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NYC Drone N' Roll: Music of David First

by Seth Colter Walls

NYC Drone N' Roll: Music of David First

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When the late '70's No Wave band the Notekillers managed to play in New York, they got some fine reviews (in the alternative press, mind you). But it wasn't enough to keep them together very long: The members, scattered among different northeastern cities, began pursuing different projects by the early '80s. Guitarist David First, who had previously played in large ensembles led by avant-jazz legend Cecil Taylor, fell in with the new-classical world in downtown NYC. Over the years, he built up quite an impressive catalog of drone works — collected on the archival release Privacy Issues — and also presented an opera and other ambitious pieces.

In the early 2000s, however, Notekillers mania grew to a level never previously seen when Thurston Moore cited the band's first single as a key inspiration to Sonic Youth. Along with his former bandmates, bassist Stephen Bilenky and drummer Barry Halkin, First put together an archival compilation for Moore's Ecstatic Peace label. While that's no longer on streaming services, thankfully, in 2010 First, Bilenky and Halkin reunited for an all-new Notekillers album, titled We're Here to Help.

Along with First's other records — an early 2000s indie pop affair, the drone collection, and new archival release Electronic Works 1976-1977 — we've wrapped up all the various aspects of First's aesthetic into a comprehensive mix. Click play and you'll hear the classic post-punk sound of recent Notekillers tunes (like "Eyelash" and "Modern Jazz") mixed with First's unique drone pieces. The latter are often built with slow-moving "difference tones," which in turn create strange rhythmic collisions between frequencies.

Despite its obvious differences from a song performed by a punk trio, a piece like "Happy Beatday" has its own post-punk-ish sound. If you've got time to let it grow and develop, a First drone-track like "A Bet On Transcendence Favors the House" will resolve in glorious fashion: After minutes of slow moving microtonality, it climaxes in a pure-sounding, triumphant chord. It's just the long way around to the same kind of cathartic release that the Notekillers can execute in three minutes and change. While we wait for more Notekillers albums—and music from other bands that include First (including material with TV on the Radio member Kyp Malone)—there's plenty of time to go deep into his existing catalog. Enjoy!

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