Sometimes the most potent and refined rock music evolves out of simplicity, rather than from complexity or overly enthusiastic bombast. Sometimes, amateur musicians accidentally develop a unique sound from very basic and natural experimentation. The legendary underground band Pylon's music demonstrates fine examples of both cases.
One of the pioneering acts of the modern Athens music scenes (just ask any member of R.E.M.), guitarist Randy Bewley, bassist Michael Lachowski, drummer Curtis Crowe, and singer Vanessa Briscoe-Hay steered their way through various ups and downs over the last 30 years — from their earliest days as art school kids playing house parties and bohemian dives to various national tours and international acclaim.
Last month, New York's DFA Records released an expanded, re-mastered version of the band's sophomore 1983's Chomp on compact disc as Chomp More. Originally released on dB Records in 1983, the new collection is padded with five extra tracks, remastered, and available for the first time on CD. The toothy album cover art, featuring a snarling Tyrannosaurus Rex statue, remains intact, with intentionally visible ring wear (vinyl-style!).
DFA Records re-released the band's 1980 debut Gyrate in the fall of 2007, re-mastered from the original reels, with the addition of their 1979 7-inch single "Cool" b/w "Dub," and unreleased demo track "Functionality."
Pylon played a string of reunion shows in Georgia and the Carolinas after Gyrate's re-release. Sadly, Bewley died on Feb. 25, 2009 after he suffered a heart attack while driving in downtown Athens. He lost control of his van, was injured, and remained in a coma for a full day.
My first Pylon experience was vicarious. As an avid R.E.M. fan in high school, I snatched any imported single EP, or live bootleg of theirs I could find in the mid-'80s. In 1986, R.E.M. recorded a rendition of a minor-key, stiff-beat song titled "Crazy" as the B-side of the "Driver 8" single (from Fables of the Reconstruction). The song also kicked off R.E.M's extras compilation Dead Letter Office. Stipe's excitable holler during the chorus went, "Because your head' keeps shakin'/Because you're arms are shakin'/And your feet are shakin' because the earth is shakin'." He sounded anxious and yelpy — but not nearly as ethereal as Briscoe-Hay's more emphatic performance on the original.
The indie documentary film Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out (released in 1987) featured a sort of then-and-now chapter on Pylon with live footage from their early days, and post-breakup interviews with Briscoe-Hay and Lachowski in 1986. By 1988, the band had reunited, supported R.E.M. on their Green tour, and recorded material for a third studio album, Chain.
If Pylon's Gyrate bounced with an air of innocence, off-kilter vibes, angular rhythms, choppy guitar style, and passionate singing, Chomp ascended to a more sophisticated artistic level, with a touch more polish and echo. Crow's ever-present snare drum rings with a glistening reverberation. Bewley's chiming guitar tone swells and dissipates over the top of Lachowski's minimal-but-driving bass lines. Briscoe-Hay seems to be in a trance half the time, growling here and there, or singing like a sweet choir girl. Beautiful, atmospheric, and danceable in the oddest post-punk manner, Chomp still has a bite.