Dust is one of those relatively obscure, short-lived bands that come up every so often in “proto-metal” lists. Proto-metal? One of my favorite genres, however loosely articulated. Before there was “heavy,” there was “proto” – the original, the primitive, the
practice runs and experiments. Though I tend to think of it as the heavy shit that came after the acid-laden depths of Jefferson Airplane and before the all out assault of Judas Priest, later NWOBHM bands, and thrash, this isn’t entirely true; bands like Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, and Iron Butterfly, all “proto-metal” stalwarts, played concurrently with psychedelic bands in the late ‘60s. But proto-metal feels like a transition, melding kaleidoscopic distortion with blues-inspired riffage, hinting at the low intensity of what would become doom and stoner metal. And as any journalist or composer or ecologist knows, the greatest vitality tends to reside among the transitions, along the edges.
Formed in New York in 1968, Dust was a trio composed of Richie Wise on guitar and vocals, and two teenagers, Kenny Aaronson killing it on bass and Marc Bell destroying the drums. Though they left only two albums — Dust in 1971 and Hard Attack a year later — all the musicians went on to other projects: Wise and their lyricist/manager Kenny Kerner worked in production with Kiss; Aaronson became a session musician and toured with Joan Jett and Billy Idol, among others; and Marc Bell, well, he became Marky Ramone in 1978, and today is the only living member of the longest-running Ramones lineup. Both albums were released on the now-defunct Kama Sutra Records.
Hard Attack‘s strongest point is its dynamism. All songs are within the classic rock rubric, but showcase the incredible diversity of styles in that giant genre. Every track is distinguishable from the other. Sure, it’s easy to pick out formulas on the album, but Dust plays around with them so that, ultimately, none define it.
Pull Away, So Many Times The perfect post break-up anthem. The first 30 seconds suggest a slow ballad, with woefully strummed acoustic chords backing a story of desperate and lost love: “I know it’s over/We could never make it/So I guess I’ll just pull away.” But the sappy shit ends there. In comes electric guitar with staccato chords and bucking basslines propelled like an
impassioned heart, together imploring you to move on while still allowing you to be righteously pissed off. There’s a lot of uncertainty (“Oooh, I couldn’t live without ya”) bolstered by that bouncing bass, followed by charging ahead fearlessness (“Oooh, ooh, I’m ’bout to try”), all driven home by decisive guitar licks. It’s classic ’70s hard rock. There’s a sweet little bridge where the acoustic comes back in before the lead guitar breakdown for the last :50 seconds. “Pull Away So Many Times” is easy to dance to and raise your spirits.
Walk in the Soft Rain I awoke with this song in my head for weeks, mentally hearing every downstrum and drumfill before I was coherent enough to open my crusty eyelids upon yet another brand new day. This was fun at first, but like any all-consuming love, it started feeling destructive. When it was still relentless while I camped on the banks of the John Muir Trail, I knew “Walk in the Soft Rain” and I had to call it quits.
But a month previous, I was on an Air Canada flight from Montreal to SFO going through every Jethro Tull song on my iPod (from This Was to Crest of a Knave) determined to find out of which Tull song it indelibly reminded me. And I found it, or I found at least a couple, all from their third and best album, Benefit (Island, 1970). Not to argue Dust ripped them off, though Benefit was released two years prior to Dust; sometimes it seems there’s only so much that can be done with rock music, and melodic suggestion is inevitable.
“Walk in the Soft Rain” begins with a friendly chugging — you can almost see someone playing their acoustic and doing that unselfconscious chicken-neck thing. It sounds basic — they’re using either open or inverted chords (I think) on the high strings, as well as fiddling with an
open D suspended, both lending lots of sunshine and eminent possibility. The first “Whoa, Tull!” part is the lick at 1:14, a simple bluesy pull-off and smooth bend; I don’t know if it’s simply the guitar tone or what, but I can’t help but hear the punctuated, pre-chorus lead from “With You There to Help Me” off Benefit. The second “Tull!” part is the 15 second chord progression, the first one at 1:35, that ascends up the neck and then halfway back down again. Though definitely not identical, it is super reminiscent of the “one step forward, two steps back” progression lagging its way up the neck at 1:09 on “Nothing to Say.” And then, still on Benefit, the descending triplets at the beginning of “To Cry You a Song” and the post-chorus lick at 1:01 on “Teacher” both possess the same feeling: eternal hippie heaviness. And to think, I scoffed when my friend — who’s been making fun of me for loving Jethro Tull (and for wearing Cliff Burton-inspired bell bottoms) for years — made the initial comparison.
This song is one of my favorites on the album in its own right, though. I especially love the crystally drums, the sound of sunlight streaming through a beaded curtain, diffused by an afternoon cloud of pot smoke. And I don’t especially care for beaded curtains or pot smoke. It all begs for a meadow to run through.
Thusly Spoken As with almost all tracks on Hard Attack, “Thusly Spoken” is proof that emphasis was on “proto” rather than “metal” when that moniker was tagged on Dust. Excessively dramatic, this song. So maudlin, with its loungy violins and piano straight out of a hotel lobby bar. It’s ostentatious, like old wealth, or zombie debutantes still swirling their circa 1983 peach and baby blue gowns at a cotillion, the chandelier falling into the middle of the dance floor and the rotten living dead paying no head.
Still I wonder, how can Dust create a sound so gaudy and gushy yet simultaneously so hard on the soul? Part of it, aside from the general languidness, is the electric organ coming in after the first couple verses, and also the lyrics, which seem to be about a party in hell (or hell on earth?). They do a good job conjuring Pink Floyd with this one.
These first three songs happen to be my three favorites. Later in the album, “I’ve Been Thinkin’” and “How Many Horses” bring in a country-rock twang, the thick syrup of slide guitar, the latter song complete with a gorgeously whiny solo reminiscent of George Harrison. “Suicide” goes through all the fatal options (including standing in the rain with an electric guitar), but with drums harder than the world on your back and a solo that’s frantically all over the neck, there’s no bullshit. Post-”Suicide” is a sweet 25-second flamenco-inspired ditty, called “Entrances” even though it’s the goodbye track.
I have a feeling Dust’s other album, their self-titled 1971 debut, is at least as good and possibly way heavier than Hard Attack. This post from The Ripple Effect (“the best music you’re not listening to”) compares their song “From a Dry Camel” to Sabbath and calls it “massively mentally distorted.” Sounds about….awesome. Oh Dust, I just can’t pull away, so many times….
***Special thanks to Metalcakes for sending me all the tracks! Go make some cupcakes.***