Fever Ray
Regency Grand Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[10-05-2009]

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show. I mainly wondered if I’d see Karin Dreijer Andersson, or if she would conceal herself in a manner similar to her performances as one-half of The Knife. Also, what would the music from her self-titled debut as Fever Ray sound like in a live setting? And: Would there be lasers?

There were indeed lasers, and that was some cool shit, let me tell you. Chilly flood lights and numerous old-fashioned lamps, triggered to switch on and off with the beat of the music, provided additional lighting. The setup made it possible to catch glimpses of Andersson and her band without being able to discern what exactly was happening onstage. Only during “When I Grow Up” did the audience get a fully illuminated look at the whole group, which resembled a scene from a pagan ritual -- the band in costumes, brandishing spears, and Andersson in a dark robe with an enormous collar, hands twitching with energy and eyes never fully focused.

All this provided an excellent frame for the music, which rarely diverged from how it sounds on Fever Ray. Live drumming and guitar effects added the texture necessary for the music to outdo the light show, and amplification increased the intensity of the beats to a bone-shaking degree. We heard the entire album; no encore, and no words from the band. I felt throughout the set that we might all be dispatched to some foreign land presided over by the mysterious figures onstage and live out our days listening to the eerie, unsettling noises resounding through the room. It seemed a fitting sentiment for a show that could have taken place in San Francisco, an ice palace, or outer space.

The Smith Westerns / Knight School / Fake Male Voice (Tunde from TV on the Radio) / mi-gu + Sean Lennon & Yuka Honda
Bruar Falls; Brooklyn NY

[10-23-2009]

Bruar Falls last Friday bore witness to two essential aspects of CMJ: the overexposure and instant ubiquity borne of industry hype, and how the circus-like nature of the festival can actually cause people to inadvertently overlook bills with high-profile artists.

The afternoon show allowed for a demonstration of the second phenomenon. The normally-a-two-piece {mi-gu} took the opportunity to expand to a four piece, featuring Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda. The first half of the set, precisely choreographed psychedelic blues from main members Yuko Araki and Hirotaka Shimizu, was pleasant, but Shimizu's pinch harmonics played right into a terrible stereotype of Japanese music -- formal precision over emotional expression. With the addition of Lennon and Honda, though, the set became more varied, gaining energy and momentum. By the time Lennon had ripped off an unexpectedly raw and blistering guitar solo, mi-gu had convinced me there was some real substance behind their formal perfection and new age spirituality.

TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard Smith, performing as {Fake Male Voice}, proceeded to set up with little fanfare. While Gerard manned a sampler, keyboard, and a host of pedals to produce minimal beats, Tunde sat calmly in chair, sang, and turned some knobs. The results were somewhere in between usual TVOTR fare and electro-acoustic improvisation. While there wasn't much to grab onto in the gradual ebb and flow of vocal delay without solid song structures, the set was short, sweet, and proved that Tunde can entertain adequately with a bare minimum of resources.

The evening show kicked off with Brooklyn's premiere indie pop trio, {Knight School} (full disclosure: I played music in the past with one of the band members). A Knight School set, and this one was no exception, is a pretty good encapsulation of what Brooklyn is about right now, so it's surprising that CMJ's hordes weren't as rabid about their show as some others. While some of their songs tended to blend together, standouts like "Meathead Hurricane" and "Pregnant Again" highlighted their tip-top songwriting chops and understated black humor. When they hit on all cylinders, their chemistry and sound were the sort that hipsters drool over.

{The Smith Westerns} (pictured) are another story. They're a band with good songs, a good look, tons of shows ahead of them, and maybe not adequate perspective or experience to deal with it all. Their show at Bruar Falls was smack in the middle of a three-day, seven-set CMJ run, and lead singer Cullen Omori seemed to be caught in the whirlwind. He still led the band through their T-Rex-inspired garage rock with an admirable lack of sweat, but -- unsurprising for a man of his tender age -- his stage persona needs some work. With the bar as packed as I'd ever seen it, comments about the crowd's "modest applause" unfortunately won't ingratiate the band to anyone.

[Photo: rg karlic]

The Almighty Defenders / Neon Indian / Cale Parks
Root Studios; Brooklyn NY

[10-24-2009]

Maybe it was the open bar. Or maybe everyone was just too weary of industrial posturing by Saturday of CMJ week to spend another night trying to make networking fun. In any case, this show, put together through the unlikely partnership of a men's clothing store, a party promotion juggernaut, and a nondescript photo studio somehow managed to put forward a great lineup and an atmosphere devoid of pretension, one that thankfully wasn't overly saturated in commercial tomfoolery.

