The club was packed before the openers even began.
In early May, Raleigh’s Whatever Brains took the second slot on a three-band bill at Kings. This wasn’t an exceptionally rare circumstance: Whatever Brains had expressed few qualms about overplaying their own market, sometimes stepping onto a few Triangle stages per month and often opening for out-of-town pals on tour. But in the weeks leading up to Whatever Brains’ shared bill with Lightning Bolt, the band had quietly told some of their most steadfast supporters thatfor an accumulation of small reasonsthis would be their last show after seven busy years. They would record one more album of mostly finished songs, put it out and step away without any fanfare for one of North Carolina’s absolute best bands of the last two decades.
That night, fans and family members nodded their heads a little bit harder to the band’s double-drum blasts and sheets of synthesizer noise, maybe chuckled a bit more to Rich Ivey’s caustic between-song banter. Whatever Brains exited stage right in a final blaze of feedback.
The Brains finally broke the news five months later with a solitary sentence shared on Facebook: “ALSO WHATEVER BRAINS ISN’T A BAND ANYMORE.” But the otherwise private nature of the band’s end fits their larger narrative. With 16 releases in less than a decade, including a ream of singles and four LPs, Whatever Brains have long opted to let the work speak for the band behind it. The members always avoided taking a press photo and, despite steadily mounting national attention, never really sought a bigger label or publicist beyond what the locals of Sorry State Records (and, before that, Bull City) could provide. And rather than roam far and wide on loss-heavy tours, Whatever Brains went on only a few runs, mostly sticking close to home to write and record. Making music always seemed to matter more than the proverbial goal of “making it.”
In fact, the band’s electrifying fourth and final LP, recorded in the month after that last live stand, proclaims that perspective from the start with biting opener, “An Object.” It’s an unqualified send-up of peers who use the machinations of the industry to prop up a lack of ideas. “We constructed an object to travel the earth and convince it that we are great men,” Ivey deadpans over barbed guitars and marching drums. “Now our friends and families are oh so impressed.” It’s a delirious, dissonance-undergirded pop song, written from a perspective drunk on self-satisfaction.
That is a problem Whatever Brains have never had. In recent years, Whatever Brains have steered increasingly from their early guitar-bass-drums approach. They’ve shaken off stereotypical rock-band strictures in favor of carousel-like synthesizer melodies, noise-damaged electronics, lurid harmonies and complicated interlocking rhythms. William Evans, Evan Williams, Matt Northrup and Josh Lawson have all brilliantly expanded their reach as instrumentalists, fashioning a warped fortress around Ivey’s nasal sneer.
Whatever Brains push the upper limit of that approach for these nine numbers by using guitars for accents and tricks, not the substance of the tunes themselves. The change allows them to add force to these lyrical attackson bad cops and national surveillance, on selfie society and grumpy old men, on posers and whiners. To wit, a three-song suite about belligerent police begins with “Let’s Find a Cop,” a drum-and-keys romp that empties into a climax of obliterative noise. Part two, or the violent “Pluries,” rides a blown-out bass line into an ambient passage that suggests the sound of ringing bells and fired guns as reimagined by electroacoustic composer Christian Fennesz. “Tape” zigs and zags through an ecstatic, maze-like rhythm section that might as well sample Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. Here, even Ivey’s voice seems to yield to cyborg control, losing its humanity to pronounce: “I gave birth once to a modern idea. They can keep it. I’ve got more.”
Whatever Brains do pick up guitars en masse for one song, “What Happened to All the Destructionaires.” Back in 2008, on the debut Whatever Brains cassette and on a subsequent 2009 single, that title came with a question mark at the end. The song was a fuzzy acoustic shamble about mean people and punks with fancy cellphones. Despite the criticism, it felt soft. Here, though, it’s a blown-out electric beast, the rhythm plodding along like a doom-metal monster and the screaming guitars causing Ivey to fight for space in which to sing.
Seven years ago, this song seemed like a humorous, almost-apologetic lament. Not here: It is the indictment just before the exit, the middle finger thrown in the air one last timea perfectly Whatever Brains way to end an argument that their willfully defiant and restless output always wanted to start, anyway.
Label: Sorry State Records