Animal Collective / Grouper
Fox Theatre; Oakland, CA

[05-26-2009]

Oakland’s Fox Theatre is probably the most perfect venue to see Animal Collective. Futuristic Jedi-Buddhas sit on either side of the stage, their eyes glowing like hot embers as they watch all the indie kids spaz out to a couple of boys playing machines on top of what look like three giant pieces of day-glo ice and a projector casting moving images of stencil art onto a giant white ball that dangles above the stage. And there’s a purple and gold ceiling, too, with stars shining like operatic pieces of glitter. It’s what a theater on Jupiter might look like.

The show is sold out, but most fans are waiting to pile in after the opening act, Grouper — a one-woman showcase of bullshit. Imagine Enya making airport symphonies for hipsters. I try to salvage something from the fuzzy reverb and her long, lonely wails, but I can’t stop picturing her masturbating in front of a full-length mirror. Self-indulgence, indeed.

Grouper plays a 30-minute set, and then it’s time for Animal Collective. A good thing, too, because the place is packed. Usually, I opt for seats in a theater setting — my 20s are starting to feel like my 60s — but I knew I’d want to dance, and so I went with the general admission floor. I wasn’t sorry. Oakland knows how to throw down. I haven’t seen so many white people dancing since Bonnaroo. It was joyful.

Like a good lover, Animal Collective take their time opening the show with “Chocolate Girls” (from Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished) — a gorgeously eerie love song that’s also a coming-of-age story, complete with images of death and salvation. The song gallops softly until Avey Tare interrupts with a deafening scream. The Geologist nods his head with mathematical precision, as he charges the song forward behind Avey Tare’s public bloodletting, and Panda Bear exudes an affecting coolness as he harmonizes the song into something sweetly sinister — like a bunny dripped in blood. “Chocolate Girls” blends seamlessly into the opener from Sung Tongs, “Leaf House.” The song is transformed from a three-minute opener into a 15-minute tribal meltdown, the song drenched in melancholy — "This house is sad" — but also pulsating like a heart that feels too much. The dancefloor explodes.

I briefly consider the notion that Animal Collective is a postmodern jam band, but wonder if their studio albums are too good for the group to be considered a “better live” band. Of course, the albums are too good, but in concert, Animal Collective transcend the limitations of recorded material in ways that are very similar to some kind of jam band, maybe one from the future. I’m further convinced of this when they play “Fireworks,” and I’m still dancing 10 minutes later to the same song. Later, “My Girls” brings out the lovely quirkiness of Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s voices — both guys incredibly in sync and on key the entire show — and they seem comfortable playing with one another’s voices, bouncing yelps and grunts off each other like echolocation.

They end the night with “Brothersport,” and we are dancing as fast as we can to catch up with the shape-shifting chaos of a song that is like electronic reggae. Welcome to the pastiche that is Animal Collective.

[Photo: Adriano Fegundes]

Wolves in the Throne Room / A Storm of Light / Thrones
Club Europa; Greenpoint, NY

[05-22-2009]

Memorial Day weekend started off with a bang this year, as an early egress from work led to a full afternoon of cartoon-watching before dragging myself off the couch to jet over the Pulaski Bridge for a night of ambient black metal. Of course, the Pulaski was drawn to allow for the passage of some bullshit freightliner, arousing fears I would not get to Club Europa in time for opener Thrones, but alas the drawbridge quickly descended and I made it to the venue with time to spare; in fact, I wound up standing in line for quite a while just outside the Greenpoint police precinct, where three canine officers eyed me curiously. Eventually, I was let in by a man wearing a mauve ascot and directed to the end of yet another line until finally I was admitted. For those who checked out of the hardcore and metal scene decades ago, Club Europa has emerged as New York's premier punk, hardcore, and metal venue, holding shows that in a different era might have been held at CBGB's or Coney Island High -- that is, when it's not being used in its intended role as a Polish disco.