The evening began with {Cale Parks} and his newly assembled three-piece band. Perhaps unsurprising in light of his past work as a percussionist with Aloha and Joan of Arc, his solo act was heavy on things that you hit. It brought to mind both the synthetic side of Yeasayer and the organic side of Depeche Mode, and alternating between electronic and acoustic drums, Parks showed an attention to texture that gave away his classical training. While not exactly dance music, the songs were solicitous of dance and, despite forays into the sorts of dark territory that are part and parcel of a Depeche Mode comparison, set a lighthearted tone.

Consciously or not, {Neon Indian} adopted the same jovial atmosphere as they took the stage. Like Parks, Neon Indian's Alan Palomo has only recently put together a full band to carry his work into a live setting, and while Park's band were no slouches visually or musically, Palomo's band looked pitch-perfect and sounded equally polished. While their record contains moments of funky effervescence, the straight-up Prince biting of their live show is something else. And, between the guitarist's flowing locks and keyboardist's impeccable strapless dress and coiffure, they not only sound like the New Power Generation, they even sort of look like them. Makes you wonder why anyone bothered coining a phrase like "glo-fi" to describe Neon Indian. Are we that disenchanted with funk, pop, and R&B?

As great as Neon Indian may have been, though, expectations were even higher for a rare appearance from the Black Lips/King Khan/BBQ Show gospel rave up that an {Almighty Defenders} performance promised. While the "will this particle accelerator cause a black hole" energy of a Lips show was diluted slightly, the meeting of minds produced a kinetic and oddly serious performance. Not that what these guys do on stage isn't usually serious, as in "serious violence" or "serious drinking," but this was surprising. Donning ecclesiastical robes, the juxtaposition of attire against Khan's shark tooth necklace, Cole Alexander's pederast mustache and Ian St. Pe's gold grill, was comical. But as the Motown-meets-psycho-blues tunes gave way to a genuinely affecting impression of fire-and-brimstone preaching from Joe Bradley -- complete with actual Bible -- I wondered if the religious angle wasn't so much a joke as another way to point at ecstatic chaos.

Cymbals Eat Guitars / Real Estate / I Was King / Deastro / Ungdomskulen
Santos Party House; New York, NY

[10-21-2009]

I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to waste my time at New York’s annual Clusterfuck Music Junket. The long lines, the short sets, the corporate shill, the smell of rotting ambition, the aging industry dudes drooling over teenage girl singers… it just isn’t my scene. But, against my better judgment, I broke my rule this year because, well, I really like Deastro (pictured) and kept missing opportunities to see Randolph Chabot and company live.

Luckily, the place didn’t fill up to Corporate Masturbation Jubilee levels until late in the evening, and I arrived at the Øya Festival and Oh My Rockness showcase early enough to avoid the hysteria. The unlikely duo of Norwegian musikkfestival and New York concert listings site made for some unexpected transitions, but also a good deal of variety.

The first band I caught was Ungdomskulen, an impossibly sparkly Norwegian trio who could seriously shred. There were sequins, spandex and attitude for miles, backed up by some appropriately '80s hair metal-derived riffs. Ungdomskulen were certainly the most charismatic showmen of the night, though I can’t imagine the fun of their performances entirely translating on record.

Deastro was up next. A recent lineup change has left Chabot -- on guitar -- with a single bassist, leaving the rest of the beats to the laptop. While I had been hoping to hear more of my favorite tracks from this year’s epically fun Moondagger, it was encouraging to find Deastro performing a slew of new material. The unfamiliar songs sounded a bit darker – in fact, Chabot seemed to be channeling Ian Curtis at times. Then again, the menacingly dominant synth and drum machine parts could also have been due to an over-amplified computer, which also, unfortunately, all but drowned out the guitar and bass.

I stayed for a bit of Oslo’s I Was King, a sweet '90s-indie rip-off whose newest album boasts collaborations with Sufjan Stevens and Danielson’s Daniel Smith. (Hmm, do I smell a Christian?) There was nothing wrong with the band – their music was entirely pleasant – but they weren’t wowing me, either, so I crept downstairs to the second stage, a few songs in, to wait for New York buzz band du jour Real Estate. The group was in the midst of about 85 Consensual Music Jerkoff performances, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, the basement stage was about half an hour behind schedule, and I had to haul ass back upstairs for Cymbals Eat Guitars before they played a single note. And did I mention that somewhere along the way I dropped my wallet? More on that later.

