Autechre

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In electronic music these days, there’s an arms race to see who can produce the most elaborate visual spectacle possible — usually to distract from the fact without said spectacle, all the audience would be looking at is one or two people hunched over laptops. And hey, I love a good gee-whiz show as much as the next aging raver — especially when it marries futuristic glitch to museum-quality stage design, like Amon Tobin’s 3D-projection mapped ISAM tour did in 2012. But you know what I love even more? The fact that British duo Autechre have done a complete 180 and now perform most of their shows in total darkness — or as close to total darkness as pesky things like fire codes will allow for (darn those vibe-killing yet potentially life-saving “Exit” signs).

I was lucky enough to see Sean Booth and Rob Brown perform in this format here in L.A. in 2015, and it was, in its own way, more mind-blowing than any EDM laser light show. Autechre’s music, which the Mancunian duo records and performs on a customized aggregation of software, patches and virtual synths called “the system,” is so dense and alien-sounding that, over the course of 90 minutes, it begins to fill a darkened room with something close to a physical presence. Sounds seem to leap and dart around you in three dimensions; you become aware of how certain bass frequencies register not just as sound but as a physical sensation, rumbling somewhere just behind your collarbone.

Hearing live music in the dark has other, more pragmatic advantages, as well. The shadowy, still-faintly-visible head of that one six-foot-four dude who of course planted himself right in front of you just as the music was starting? After a few minutes, you forget all about stretch and his fat noggin. Also, you spend way less money on beer when it’s too dark to see where the bar is. Thanks, Autechre!

Even with the lights on, Autechre’s music is out-there enough to merit a spot on the Weird List. They’re second only to Aphex Twin among pioneers of the ’90s style of stuttering, off-kilter, glitchy electronic music lumped under the unfortunate but convenient heading of IDM, or intelligent dance music (hey, it was either that or “what the fuck is this shit?”). Over the years, as they’ve added to and perfected “the system,” their sound has evolved beyond its early influences — which included everything from ’80s hip-hop to electro-industrial experimenters Coil and Meat Beat Manifesto to avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen — to become a genre unto itself, a manifestation of its own closed-loop schemata, with the machines acting as a third band member, chasing algorithms to increasingly bent, bloopy, intricately polyrhythmic ends.

Autechre didn’t start out weird. Aside from a jokey spoken-word intro in which a dentist tells his patient to “lean back and relax” before we hear a drill and the patient’s agonized, gargling moans, their first single “Cavity Job” was a pretty standard piece of early ’90s British acid house, with the kind of pulsating synths and looped breakbeats already popularized by acts like Orbital and A Guy Called Gerald. Their second album, Amber, on the influential Warp label (also home to Aphex Twin), was a largely ambient affair — trippy, but not a radical departure from what many other chill-room electronic acts were doing at the time.

Then, in 1994 — less than a year after Amber — they released a three-song EP called Anti that was both bold sonic experiment and political statement. The EP’s final track, “Flutter,” was a jittery, shapeshifting beast composed in response to a British law that outlawed raves. Since the law defined raves as parties that featured music played as a “succession of repetitive beats,” Brown and Booth programmed “Flutter” to contain beats that never exactly repeated themselves — a fact they called out on the album’s packaging, though they slyly cautioned DJs against playing it in public without “a lawyer and musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.” It’s arguably the first example of instrumental electronic music explicitly used as a form of political protest. It’s also probably the earliest Autechre track that fully embraces the glitchy, non-linear style for which they’re now best-known.

As the ’90s wore on and “electronica” had its first big commercial boom, thanks to acts like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, Autechre’s music continued down a much different path, getting weirder, harsher and more abstract with each passing release. Their music videos reflected this — especially the 1996 clip for “Second Bad Vilbel,” which marked the directorial debut of Chris Cunningham, who would go on to make groundbreaking videos for Björk and Aphex Twin among others. (Cunningham wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the original, so he released a re-edit of it in 2002; this is that later version.)