This would be my second Friday in a row seeing Thrones. Fresh off the previous Friday's set at No Fun Fest (and a show later in the week with Blues Control), Joe Preston walloped the crowd with his one-man juggernaut. Tying his hair in dual braids like Pocahontas, Preston worked through a set largely similar to his No Fun set. He bookended his romp with tracks off 2000's Sperm Whale, beginning with "Ephraim," a moody dirge that sounds like humpbacks mourning the loss of a fallen leader, and ending with the epic "Obolus," which, when sung through a vocoder, sounds like The Melvins (of whom Preston has been a member) covering Neil Young's Trans. In between those tracks, Preston worked through a few less sprawling and more pummeling grind-influenced tracks, providing a couple head-bangers to please the hair- and tat-heavy crowd.

A Storm of Light was up next and their post metal stylings felt like a watered-down Neurosis (Neurosis Lite). The interlocking and sometimes harmonized male and female vocals, delivered by Josh Graham and Nerissa Campbell, were transcendent at times but painfully off key at others. Although the bassist thrashed around with brutish force, A Storm of Light's sound had less of a tough exterior, coming off like a slightly heavier Slint or a less tongue-in-cheek Swans. The swirling visuals provided some eye candy, but soon enough, I had drifted towards the back bar, where a heavily siliconed Polish waitress poured me a drink.

Wolves in the Throne Room capped the night off with their distinct brand of trance-inducing thrash. As they adorned the stage with their aromatherapy candles, I perused the merch table, pet the small skull, and handled the piece of fool's gold that were laid out there. The band's core, brothers Aaron and Nate Weaver, were flanked by former tour bassist-turned-guitarist Will Lindsey, Ludicra, and Impaled member Ross Sewage, who stood lankily and mustachioed to the side of the stage. Aaron led the group rhythmically through infinite spirals of transcendent darkness and never ending tempo changes, while brother Nate screamed and bellowed away, a beam of blue light emanating from his guitar and through the fog-covered stage.

Working through material mostly from the new Black Cascade album and a few from the previous album Two Hunters, the Wolves' brand of unrelenting, cathartic black metal transformed the crowd's sense of foreboding and pain into a triumphant wail. Musically, their sound borrows most from the earlier waves of BM -- Burzum, Emperor, Darkthrone all could be named as musical touchstones, but the group generally shirks BM-purist tendencies, opting for a more organic feel, one informed more by the natural forces of the universe than church-burning and corpse paint. Some audience members banged their heads as others stood humbly in a satanic trance, but few prostrated themselves and wept into the floorboards, which is the band's preferred method of taking in their live shows. In the end, which ever way you choose to take in WITTR's sound, whether physically or spiritually, their bottom line effect is the same: cleansing metal for the blackened soul.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Old Calf
Fry Springs Beach Club; Charlottesville, VA

[05-24-2009]

“You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” quipped the bartender as I left a tip on my tab and headed out of the nearly empty Fry Springs Beach Club. The venue, with its art deco glow and pleasant ’50s musk, had a time capsule vibe, so a vintage Peanuts reference didn’t seem like a very strange way to cap off the night. Will Oldham and his crew were some of the few faces still lingering, as they packed up their gear and loaded it into the van out front.

Earlier, though, Fry Springs had been far from empty. A sold-out crowd filed past the front lounge’s outdated couches and into the venue’s spacious ballroom. Will’s brother Ned, of Anomoanon and Palace Brothers, teamed up with accordionist Matty Metcalfe to kick off the night under the clever moniker Old Calf. The duo boasted expertly crafted tunes as well as sidesplitting t-shirts depicting an elderly bovine walking with a cane.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s ensemble soon took the stage and chugged through a lengthy set, adding momentum with each riff and refrain. Tunes from Oldham’s latest album, Beware (TMT Review), were interspersed throughout, but the evening felt more like a continually blossoming musical moment. As things heated up, Oldham wished aloud for the room’s old disco ball to be turned on and, just as the switch was flipped, the night really hit its peak. The energy was palpable, from those sweating at stage front to those peering from the wings.

For the encore, Ned returned to the stage and joined his brother’s band for a couple more songs. The brothers belted together into the microphone, channeling the unbridled spark and spirit of their familial bond. It was a special moment and a perfect conclusion to the night’s sonic progression. The crowd spilled out into the Virginia night and Oldham and company prepared to descend deeper into the South.

