90s Indie Rock: The Rock Legend Who Almost Was: Brainiac's Tim Taylor.
A Band That Almost Ruled The World...
Brainiac is a curious band with a curious name and a curious history. Unfortunately for the band and their fans, the curiosity that blossomed into a band with incredible potential never became anything more than that. As too often happens, tragedy cut down the band before they even reached their prime.
The band started in 1992 in Dayton, Ohio when keyboardist, Tim Taylor; Bassist, Juan Monasterio; guitarist, Michelle Bodine; and drummer, Tyler Trent first got together. They played their first show under the name "We'll Eat Anything" in the cafeteria of a local university. When they got together to work on their second album, guitarist Michelle Bodine was replaced with John Schmersal, who later went on to found Enon after his time with Brainiac. The bands short yet brilliant career spanned three albums, a few EPs and five years before it ended suddenly on May, 23, 1997 when lead singer and keyboardist Tim Taylor was killed in a car accident on his way home from the studio. He had been working on the bands fourth studio album at the time.
To understand what Rock Music lost that day, we must understand the band that was Brainiac and the musical legacy they left in their five years together.
The Most Underated Band Ever?
While they still existed, Brainiac continually generated a buzz as a live act. They even opened for Beck, the Breeders and the Jesus Lizard to the delight of audiences. They had just signed with Interscope Records when Tim Taylor was killed. The group soon disbanded shortly after. A few months later, a memorial show was put on with other Ohio acts like Guided By Voices and the Breeders performing.
Still, though, it seems that Brainiac remains only a fringe band in the group of 90s Indie Bands that were influenced by Sonic Youth and the Pixies in the minds of most music fans. Maybe this is because their abrasive sound hadn't quite broken through in the minds of most music listeners before their time was cut short. Perhaps they are still overshadowed by darker acts like Nine Inch Nails, or prettier acts like Radiohead.
This brings up an interesting comparison. I have always felt that Brainiac, as their work matured, took the work of the Pixies further into a manic, desperate rock-out direction much the same way Radiohead took what the Pixies did into a slightly more melodic and pretty sound. I know this is an oversimplification, but there is truth to the comparison of the bands' relationships to the Pixies. This similarity extends to the albums as well. Given the ubiquity of Radiohead in the minds and hearts of 90s Indie rock bands, this comparison will make a good starting point for a discussion of Brainiac because it will not only serve to give the unfamiliar a point of comparison to start from, but will also aid in understanding how the band's sound developed.
1993's Smack Bunny Baby
The Heavily-Borrowed-From-Sonic-Youth Freshman Album:
Fans of Radiohead remember "Pablo Honey" as an anomalous entry in Radiohead's catalog of albums. This is because the truth shape of their sound is barely even audible on some of the album's tracks, including the big hit, "Creep". The same can be said of Brainiac's Smack Bunny Baby. While it is identifiable as Brainiac, it is obvious that they were imitating their idols more than charting their own territory. This is not a criticism of the album. The album is a true freshman effort, and like any real freshman effort, it shows the potential of the band, not the fruition.
The sound is a dense onslaught of keyboards and distorted
guitars that rumble and weave their way through dense songs that can't
help but make one think of Sonic Youth meets Nine Inch Nails. However,
their signature energetic sound and bending of key signatures was
already present. The song structures are simplistic, but the bridges
within the songs are phenomenal at times. Take, for example, the title
track, "Smack Bunny Baby", the bridge, albeit short, is a thunderous
preview of what the band would be capable of. The strange sounds that
would come to dominate the entire tracks on later albums are often lost
in the fuzz of the guitars. This makes for a great rock album, but puts
the focus not on the creative ingenuity in the songs, but rather the
sonic feel of a rock album. All of these, slightly out of focus,
criticisms could also be made about Pablo Honey when comparing it to
later works. What is unfair about this is that both Pablo Honey and
Smack Bunny Baby are actually great albums in their own right, it's just
the fact the bands actually lived up to the potential demonstrated in
these early albums that these albums are no longer as significant to the
band as a whole.