As Autechre’s music got more abstract, so did their album and song titles: Chiastic Slide, Envane, “Goz Quarter,” “Calbruc,” “VI Scose Poise.” Most of the words are random nonsense, but some recurring ones have specific meanings to Brown and Booth that they have a hard time articulating. When a Pitchfork interviewer asked them about the word “casual” in several song titles, for example, Brown explained that they label “catalog shelf stuff” with similar traits. “It’s fucking real difficult to explain exactly what we mean by them,” Booth added. “We know. If Rob says, ‘I’ve got some more casuals here, do you want them,’ I’ll know exactly what he means. But I can’t put into words what it is.” (Side note: The duo has also said that there is no official, correct way to pronounce their name. They say “aw-TEK-er” in a Mancunian accent, but I’ve also heard “AH-tek-ur” and even “aw-TEK-cruh” like they’re French or something. But hey, go nuts and say it however you want.)

By the early 2000s, Autechre were both elder statesmen of IDM and among its most forward-thinking practitioners. On tracks like 2002’s “Gantz Graf” — given an excellently psychedelic yet cyborg-like video by British graphic artist Alex Rutterford — they chop, splice and stutter programmed beats and synthesizers until it sounds like machines howling in agony, or ecstasy, or possible both.

These days, in addition to their lights-out shows, Brown, Booth and their “system” continue to churn out new music at an astonishing rate. Their 2016 album elseq 1-5 contained over four hours of music, and this year they followed that up with another eight hours of music, originally presented over four two-hour segments on NTS Radio back in April and released last month both digitally and as either an 8-CD or 12-LP box set under the title NTS Sessions 1-4. (Although Booth has said of past Autechre releases that the “actual” product is the lossless FLAC files — the implication being that anything else is a derivative version that may not be a 100% accurate representation of the duo’s original work.) I couldn’t find any excerpts of the NTS Sessions on YouTube except a few that were uploaded at half-speed and double-speed (Autechre fans are kooky, y’all) but you can listen to the whole thing on Autechre’s official site or on Spotify. Next time you have eight hours to kill, I highly recommend it. Listening to the whole thing is like meditating inside a broken CD player. That’s falling down a really long flight of stairs. Made of mercury. And acid. There’s definitely something having to do with acid in there somewhere.

Before I play out this post with an amazing unofficial video for a track from my favorite Autechre album, 2008’s Quaristice, I want to leave you with a couple of quotes from Sean Booth. The first comes from the aforementioned Pitchfork interview and is especially relevant to this blog, because in it, Booth makes a case — which I completely agree with — that today’s audiences are more primed than ever for weird music, even though much of what they’re getting is cookie-cutter and derivative:

“One of the things about the internet is that everybody can be very quickly educated on music, but that’s a double-edged sword, because you’ve got a bunch of artists who are desperate to fit in. Everyone’s in a rush to sound the same. At the same time you’ve got this audience who have got access to fucking everything that was ever made, so the audience is actually extremely sophisticated. It’s a weird paradox. You hear a lot of stuff with the same kind of synth lead and the same sucky compression and the same kick drums, the same long chords. It’s incredibly conservative. Then you’ve got this audience who know about Xenakis and Stockhausen and they’re fucking 16-year-olds. I see that as a great opportunity to make things that are genuinely a bit weird.”

The second quote comes from a long Q&A on the electronic fan forum site watmm.com from 2013 (and which I’m cribbing from Pitchfork’s review of NTS Sessions 1-4 — I’m not usually all up in Pitchfork’s business like this but when it comes to Autechre, they know their stuff) in which someone asked Booth what an Autechre dance track might sound like today and he replied, “but we are making dance music.” Damn straight they are. Trust me, if you listen to this shit long enough, you can totally dance to it. To others it might look like more you’re having a stroke, but that’s just part of the fun.

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Weird of the Day: Flying Lotus, “Ready Err Not”

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Photo by Tim Saccenti

Today’s weirdness comes from reader MyaIsDead, who belatedly brought to our attention the so-insanely-gross-you-can’t-stop-watching video for Flying Lotus’ “Ready Err Not.” FlyLo’s work here in Los Angeles is hard to escape; he more or less single-handedly invented the experimental fusion of hip-hop and glitchy electronica called “beat music” and was the most famous product of Low End Theory, the long-running Northeast L.A. club night that just ended last month. And I knew he had made some crazy videos, as well as a 2017 feature-length film called Kuso that some have called “the grossest movie ever made.”