Back upstairs, Cymbals Eat Guitars, the band that put the “rock” back in “indie,” was tearing it up, as usual. Barely legal frontman Joseph D’Agostino seemed to have matured out of a good deal of grimacing awkwardness in the 5 months since I last saw him perform. Although the band’s headlining set was criminally short, they managed to fit in a new track or two, along with favorites like “Wind Phoenix.”

Real Estate were still playing to a packed crowd downstairs by the time I left, but I decided to forgo the madness and head home… well, until I got to the subway and realized I was missing my wallet. A few minutes later, I was back in that goddamn basement, having a minor panic attack while my friend/photographer chatted up every security guard and bartender in the place before recovering my wallet. (By the way, if the person who returned it is reading this: Thanks, man. You didn’t even steal my cash!) I probably wasn’t listening carefully enough to Real Estate while all of this was going on to give you an accurate review. But, hey, for what it’s worth, they sounded pretty sweet to me.

Butthole Surfers / Melvins / Psychic Ills
Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[10-16-2009]

Gibby Haynes was born in 1957, Buzz Osborne in 1964. Melvins and Butthole Surfers were both formed in the early 80s, and so I was not surprised when upon encountering a friend after the show back in Oakland, they asked if these rockers have to use walkers now. Clearly, they are not that old, but judging by my perception of the crowd, which was practically drenched in tattoo ink, the median age had to be in the "could-be-my-parents" range. All this is offered only to help set the context for my enjoyment of this show, being that I was and still remain essentially a newcomer to the music and legacy of both the Melvins and the Butthole Surfers.

The Regency is a fancy-pants, large and historic venue on the fringe of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. To attend a gnarly, stinky, loud and base rock show at such a classy venue is already enough of a mind-fuck. It didn't take long for me to realize that this crowd was on a lot of drugs, getting wasted (puke on hardwood), and desiringrock. So I wonder if there wasn't a bit of collective disappointment over the underwhelming performance of the openers, Psychic Ills. A New York City band, Psychic Ills had been playing the role of openers for this BS tour, which the Melvins joined for three California dates. Psychic Ills brought a monochrome, plodding psychedelic texture to the room, dominated by some tribal drumming and underscored by vocals that resembled constipated moaning. There are certainly better psyche-rock bands that could hold down the privilege of opening for the Butthole Surfers, and my eavesdropping confirmed that I was not alone in this assessment. At least two different pot-bellied comic-store owner types were overheard mentioning the same thing. When Psychic Ills was done, a subdued yay from the crowd seemed more in relief than appreciation, and then anticipation heightened.

The Melvins picked up another drummer (Coady Willis) a couple years back, and I will say that in the live context, it is an amazingly well-thought out move. The idea is that the drummers will act as mirror images, and they were synched up to an astonishing degree. I have never experienced sludge so thick, metal so anaerobic and raw. The attack was ferocious, and the tempo changes, moving back and forth between dense and sparse, were exceuted with perfect timing. Not a moment was wasted, and even the most primeval portions blazed and roared under the mayhem of the crowd. Having seen the Melvins, all of their offshoots seem a little underwhelming, now and forever, including sunn 0))), Boris, and Earth.

After an incredible ~40 minute set, there was a quick break dominated by the theme song to The Price is Right blasting through the PA on repeat. Then the Butthole Surfers took the stage, and judging by the crowd reaction, most people had come to see the Surfers. Three huge video projection screens loomed behind the four-piece incarnation, with Gibby Haynes front and center. I had heard and read about the seizure inducing Butthole Surfers' sets, but perhaps they have toned it down slightly. Only slightly though, because between the three screens, I found it hard to focus on the band themselves. The videos being shown were some of the most grotesque, horny, and amazing clips I've seen in a while, and I've seen some pretty gruesome shit on film here recently. There were equal parts horror and pornography, being shown in a somewhat sloppy, yet simply entertaining fashion.

The set was custom-made for those washing their brains is soporific prescription drugs, or alternately, letting your heart race and palms sweat underneath a warm blanket of cocaine and whisky. Simply put, the Butthole Surfers I observered seemed to be the drug fiend's best friend of a show. Whatever your pleasure, watching the Surfers is equal parts video overdose and psychedelic rock for misanthropes and sociopaths. Despite my positive appraisal, I found myself needing to leave about 3/4 of the way through, partially because I needed to catch the transit, and partially because I was way too sober to stick around.