Other standout tracks are "Hurting Me" which has a great guitar hook as well as a sort of dirty rock-n-roll feel that makes me think of Circle-X meets Royal Trux. "Draag" might be the best vocal performance on the album and hints at where Tim Taylor's performances would go in the future. He might sound a bit too much like Trent Reznor on Smack Bunny Baby, but hints of the way he would make the singing technique his own abound on this track. "Get Away" may be the most SY/Pixies inspired track on the album, but it is also one of the most instantly appealing. The guitar progression is satisfying in that off-key SY/Pixies way that Brainiac would take to new heights in their later albums.
All in all, this is a great album, but it does not change the rules of how to make rock and roll music the way their next two albums would. It, like Pablo Honey, serves mainly as a reminder that bands must be allowed to mature and develop into their own sound if they are ever to become great. Forcing bands to recreate the sound of their first album, or worse, another band inevitably kills the creative process. The music industry has proved this in the past twenty-five years. If it weren't for bands brave enough to chart their own sound like Brainiac and Radiohead, popular music would be a lost cause.
"Vincent Come On Down" from Hissing Prigs in Static Couture
1994's Bonsai Superstar
A New Chapter:
From the first moment of Bonsai Superstar, it is obvious that the game has changed for Brainiac. Eli Janney, of Girls Against Boys, who produced all their albums, had really focused the sound the second time around. This means the strange twists, sounds, and moments within the dense textures of the first album now had room to breathe and were often the focus of the tracks.
This difference in sound is not unlike the one apparent on The Bends from the first moments of "Planet Telex". Yes, things are similar, but both Radiohead and Brainiac make it painfully obvious within moments that they aren't even in the same league they were the last time they were in the studio. "Hot Metal Dobermans", the first Track, has Taylor experimenting with falsetto in an extremely successful marriage of dual tracked vocals that combine a deep octave and very high octave. This works to heighten the already underlying sense of impending doom. It takes a Prima Donna to perform the lyrics on Bonsai Superstar, Tim Taylor is stepping out of the shadow of his keyboards and fully embracing his role as vocal performer the way Frank Black did on Doolittle with tracks like "Tame".
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As the album goes on, it alternates between the cacophonic and the sublime with velocity and skill. When the third track begins with a loop of a woman saying "Give me some love", the listener has been put on alert: the rules that Brainiac plays by are not your father's rules. They no longer felt the need to emphasize guitar sounds that their contemporaries and influences still worshiped. Certainly the axe drove their songs, but it was only one sound in a catalog of creativity that would make Wayne Coyne envious.
Standouts on the album are "Juicy", "Flypaper", "Sexual Frustration" and "F****** with the Altimeter". These songs represent the scope of Brainiac's sound and creativity. They alternate between quiet and catchy and loud and infectious. The one fact I cannot get over about Bonsai Superstar is that despite the fact it should be an album of insanity that produces insanity, it has a synergistic quality that can only be described as sublime. These tracks are somehow greater than the sum of their parts, and consequently, so is the album. If this doesn't sound like something that could be said about Radiohead's The Bends, I don't know what is.
1996's Hissing Prigs in Static Couture
The first Touch and Go Album...
Much like OK Computer established Radiohead as an art rock band despite their early beginnings, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture reaches to new heights for Brainiac. The song structure is even stranger, more Brainiac than on the last album. The songs breathe and writhe in their own motion almost completely abandoning traditional song structure on half the album. This is exactly like Ok Computer. When we compare the two albums, we have two mature realizations of the ideas the bands appropriated from the Pixies. Yes, they took their work different directions, but my point is that for all of Radiohead's prowess, depth and song writing ability, Brainiac eerily matches them every step of the way.
When you first put Hissing Prigs in Static Couture, you might think your speakers are broken, any semblance of a song will probably elude you, but after time, that will change. As the first hit of the first song arrives, you hear the influences of Brainiac clear and strong, but then the band comes to a lull. Everything gets quiet, and then Tim Taylor busts in with his most outrageous falsetto performance yet. The song grooves. No longer afraid of silence, the band doesn't fill up every moment with noise. The result is a mature mix of the zaniness they had been experimenting with so successfully on earlier albums and truly well-crafted pop songs.
