Damaged Bug is the vaguely electronic side project of L.A.-based John Dwyer, the preternaturally prolific musician best known for his work as frontshaman & creative locus of garage-psych outfit Thee Oh Sees. ‘Bunker Funk’ is his third record under this moniker (a follow-up to 2015’s labyrinthine ‘Cold Hot Plumbs’), and comes via Dwyer’s own imprint Castle Face Records. The whole idea behind the Damaged Bug project was to give Dwyer an outlet to follow the more outlandish experimental impulses he could never quite fit into the tightly manic garage-rock framework of his Thee Oh Sees output. A press release claims ‘Bunker Funk’ as Dwyer’s “most rhythmically ambitious” effort yet, which is something of an understatement. Listening to this album is like waking up one morning to find you’ve mysteriously morphed into an enormous bug, only to then be unceremoniously shot into space.
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The last few Thee Oh Sees releases have betrayed Dwyer’s love for the heritage of krautrock, a strain of progressive German music that emerged in the 70’s. ‘Bunker Funk’ is his most brazen attempt yet to incorporate the experimental instincts of that elektronische sound into his (by now well-established) garage-psych prescript. Drums are used less as a timekeeping measure and more as a key component in the churning experimentalism – the constantly shapeshifting patterns often weaponised, springing from the background to demand your attention. It all feels like a callback to the aesthetic agenda of the pre-eminent krautrock bands (Can, Neu!, Agitation Free, etc.), or even of the late-70’s output of Manchester hellraisers like The Fall and Magazine – that sense of rock’s conventional rubric being redrawn as something that champions rhythm over melody.
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The blueprint of many krautrock bands was the idea of a group where each musician operates independently, but, paradoxically, with a coherence and efficiency that seems pre-programmed – a sort of organic machine. Dwyer seems to want to follow this blueprint, only reimagined as a one-man studio show. The eponymous track ‘Bunker Funk’ deploys the krautrock signifier of a relentless, patrolling drum beat and bolsters it with melting electric guitar and synths that mewl like a gang of distressed cats. On the joyously creepy ‘Slay The Priest’, an ominous electro-pulse reverberates around some off-kilter drums – a soupy arrangement mitigated by the appearance of Dwyer’s androgynous vocals, their prayerlike cadence making him sound like a demented friar emerging from the woods to greet the “rising sun”. It all could easily have been cribbed from a schlocky folk-horror film.
Oddly, Dwyer’s vocals – that signature, primal “OW!” – act as a percussive root far more often than the drums/bass do. On ‘The Cryptologist’, anxious soundscapes are kept tenable by Dwyer’s chanted vocals and some crystalline synth injections – only for a jittery flute to arrive and ricochet around the track’s final passage. Even on ‘Bog Dash’, the record’s ostensible opener, the only reliable element is Dwyer’s yelp, as a squiggly guitar crawls up a wall of synths like a centipede. Despite the album closing with the sound of literal crickets, most of ‘Bunker Funk’ is basically Dwyer trying to lead a synth-powered séance to summon Jaki Liebezeit, recently departed drummer of Can and the ghost in this particular machine. If you like rhythmically complex electronica – think Kraftwerk or the more conceptual Depeche Mode stuff – you’re likely to get a kick out of this.
Bunker Funk is out now via Castle Face Records.