Photo: [Charlie Cravero]

Telepathe
93 Feet East; London, UK

[05-11-2009]

While I should have been at 93 Feet East watching the support bands, I missed the opening acts because I was at an Indian restaurant eating Lamb Vindaloo. It was delicious, but probably not the most ideal pre-show bite given Telepathe's propensity for massively heavy bass. Sure, Dance Mother, their meticulously produced debut full-length, is big on the low-end as much as the high melodies and percussion, but live... good grief, I was certainly feeling the lamb in my tummy.

Telepathe's skewing of hip-hop sounds lets the bass propel their pop/dance ballads like a heartbeat, and although the sheen of Dance Mother was slightly lost in a live setting, the group's semi-detached fervor was in full force, with beats plodding and vocals soaring just slightly above. Their sound exudes a particularly sensual feeling, taking dance music's overt sexuality (that often ends up either cringe-worthy or kitschy) and subverting it, enjoying the small emotive flights and club aesthetics as much as the pop romanticism.

I was never sure how ‘danceable’ their stuff was, though, and this full-to-the-brim venue didn't make that any clearer: you could barely move, let alone flail. But the performance did shed light on their paradoxic bedroom vs. club dichotomy; it's a bit of both, deftly combining respective feelings for something warm and in between. Working on a couple of synths and samplers and playing pretty much all the songs from the album, there was always a distinct and audible passion. And even if, like these two, it's stylized, dressed up in white, and surrounded by smoke, the music resonated and felt especially real.

Mastodon
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

[05-10-2009]

When it was announced that Mastodon would play the Music Hall of Williamsburg, one thing came to mind: this show would sell out fast. MHW seemed way too small to house an act as popular as the ’Don. Well, my initial fears turned out to be correct, as I sat online for about four hours, constantly refreshing Ticketmaster’s web page to try to purchase tickets, only to be blocked out each time until the damning words "Sold Out" finally appeared. Needless to say, I was crushed, as the Atlanta metal group was at the top of my live wishlist for some time. A month of deep sadness and despondence set in, but it was finally the good folks at Warner Bros. who hooked me up with a ticket to the show and, subsequently, a ticket to my salvation.

The show fell on Mother’s Day, and as I spent the obligatory time with the family out on Long Island, I kept thinking about how I would finally get to see my favorite metal band, in all their fleshy glory. As I helped pick up the dishes from lunch, I couldn’t help but thrust one foot upon the dishwasher, strapping on my air guitar and gesticulating wildly a medley of Crack the Skye tunes, even going so far as to croon the words of album closer "The Last Baron" to my mother. "I guess they would say, we could set this world ablaze" I sang whilst inviting her to jump into the wormhole with me, only to be met with a confused and semi-saddened “What did I do wrong that my son wound up like this” look on her face.

I arrived back from the Island too late to catch openers Intronaut and Kylesa, though word was that the double drum stoner stylings of Kylesa were something to behold. I walked into the antechamber of MHW as Kylesa played their last note and decided to check out the mightily stocked merch table. On the table was a tip jar that invited all to drop any “Tips or Drugs or Tips for Drugs.” I perused the t-shirt collection, and my eyes fell on one particularly appealing design: a crackled prog-looking design that you would think was an authentic shirt from Rush’s 1974 tour if it didn’t say Mastodon. In addition to the shirt, I procured a handsome tour poster depicting a group of extraterrestrial mind’s eye psychonauts wading in a sea of consciousness. A quick depletion of my wallet later, I stuffed the shirt in my pocket, rolled up the poster, and headed inside.

The room inside was definitely packed, not oversold though, and the steady stream of A/C pumped into the Hall made things crisp and cozy. I ambled onto the elevated platform to the left of the stage, staked out a safe spot with a good view, and planted my feet firmly. Mastodon soon took the stage and immediately belted out the first transcendent notes of Crack the Skye’s lead track "Oblivion." They proceeded to play the entirety of Crack the Skye from start to finish, without missing a note. Enlisting the help of a keyboard player, tracks like "Quintessence" broke the terrestrial boundaries that once held Mastodon in check. The synths bubbled and churned as superimposed videos of exploding nebulae and drifting stargates meshed with stern faces and martial scenarios from filmed depictions of Tsarist Russia.