Brainiac on Vinyl
The drive of songs like "Vincent Come on Down" and "Nothing Ever Changes" are balanced by the sheer wacky brilliance of "Kiss Me U Jacked up Jerk" and "This Little Piggy". The album moves every direction at once and every song is different, yet the same. The sonic textures are still dense where they need to be at times, but the strength of letting a few voices echo in the quiet is something Brainiac, and Radiohead for that matter, really develop on their third album.
The best moment on Hissing Prigs in Static Couture is whatever moment you are listening to right then. The songs are infectious. You cannot hold still. They still drive with the pulse of doom the way a more cerebral Fugazi would, but this time around, the juxtaposition of confusing elements is even more artfully pulled off than previous albums.
Hissing Prigs in Static Couture , as good as it was, leaves the reader with the same feeling and questions that Ok Computer left Radiohead fans: how can they ever top this? This is where the tragedy of what happened to Tim Taylor is really felt. We never got to find out the answer to where they would take us next. Brainiac rushes us breathlessly up to the end of their career, and before we reach the pinnacle, we find they've rushed us off a cliff. This is infinitely sad for fans of 90s Indie Rock. Given their steady improvement over the first three albums, one must speculate that the direction they would head in their fourth album had the chance to be as powerful and memorable as Radiohead's Kid A . With major label distribution, the chances of the lost fourth album cementing them as Rock Legends is almost inevitable. As it is, traffic happens, and we are all poorer for it.
1997's Electro-Shock for President
Listen to Brainiac on Your New iPod!
The Unfished 4th Album...
Though the fourth album was never released, a short EP was released just before work started on it. This EP reveals a departure from the past Brainiac albums every bit as large as the one Kid A meant for Radiohead. No longer dependent upon traditional instruments and guitars, the EP begins immediately with perhaps Brainiac's most effective song ever. The track "Fresh New Eyes" is scantly 2 minutes long, but it so bravely charts a new course for the Band that it has to impress.
The combination of noise with music has been reduced to two or three minimal sounds, and Tim Taylor's vocal performance has even more room to lull the listener into his manic world. When he suddenly screams "In the trunk of a Plymouth of Memphis, she thinks she's made a mistake", your hair will stand on in.
Again, this is the great tragedy of Brainiac: that the future looked so bright for them right up until the last moment when we all learned it was over. I cannot tell you how many times I've imagined what the fourth album they were working on when Tim Taylor died would have sounded like. The closes glimpse we have is Electro-Shock for the President.
Other tracks on the EP that stand out are "Flash Ram" and "Mr. Fingers". Though these songs end up sounding more like Enon than Brainiac, it makes you wonder what would have happened if Tim Taylor had lived and the work John Schmersal put into Enon had been put into Brainiac instead. Would they have become the rock legends they were poised to become? Would they have sold out and disappointed the way so many acts had before them, or would they rise to the occasion like Radiohead and continue to put out phenomenal albums for the next 15 years? We will never know, but at least we have three and half albums to listen to and speculate about.
And remember, the next time you are disappointed in the latest offering from your favorite band, at least they had the chance to make a bad album. Sometimes, even the best bands never get that chance.
Links to Brainiac on the Web
- Brainiac's Page on Touch and Go's Site
This is Brainiac's official page on Touch and Go's, their label, website. It has official information and some photographs and the normal information you would expect. A good site if you want to know more about the band that almost made it.
- Brainiac - Pandora Internet Radio
Listen and find out more about Brainiac at Pandora.com. Pandora is the Internet radio service that helps you find new music based on your old and current favorites.
- Brainiac (band) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Love it or hate it, Wikipedia is a good site for backlinks on information about the band even if the information in the articles isn't always the most reliable.
- Brainiac - Epitonic.com: Hi Quality Free and Legal MP3 Music
This is another site where you can listen to some Brainiac right now.
What's Next for Indies 90 Bands?
Be sure to check back soon as the next article in this series will focus specifically on Tortoise. It will discuss their lasting effect upon music and examine the impetus behind the creation of a new genre of music as a response to their music called Post Rock.
As always, if there is a certain 90s Indie Band or Act you want to know more about, leave feedback about them and they might end up being the next feature band!
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