Graded on a Curve: Friction,
Dumb Numb CD

Friction are arguably one of Japan’s best noise rock bands, but they have deep roots in New York City’s No Wave movement. Abandoning their band 3/3, vocalist/bass player Reck and saxophonist Chico Hige set out for the United States. where they formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with enfant terribles Lydia Lunch and James Chance, then became founding members of James Chance and the Contortions.

But who really wants to hang with the likes of Lydia Lunch and James Chance? There are limits to human endurance, and I can think of few things more queasy-making than being trapped in a windowless room with Lower East Side hypesters who take themselves far, far too seriously. Speaking solely for myself, I’d sooner spend my time nibbling on sponge cake with Jimmy Buffett. So Reck and Hige returned to the Land of the Rising Sun, changed their band name from 3/3 to Friction, and following some line-up changes went on to release some dozen LPs, if you include live albums and compilations.

Dumb Numb CD was recorded at Shibuya Club Quattro on September 10, 1989 and released the following year. Friction did away with Lunch’s hideous screech and Chance’s free jazz saxophone slobber to produce a sound that isn’t mutated, shard-fractured, atonal, or dissonant. In its place they substitute a straight-ahead, bass-pummeling approach that one might almost call traditional—your average listeners needn’t send their ears to reeducation camps to listen to this LP.

Dumb Numb CD’s ten songs start and just keep going. No breaks, no off-putting choruses, no guitar solos—just an unrelenting groove categorized by Godzilla stomp bass, anything-but-subtle skins abuse, and squalls upon squalls of guitar. And you’d never guess vocalist Reck’s Japanese; he sounds like David Byrne with the spastic twitch and nervous tic knocked out of him. Reck also sounds more, how does one say, human. Is there a school on the seedy second floor of a shabby former tenement on Houston Street where you can learn Byrnese? If so, Reck skipped the lesson on robotic vocal mannerisms.

Upon first listen what you hear are the song’s similarities, but upon repeated listening details stand out—the John Bonham crash and bash opening of “Big-S,” the King Kong bass that opens “Gapping,” and the very-close-to-funk rhythms that propel songs like “Replicant Walk” and “Antenna and Moon.” On “Burn Don” Reck reminds me of John Lydon; the song itself is pure Fall. “Crazy Dream” and “Defence” (on which Reck ticks off some class dance crazes) precede at an almost hardcore speed, while “Cushion” opens with some noise rock clamor.

The almost eleven-minute “New Baby’s” has a more subtle tone—Friction doesn’t sound quite so intent upon shoving you to the club’s rear wall by means of sheer amp power. Instead they employ a rock-a-by guitar riff that won’t offend the sensibilities of adventurous neonates. That is until the bass starts bleeding into the red—then your little punkette is on her own.

Dumb Numb CD is not a No Wave album, or an experimental album for that matter, if by those terms you mean an album that your average listener must scale, like a neophyte ascending K2, towards accessibility, and even pleasure. You’ll get what they’re up to the first time around, and you won’t find yourself sidling, slowly and very unobtrusively, away from the stereo out of fear the album might come after you.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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