After the 13-minute epic "The Last Baron" closed out their first set, the band left the stage, leaving the keyboardist alone to provide some otherworldly sonic soundscapes to match the trippy animation sequence on the video screen. Within minutes, the group was back on stage and the keyboard player had left. With a booming note, the video screen changed to the tri-headed forest beast from Blood Mountain, and they raged into
"Bladecatcher," as Brent Hinds whistled and shredded his Flying V through the track.

They played four more songs off Blood Mountain, which provided a stark contrast to the songs off Crack the Skye, since the latter album primarily features bassist Troy Sanders on vocals rather than Brent Hinds. Ripping through "Colony of Birchmen," "The Wolf is Loose," "Crystal Skull," and "Capillarian Crest," the group hardly missed a beat, and as they went further into their back catalog, the songs became increasingly intense along with the crowd. The animation switched once again to a gigantic ocean sea with an enormous white whale cresting the top of the water. They played "Seabeast," "Megalodon," and "Iron Tusk," all from 2004’s Leviathan, which drove the crowd into a mosh-heavy frenzy. Finally, they closed out their set with one of the breakout tracks from 2002’s Remission, "March of the Fire Ants." Its pummeling lead riff capped a near-perfect performance, as the group raised their guitars in triumph and exited the stage.

Mastodon had played an hour and a half of pure metal mayhem, shredding solos, and intricate interplay. The performance confirmed Mastodon as true workhorses who don’t skimp on the live energy, giving their fans every penny’s worth.

Glenn Branca: Lesson No. 3 (A Tribute to Steve Reich)
Issue Project Room; Brooklyn NY

[05-07-2009]

So, Glenn Branca is debuting a piece in what used to be a Brooklyn can factory -- an old brick building complete with cool metal clad doors that are like two-feet thick. The temptation is to see this as an opportunity to catch a latter-day glimpse of New York's past life as the home of dirty art rock. But as it turns out, the Issue Project Room is as equally clean as it is cavernous, and the appearance of the audience, seated in metal folding chairs, conjured fears that established society has finally reached its creepy tentacles into the sacred halls of punk rock.

Luckily, Branca, perhaps sensing this fear himself, imposed his will on whatever stuffiness lingered in the air by prefacing his piece with a personal "fuck you" to the Village Voice, on account of them having the balls to accuse his Lesson No. 3 as nothing more than a suck-up move in the direction of Steve Reich (to whom the piece is dedicated).

And a "fuck you" well aimed it was, as Lesson No. 3 is anything but empty Reich worship. The first few minutes of the performance were, above all, funky. Not almost funky: there was an actual groove in there. And just in case anyone was resisting a groove, Branca, while conducting the four guitarists and drummer making up the ensemble, added visual verification, suggestively wagging his knees the way you do only when you're conducting music that's actually funky.

Once established, though, the groove was systematically abandoned over the course of the rest of the piece. Change came on relatively slowly, as the guitarist's interlocking figures opened up, moving from distinct rhythmic elements, through the gradual addition of harmonics, and into a collective roar that managed to be equal parts rhythm and drone. When the figures dissolved into tremolo, it was hardly noticeable. While it's primarily an entertaining listen, the piece would also function pretty well as a sonic diagram of entropic decay.

At least if you discount the drum work. Paranoid Critical Revolution's Libby Fab somehow had enough left in the tank after her band's set -- which, at its best, brought to mind lightning bolts and Lightning Bolt -- to maintain a tight, heavy backbeat, leading the slight acceleration and dynamic build that occurs throughout the piece.

Let's not turn this into a formal analysis though. Lesson No. 3 is a pretty weighty title for a piece from which pleasure largely involves the feelings of being gradually enveloped in sound and losing yourself in the overtones and rhythm. There's enough meaty intellectual content in Lesson No. 3 to encourage study, but the real lesson here has more to do with the body than the mind.

  

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