[Photo: Keri Pickett]

Om / Six Organs of Admittance / Lichens
Johnny Brenda’ s; Philadelphia, PA

[10-14-2009]

The consequence of attending too many concerts is usually cynicism. This cynicism from over-attendance takes many forms. One is related to the oftentimes tedious line-up of opening bands the attendee must suffer through before the headlining act takes the stage. This problem can be avoided, though, when venues, labels, and artists put some thought into choosing the bands that will tour and play together. The combination of OM, Six Organs of Admittance, and Lichens is a perfect example of how to properly put together a roster. While all three create diverse and profound sounds, one cannot help but notice a unifying thread linking them together. Namely, the spiritual journey, which is oftentimes more dark than overly optimistic, that each takes through their music.

I had never heard {Lichens}, the recording project of Robert Lowe, prior to this performance. Lowe’s minimalistic presentation consisted only of the use of his voice and a looping device. His vocal loops began with angelic harmonies tranquilly floating in contemplative space, but as the layers gradually accumulated, the mood switched gears radically. Lowe summoned terrifying, primal sounds from the guttural depths, and the squeals became more animalistic than human as the totality of looped voices created the aural dimensions of what can be best described as a haunted rainforest. Despite what Kant said about the problems associated with humans replicating the sounds of the natural world, Lichens provides a genuine feeling of being-there that reveals many interesting aspects regarding the possibilities of the relationship between memory and the human voice. What immediately struck me was the notion that all of these struggling, aggressive, and primordial tendencies are already stored within the human body, concealed but not defeated by historical process of socialization. Despite this concealment, Lichens manages to reach these forgotten places and partially reveal them through voice.

Ben Chasny, the mind behind {Six Organs of Admittance}, first took the stage alone to perform some instrumental pieces with his alternately tuned acoustic guitar. Chasny’s guitar style is one of the most sophisticated and interesting on the contemporary acoustic scene, and as I noticed Jack Rose -- another spectacular acoustic guitarist -- in the audience, I couldn’t help but feel increased excitement. Chasny’s style is drone-centric, building on repetitive phrases that lead to intense Indian Classical inspired sound-modes. Chasny was eventually joined by a guitarist and bassist who he referred to as his “brother,” though I’m not sure if this was meant in the blood or the ecumenical sense. The two journeyed further into darker spiritual domains, and one of the highlights was (what I think was) a performance of “Redefinition of Being” from Nightly Trembling (though it may have been “Bar-Nasha” from Luminous Night). Chasny’s guttural droning accompanies the guitar phrases, establishing a sometimes discomforting, but reflective, labyrinth for the listener to linger within. The end result is some sort of purging of evil spirits; a rewarding cleansing that leaves one feeling modestly sagacious.

{OM}’s Al Cisneros and new drummer Emil Amos were joined on stage by Lowe from Lichens, who transitioned between keys, guitar, and ecstatic tambourine playing. In order to recreate the expansion of sounds captured on 2009’s God Is Good, the addition of Lowe was necessary, and his excitement enhanced the performance greatly. Amos’ more spontaneous drumming style, in comparison to that of previous drummer Chris Hakius, provides a furious energy to the joyful fills between Cisnero’s heavy Tibetan-drone modalities. “Cremation Ghat I,” one of the standout tracks from God Is Good, sounded fantastic with the full band contributing to the hand-clap percussion. "Cremation" captures the new trajectory of the band well, as they are moving into more nuanced and complicated sonic dimensions.

The primary complaint about the new OM sound -- namely Cisneros’ newfound restraint when it comes to hitting the gain pedal and swerving the mood in a heavier direction -- was felt during their performance. Without the thick, distorted bass-groove, the band has become much tamer than one would expect. Throughout the entire set, the Sabbath-inspired heaviness was lacking. But, when the band came out to play “At Giza” for the encore, the crowd’s enthusiasm was instantly felt, for we all knew what the last few minutes of the song would bring. It seems as if OM are using their gain-heavy past as a weapon to combat listeners’ expectations. One might conceptualize this constraint as maturation, a brave stance to prove they are not limited by their previous structures. But it is also worth pointing out that, as M. Night Shyamalan knows very well, disrupting expectations can oftentimes produce negative consequences.

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