But somehow I missed the video for “Ready Err Not,” which came out way back in 2014 — though I’m kinda glad I did, because even just having read descriptions of Kuso without actually watching it, David Firth’s cutout animation of “Ready Err Not” now seems almost quaint by comparison. If Clive Barker had been the seventh member of Monty Python, maybe their cartoons would have featured dismembered babies and in-bred eyeball-eaters, too.

Weird of the Day: Can’t Hold Waffles, “Spare Change Chicken Incident”

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Of all the internet goldmines for weird music — and they are legion — my favorite is probably Bandcamp. Something about its simple format and tagging system seems to make it an especially inviting playground for freaks from around the globe who want to label their music “experimental,” “art sound” or, in the case of Can’t Hold Waffles, “hélicon deep video game polka.”

Can’t Hold Waffles has two EPs on Bandcamp, both released last month. Studies for Piano and Burning Kitchen Appliances is as delightful as its name implies (especially a dancefloor banger called “Healthy as a Pumpkin”) but I have to give Spare Change Chicken Incident the nod as the weirder and more intriguing of the two. The reader who brought it to our attention, Frank Bähr, describes it as “gamelan composed through algorithms and performed by preschool escapees.” I’d say it reminds me more of what fellow Bandcamp prankster Buttress O’Kneel might put together if you said, “Write a bunch of 30-second loops that sound like Four Tet having a nervous breakdown and give them titles like ‘Robotic Weather Processor Device’ and ‘It Was Getting Late and the Dental Hygienists Weren’t There Yet.'”

So who’s behind Can’t Hold Waffles? Hell if we know. Allegedly it’s one of the 5,000 people who live in the fishing village of Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia — which, come to think of it, is probably true, because anyone making up a fake hometown for this project probably would’ve chosen one of Sheet Harbour’s more colorfully named neighboring communities, like (I swear these are real) Sober Island or Mushaboom. Their bio lists Francis Bacon and Wittgenstein as influences and explains, “Our songs explore the relationship between oral hygiene and multimedia experiences.” Does this mean Can’t Hold Waffles’ music sounds better if you listen to it while brushing your teeth? I’ll try that tonight and report back.

Eartheater

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Photo by Samantha West

Alexandra Drewchin is based in New York City, but she grew up on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania. It feels important to mention this up front in describing the music she makes under the name Eartheater, and not just because horses figure prominently in the project’s iconography, including the striking cover of her latest album, IRISIRI. Even though much of what she does is programmed and electronic, there’s something very equine and pastoral about it. The rhythms canter and gallop; the sounds flex and ripple with muscular grace; her vocals, though sometimes harsh and processed, more often float over the mix like they’re echoing from a great distance, panning and Dopplering as if sung by someone in constant motion.

There’s also an alien quality to Drewchin’s Eartheater work — ironically, it sounds more not-of-this-world than her other project, a psych/noise-rock band she does with drummer Greg Fox that’s actually called Guardian Alien. As Eartheater, she shares with artists like Matmos and Amon Tobin a gift for blurring the lines between organic and electronic. Synthesizers breathe and sigh like animals; acoustic instruments and field recordings contort into jagged, mechanical shapes. A track title from her first album, Metalepsis, is telling: “The Internet Is Handmade.” You might think it’s a piss-take on all the bespoke this and artisanal that infesting the hipster communities of Brooklyn and Queens, where she’s based. But actually, it’s her way of pointing out that technology, which we always think of as somehow removed from humanity, is actually just another expression of it. “I’m all about seeing the nature in the motherboard — honoring the metals that make [our] computers run,” she once told an interviewer.

Here’s her latest video, “Peripheral,” in which she takes a blowtorch to an ice sculpture and performs acupuncture on a massage chair.

