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...And the Gods Made War
White Rabbit Cult
White Rabbit Cult Publishing (http://whiterabbitcult.com)

I decided to review ... And the Gods Made War, the first CD from New York-based White Rabbit Cult, on the recommendation of a friend who does solidarity work with peace activists in the Balkans. Knowing his inclination toward anarchistic politics and punk rock, I knew it would probably be a pretty in-your-face treatment of war in the former Yugoslavia.

I wasn't too far off -- at least on the politics and the punk influence. But it turns out the CD hails as much from that particular sub-genre of techno-acid house that uses heavy doses of samiztad-style cut and paste to layer a collage of out-of-context sound bytes over a menacing bed of hard-driving rhythms.

In this case, White Rabbit Cult creates a trippy, sometimes mosh-pit inducing and often paranoia-creating political rave through the dark side of wartime propaganda. The Cult takes on all warlords, however, from Slobodan Milosevic to Madeleine Albright.

The CD starts out with what sounds like heavily distorted bullhorn chants, gunfire, shrieking steel -- and then things get rowdy. Case in point is cut two, dubbed "Collateral Damage," in which the dispassionate and disjointed voices of journalists and politicians weave a macabre and ironic narrative to a ravelike beat.

It starts with a reporter, stationed somewhere near Belgrade during the NATO bombing of Serbia. "It began just past 8:30 here," the reporter intones, "a series of orange flashes a half dozen or so on the edge of the city. ... Even from 12 miles away, the concussions shook the downtown buildings. ... An indefinite number of women and children living in military housing have been killed."

The contrasts between the various out-of-context sound bytes bleed with irony as the musical backdrop, a techno-headbanger tour de force, swings between bone-crunching and wailing guitars, fast-pulsing drumbeats and all manner of sirenlike synthesizers. There's more than a few smart bombs worth of kinetic energy stored up in this little round sheet of plastic.

There's nothing too impressive musically here -- most of the guitar riffs are basically two-chord chants -- but the sampling and arrangement of sounds and beats are crafty and interesting.

The flip side to the dark and cynical cuts is a sort of grunge samadhi that elevates the mood somewhat. Cuts like "AnandaShiva" and "Maya" bring a more otherworldly and less overtly political feel -- something closer to ravelike aural ecstasy.

There's no info on the CD cover as to the "who," "what" or "why" behind the Cult. So as you try to decipher the sound bytes and runes embedded in the CD's digital grooves, you might glimpse into the Cult's Web site (http://whiterabbitcult.com). The site answers few questions about the group, but it will give you a glimpse into the weird and, I hope, tongue-in-cheek religion that the Cult is trying to disseminate.

My favorite room in this particular Web dungeon was The Chamber of Supreme Wisdom: a blackened screen with two eyeballs that look back and forth from left and right. The Grand Alter is still "Under Construction" -- hey, cathedrals aren't built in a day, ya know -- and the Membership Chamber informs us that applications for membership are not accepted. But they do take American Express, MasterCard and Visa in what I guess is the Cult's chamber of commerce.

-- Malcolm Howard

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Life Is Still Sweet
White Hassle
Orange Recordings

Let's start by getting one thing clear: White Hassle is not an Aryan Power band. They are simply a trio from the upper East Coast who named their band after the White Castle hamburger chain, and apparently never thought that we'd all be so bitter and cynical that we'd assume the worst. In any case, no matter what these guys call themselves, they'll still be one of the most innovative bands in recent years to spasmodically fling themselves into the spotlight.

The challenge that Marcellus Hall, Matt Oliverio and Dave Varenka took on was mighty: updating skiffle. The twangy scat guitarlike American jug band music is not often blended with modern music of any genre, due to its unwieldy uniqueness. Born in the 1920s, it was revived in England in the early 1950s and helped spark the Beatles. It was a species unto itself -- until White Hassle came along. On their new five-song EP, Life Is Still Sweet, the band has ingeniously, smoothly, -- dare I say flawlessly?-- and perhaps even effortlessly mixed the prickly skiffle with drum and bass dubs, techno spiels and an all-over modern sound. Also stirred into the brew is a hearty dose of pop skimmed from '70s cheese, both styles fawning upon the simple, uncontainably joyous skiffle base. Quick, witty lyrics are supported by Varenka's percussion work on drums and pots and pans, and by the pure, Guthrie-brand passion in Hall's vocals, reminiscent of Dave Pirner, Cake's John McCrea or, on a few tracks, the melodic vocal blend of Italian alt-rockers Satellite Inn. During "Watertank," when Hall proclaims, "If you miss this train/there'll be another right behind it," you not only understand exactly what he's talking about, you're slapping your thigh and exclaiming, "You're damn right there is!" Oliverio deserves a medal for keeping time with the feisty arrangements. While he isn't yet up to par with, say, Lonnie Donegan, Oliverio is on his way.

All in all, Life Is Still Sweet is a youthful, buoyant excursion into the sunny fields of modern skiffle, and, personally, I don't want to go home.

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