Boomin' system

Mar 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

What sets Ann Arbor’s Ground EFX apart from other area bands is how unrock the outfit is. Scaling the limits of dub reggae, dancehall, even jungle, the quartet fearlessly looks outside of rock ’n’ roll for the perfect beat. And it’s working. In only a handful of shows since its forming three months ago, Ground EFX managed to rock – in the move-the-crowd sense of the word – every party it’s played, opening last month for reggae legends the Abyssinians and regularly turning it out every other Tuesday at Ann Arbor’s Bird of Paradise.

Formed from the ashes of the disco-dub Butterfly, Ground EFX is as much postrock exploration as prerock groove-building, a reminder of what less-is-more funk was before every tie-dyed yahoo with a hemp hat and a hacky sack discovered the "funky drummer" beat and decided reggae was something for Deadheads to do in the offseason.

"Where Butterfly was striking a lot of middle ground, with Ground EFX we’re looking more into the roots of dance music, African styles, electronic music, everything," says guitarist Neil Dixon Smith. "It’s more broadly abstract and flexible. There’s a lot less sense of formalism. We’re going for a broader sense of style and texture."

Live, Smith sticks to deceptively simple guitar phrases for the better part of a song; keyboardist Kendall Babl tastefully dubs out vintage synth melodies; while guest horns, percussion and dancehall MCs flow in and out. Though GEFX gets its share of Phish types at its shows, the real draw – and sign that they’re hitting – is that people actually dance. And these days, when ravers don’t even dance, that’s saying something.

The key, again, may be in how unrock its members are, too. Drummer Will Osler is an accomplished jazz drummer and former member of avant-gardeners Larval, while bassist Billy Noah is a noted dancehall reggae DJ. The result, as Smith puts it, is "dance music played live."