Her live performances are already the stuff on New York art nerd legend. At one, described by a Vice writer, she wore angel wings and wielded a chainsaw. At another, she danced in a trenchcoat and performed contortionist backbends illuminated only by a pair of flashlights. “I find the ouroboric-like shape of a deep back bend to be uniquely altering,” she said in another interview. “I prescribe this shape to myself and find it’s really helpful to unlock deep emotions while performing.” (For someone who has just shy of 4,300 Facebook likes as I write this, Eartheater has done a lot of interviews — which I think says more about the ouroboric nature of the New York music press than it does about her.)

Speaking of contortions, here’s another Eartheater video that features lots of them, courtesy of Drewchin and fellow dancer Gina Chiappetta. Contortionism is another good visual metaphor for Eartheater’s music; she twists her vocals and instruments as dramatically as she twists her limbs. There’s something both powerful and vulnerable about it — she looks strong and fierce, but also at certain moments like her neck’s about to break.

We started with horses and that’s where we’ll finish, with the video for “Inclined,” another track off IRISIRI, Eartheater’s third album, which was just released in June on PAN Records. The video itself is, by Drewchin’s standards, pretty straightforward: She rides a horse around a bay at low tide, dressed like a steampunk bride in leather and a white veil, and — well, that’s it, really. (Oh, and all the lyrics are subtitled in Russian — a nod to her father, perhaps, who is Russian.) But the track itself is supremely weird in a way that I love. It’s like someone badly described hip-hop to a fan of The Slits and Philip Glass — “it’s aggro vocals that are kinda chanted over loops and shit” — who then attempted their version of a hip-hop track. “I like to customize my style/You can’t buy this — suck my bile,” is my favorite lyric of 2018 so far.

P.S. Thanks again to our anonymous friend at Interweb Megalink, who introduced us to Buttress O’Kneel and also succeeded where the New York press failed in turning us on to Eartheater. Thanks for helping us customize our style, Mr. and/or Ms. Megalink.

Buttress O’Kneel

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Doing this blog, I’m constantly amazed at how many talented musicians and producers out there release their stuff anonymously, with virtually no promotion or online presence beyond a Bandcamp account or Facebook page. Such is the case with Buttress O’Kneel, a mysterious Australian creator of what she calls “plunderphonic intellectronica” and “excruciating postcore compop.” According to the folks at the equally mysterious InterWebMegaLink, who introduced us to Ms. O’Kneel and her sample-heavy sonic experiments, she’s been cranking out this stuff since 1998 or so — but virtually no information on her exists online anywhere. No photos, no bio, no interviews. I’m totally taking InterWebMegaLink’s word for it that she is, in fact, a woman from Australia and not some aging ex-raver dude from, say, Bristol or Pittsburgh or some other hub for this sort of musical cut-and-paste geekery.

O’Kneel — or BOK, for short — has produced everything from “audio documentaries” on the history of fossil fuels and racism in Australia to compilations of damaged CDs skipping. But she seems to especially enjoy chopping, distorting, stretching and otherwise mangling popular music in clever, unexpected ways. Here, for example, is her take on Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” called “Tentacles for Troy,” an anagram of the original song title. (“i get deep into anagrams as titles because it feels like a microcosmic reference to what i’m doing to the music – complete memetic rearrangement, from ostensibly recognisable shiz,” she explained in a recent Facebook post.) Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the Madonna sample in the intro.

Many of BOK’s sonic experiments will be familiar to anyone who’s explored the worlds of mashups and plunderphonics. She’s dabbled in time-stretching, for example, taking familiar songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and slowing them down until they’re transformed into ominous, oceanic exercises in abstract minimalism. But what makes BOK stand out, I think, is that she always takes these more familiar techniques one step further. In the case of time-stretching, she decided to see what would happen if she instead compressed a familiar song down to just a few seconds, then stretched it back to its original length. She calls the results “pop smears” and they’re kind of amazing:

More recently, she’s been experimenting with MP3-to-MIDI converters, which she discovered introduce weird atonal harmonics into the vocal melodies and make most of the rest track’s elements sound like an old-timey player piano having a seizure. (“It’s a godawful mess of misplayed piano garbage,” reads the Bandcamp description. “Either that, or it’s brilliant conceptual sound art! You decide!”) The process makes a familiar pop song like Camila Cabello’s “Havana” sound vaguely terrifying, but when applied just to an isolated vocal track from Metallica’s James Hetfield, there’s something kind of hilarious about it. It’s like Bartok on meth.

