilized, but it’s twisted, distorted and buried; considering the song as an instrumental is in no way inappropriate.

This sets up something of a motif for the final side. Vocals of any kind are absent entirely from the very fine examination of momentum and spacey textures that is “Sugar Moog Pops,” the abrasive fifteen-second fragment “Intervention”, and the warm psych-rock of closer “Sunset.” This leads to my assumption that the final three cuts (or the two longer ones anyway) are amongst the more “unfinished” tracks from this rescued and resuscitated Chrome bounty. If so, they are no less rewarding, for both do a terrific job of enhancing this set’s revelatory qualities.

In summation, Half Machine from the Sun is a very engaging journey into one of the USA’s most daring punk-era outfits. It may not be the place for newcomers, but its user-friendliness will serve as a real eye-opener to casual fans that have been resistant to plunging into The Chrome Box or digging into the post-Half Machine Lip Moves stuff. The music here has been available in digital form for a few months now, but the vinyl from the King of Spades label will be an excellent addition to the shelves of Chrome’s longtime supporters.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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