Have you read the entertainment news today? Oh boy. A particularly dreadful tune is set to break some major records for sales, this week’s new movies arriving under a mantle of critical kudos have been trounced at the box office by The Dark Knight, a four-week winner no less, and the spate of mind-numbing reality TV shows, once considered dead in the water by pundits, are not only thriving but multiplying for the 2008/2009 season. It is, as the critics have feared, the grim realization that they have zero effect on the zeitgeist. But then again, we always knew that.
The few critics that actually heard Darn Floor Big Bite, the 1987 release by the band Daniel Amos, were flabbergasted. They praised the textured, atmospheric guitar work as a revelation in contrast to the band’s keyboard-driven previous releases, Vox Humana and Fearful Symmetry. They were keen on the balancing act singer/writer Terry Scott Taylor had struck lyrically, still as literate and mature as before but not as heavy-handed. In a time where guitar groups were hair metal, and regular groups were messing with their synths, Daniel Amos (known at that point as Da to avoid the whole “Which one is Daniel” question. Answer: none) looked to the underground and came up with an angular, nervy winner.
And now you get to say, “Well it can’t be that great, because I’ve never heard of it,” which has been the bane of Da’s musical existence from the start. The band started, of all things, as a thoroughly Christian country act, morphing into a Beatle-esque rock outfit, then fully embracing the original new wave ethic that was coming from CBGB darlings like Talking Heads and Television.
Problematically, they were the antithesis of most bands from the Christian subset. Their Beatles and Beach Boys influences came at a time when outside forces were totally verboten. Their four Alarma Chronicles albums (Alarma, Doppelganger, Vox Humana and Fearful Symmetry) plumbed the sounds of punk, garage, darkwave synth-rock and Krautrock, none of which sat well with the established Christian organizations, record labels and bookstores. They were alternately branded for “consorting,” being too secularly intellectual and just plain too weird. Oddly, the secular music outlets rather much felt the same way in vice-versa terms.
Perhaps the most damning charge thrown at them was that they dared to criticize the Church as equally as they looked toward the scriptures. It has been one of the major drawbacks for people in accepting Christian rock as rock music with the specified worldview that discernment with worldly ways was fine, but when it came to investigating the hypocrisies within the institutions, well, it just wasn’t done. Da, however, dared to go to that thorny place.
For their sins, they merely got snagged. Too Christian for them, too secular for those. What, in 1987, should have been a watershed moment, the return of guitar rock from the programmed abyss, ended up as less than a footnote in the book of releases. It also spawned a small but voracious group of dedicated fans, willing at a moment’s notice to attempt turning you on to that which you’ve been missing. Then havoc struck again. Through the shutting down and changing hands of record labels, ownership rights and a dart that hadn’t yet found a target, Darn Floor Big Bite went out of print and stayed there.
Twenty-plus years later, the Arena Rock Recording Company, home of Wilco offshoot the Autumn Defense, Calla, punk-poppers Harvey Danger, and Terry Taylor’s own Stunt Productions company, are about to give the wheel another spin. Darn Floor Big Bite will return as a remastered deluxe double-disc set complete with updated packaging and a lot of hope that, this time, the dart finds dead center. Why an established independent record label believes they’ll find an audience this time depends of your degree of backward glancing. Today the album has a contemporary indie rock feel, excepting some Eighties production giveaways. The guitar work of Greg Flesch is meaty here, dissonant there, comprised of as much drone and feedback as Byrdsian jangle.
It is not hyperbole to say Flesch is a rocket scientist because, in his day job, he actually is a rocket scientist. That analytical approach to playing, squeezing any and every sound imaginable from his instrument, indicates what a labor of love this was. Equally impressive is Tim Chandler, who’s walking basslines do more than gird the rhythm. Acting as much as a secondary guitar than simply padding the bottom end, he achieves at times the interplay found on Television’s landmark Marquee Moon. Drummer Ed McTaggart has garnered over the years a reputation for being a Charlie Watts kind of player – light on flash, heavy on precise timekeeping. It’s a fair cop but, in the context of these songs, Bonzo flips or Keith Moon freakouts would have been far too much. His restraint allows the rest of the elements to truly be noticed.
Then there are the songs: “Return Of The Beat Menace” addresses the heart of the matter, that moment when the church elders looked down their nose at what the band was doing and deemed it inappropriate. The beat menace, if you hadn’t assumed, was rock with the Christian worldview. “You live to correct / those who reject / the sins you connect to the beat menace / we’ve come to lay you low / we’ve come to vex your soul” – essentially: baby plus bathwater equals “out you go!”
“Darn Floor – Big Bite” brings about a theme found throughout Terry Taylor’s work, being that the enormity and mystery of a divine presence is so much and so foreign to us that we don’t have the slightest clue about it. The title refers to Koko the gorilla, famous for communicating in sign language. Her description of an earthquake, “darn floor, big bite!” Humans, in our efforts to put the divine in a box and say this is what it is evokes the same broken thought pattern as Koko. Heady stuff, especially for any institution conflicted with the notion of simian intelligence. The spare sound and off-kilter guitar only magnifies the foreignness.
“The Unattainable Earth,” a personal favorite of mine, is primo Byrds-styled California jangle pop yet restates the theme that we can’t possibly assume we know what it’s all about, but we keep trying, through hope, through faith, through the miracle of human nature and our last remnant of innocence, our curiosity. It all comes together with the finale “The Shape Of Air” which, in its odd way, is a hymn to the surreal. “Pour cement ’round things / let it dry / break away things / see the design…” and “It’s the shape of air / I can sit and stare / ‘Til it’s almost clear.” And while the lyrics seem abstract, the vocals en mass at the close acts as a thesis – you have to admit there’s something going on out there that we have no understanding of.
Da, now once again Daniel Amos, has been quasi-active even to the present. They sometimes slip into alter egos The Swirling Eddies (a story for another day) and Taylor has been a frequent musical collaborator with designer Doug TenNapel, providing music for his Neverhood and Boombots games as well as the Catscratch television show. McTaggart is a graphic designer, Chandler still does session work as a bassist and Flesch has that gig at NASA. Still, they repeatedly get the word out that, given their druthers, they’d rather be full-time members of Daniel Amos once more. If the rerelease of Darn Floor Big Bite makes an impact on the world of indie rock, that may yet happen.
The official request from Camp Da was that Popdose not run MP3s of the tracks from Darn Floor Big Bite. However, here is a medley of songs from the disc to give the readers a feel for the sound of the album.