Speaking of Bartok: Even classical music is not safe from BOK’s undying love of warping the familiar beyond recognition. Here’s part of “The Four Four Seasons,” a relatively simple (by BOK’s convoluted standards) exercise in organized chaos that takes four different versions of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and lays them on top of each other:

I’m tempted to just go on inserting Bandcamp links ad infinitum, because nearly everything Buttress O’Kneel does is interesting on some level. There’s “This Sick Beat,” which combines Taylor Swift with recordings of “pathological” heartbeats (a very plunderphonic-y response to Swift’s trademarking of the phrase “This Sick Beat”). There’s her field recording experiments with another mysterious producer named Panthera Leo, a project called The Fruiting Body that was allegedly recorded back around 2001 but was only just released earlier this year. There are albums on her Bandcamp page (so many albums) with intriguingly apt titles like Post-remix Retrostep, Shitcore and Hard Dadapop. It’s all great, and worth diving deep into if you have a day or two to kill and want to imagine a world in which Venetian Snares got on the mashup train back when that was a trendy thing.

But I’ll leave you with just two pieces of music that I think sum up, as much as it’s possible to sum up, the full spectrum of BOK’s brilliance. The first, “Merzbowie,” is exactly what it sounds like: a mashup of David Bowie and influential Japanese noise artist Merzbow, mixed live and then run through AudioMulch, an “interactive modular” software suite that is apparently one of Buttress’ favorite tools. The results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect and sort of mesmerizing, although it’s probably not coincidence that one my cats puked three times while I was playing it.

Contrast that with “Breaking Windows,” an ambient electronic track that uses nothing but default Windows sounds to build something unexpectedly beautiful. The accompanying video is pretty fun, too.

So who is Buttress O’Kneel? I still have no idea, but I hope more people discover her endlessly inventive music.

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Mandek Penha

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A few months ago, we received an email that began with the words, “Greetings Weirdest Band in the World from The Current Earthly Embodiment of Lord Mandek Penha!”

Lord Mandek — or The CEE, as he seems to prefer to be called — went on to explain that he is the leader of a North Korean-based cult called The Church of Sarrean Alignment (C.S.A.), which recently relocated to Melbourne, Australia because, you know, recruiting new members for your cult is tricky when you’re based in the most closed society on the planet. He’s also now trying to launch himself as a pop star, because I guess that’s the best way to recruit cult members nowadays, or something. Actually, I’m not entirely clear on what the music has to do with the cult and vice versa, but it doesn’t really matter when it leads to wonderfully bizarre music videos like this one:

Mandek Penha may or may not be the creation of an Australian performance artist, but rather than speculate on his identity, it’s far more fun to buy into the elaborate mythology he’s created around Mandek Penha and his church. Apparently the Church of Sarrean Alignment dates back to 1350 and exists to spread love and fight the evil influence of an ancient race of beings called The Hish’ry Cosh’ry, who spread Hidden Negative Energy through their many emissaries on Earth, the Hish-Pigs — whose ranks include Rod Stewart (saw that one coming) and, uh, Louis Armstrong. (Sorry, Lord Mandek, we here at TWBITW will forever love Satchmo. Does that make us Hish-Pigs?) I would’ve assumed Bon Jovi was definitely a Hish-Pig, but judging from this video, he’s actually a high priest in the C.S.A.

There’s way more about Mandek and his cult church on his website, but the cosmology is way too complicated to fully explain here. Suffice it to say the C.S.A. promises eternal life to all its followers in an alternate world called South Sarra — black-and-white Nikes and Kool-Aid consumption optional, one hopes. Also, The CEE is currently seeking Brides (and really, what cult leader worth his salt isn’t?) that he can impregnate to bring forth into the world the Future Earthly Embodiment. Through mechanisms that aren’t quite clear to me — possibly because I haven’t yet joined the church and achieved enlightenment, or possibly because I am unwittingly a Sarrean Interloper — it’s apparently already known that this next Current Earthly Embodiment will be female. In fact, she already has her own EP, Our Future: The Next Earthly Embodiment, which came out back in 2012. Here’s a video from it, which also provides a glimpse of Church of Sarrean Alignment educational methods.

If you want to join the Church of Sarrean Alignment, you can, of course. Here’s a list of current members, ranked according to their level of enlightenment, or something. And here’s a registration form for new church members, which asks them to list their strengths and weaknesses and “accept the total spiritual authority of The Current Earthly Embodiment, and every Embodiment of Lord Mandek Penha for the rest of our time on Earth.” The form doesn’t ask you to send money, which is just one of several clear indications that despite some superficial resemblances to Scientology and the people in that crazy Wild Wild Country Netflix documentary, this is definitely, totally not a cult. Look, Lord Mandek even got a bunch of his followers to make a video called “We Are Not Cult” to prove it.

There, don’t you feel better? I know I — wait a second, is that longtime friend of the blog Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin in there doing the “We Are Not a Cult” dance? Holy shit, it is! Petunia, for the love of pete, get the fuck out of there!! IT’S A GODDAMN CULT!!!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the most important part, and the whole reason The CEE graced us with his email communiqué in the first place: Mandek Penha has a new album out! It’s called Our Present: The Current Earthly Embodiment and it’s available now via Bandcamp for a mere $20, which includes a poster and Lord Mandek’s undying (no, really, he’s a multidimensional immaterial being who lives forever) gratitude. I can attest that playing it on repeat does not automatically indoctrinate you into the Church of Sarrean Alignment, but it does ward off Hidden Negative Energy. And Rod Stewart. I haven’t seen him once since I started listening!

I’ll leave you with the final track from Our Present, “Must Reach IMZ,” which gives you a pretty good idea of the overall vibe of the album — alternately melodramatic and catchy synth-pop, punctuated by lots of choral vocals and the occasional sax solo. Oh, and “IMZ” are an ancient alien race and the sworn enemies of The Hish’ry Cosh’ry. Followers of Mandek Penha will eventually merge their DNA with that the IMZ, or something. Sorry, I’m not good at explaining religious stuff. My entire religious upbringing consisted of my parents giving me an illustrated children’s Bible on my 10th birthday and saying, “Let us know if you have any questions.”

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Infecticide

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This week’s weird band comes to us from France and was suggested by reader Tropitox. (Thanks, Trop!) We don’t know much about them because pretty much everything written about them on the web is in French and we’re American scum who never bothered to learn a foreign language. But language barriers aside, you can get a pretty good idea of what they sound like from this description on their Facebook page: “Post-industriel-Synthpunk-electrowave-neo-dada calé-découpé.” According to Google translator that last part means “wedged-cut,” which is presumably either a reference to their hairstyles or how they like their pommes frites.

Infecticide’s music is sort of a cross between ’80s synth-pop and the dirty electro of French labels like Ed Banger Records. The weirdest part of their sound is the vocals, usually delivered in French but occasionally in delightfully stilted English, Spanish or German. But it’s less in their music than in their videos that they venture into bizarro territory. We’ll start with “Les animaux sauvages,” which is like a cross between a school play staged by sad-faced French grownups and a rave at a furry convention.

Now that you kinda like them, we’ll drop “Babybelle” on you, which will haunt your dreams:

As far as we can tell, they’ve only released one album so far, called Chansons Tristes (Sad Songs), which you can obtain from the Free Music Archive. While you’re waiting for your downloads, pause to read the hilariously jumbled album description, presumably translated from the French, which helpfully explains that the album’s “fifteen pieces with neo-Dadaist lyrics will leave speechless all spirit unable to go beyond the first degree and enrapture personalities in a displacing way.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

We’ll leave you with one of Infecticide’s more recent videos, a clip called “Petit tricheur” (“Little Cheater”) that attempts to do for garbage bags and bowties what The Ramones did for biker jackets.