Largo; Los Angeles, CA
Jon Brion’s long running monthly show at Largo in many ways has become a major pilgrimage/rite of passage for fans of the songwriter/composer. Despite Brion’s widespread success writing more classically minded film music and the fervent cultish love that surrounds his lone solo album, 2001’s Meaningless, the dude rarely promotes himself as a solo performer. As a result, his decadeslong residency at Largo has become a near tourist attraction of sorts. Dedicated lovers of sophisticated pop flock from all over to see Brion take the stage and (as he humbly put it that night) “disappear up his own ass” for a few hours.
Despite having lived in Los Angeles for almost a year, this was my first experience seeing Brion live. My expectations were pretty high considering the mythos surrounding the composer’s Largo gigs. There’s always talk of someone like Fiona Apple showing up or the chance that Brion will tackle some completely outrageous cover (a lot of the show involves audience requests). Luckily, I walked away from the experience feeling extremely satiated even though some of my concert going peers did not.
When Brion took the stage, he mentioned that he hadn’t the slightest notion what he was going to play so he sat down in the midst of an elaborate keyboard setup that consisted of a mellotron, a toy piano, a few synths, a modified upright piano, and several mixers. For the first several minutes of the show, Brion created one of the most beautiful drones I’ve ever heard out of warbly, lush Mellotron chords and a sine-tone-y synth bass. Somehow, this turned into a slow, dreamy cover of the pop standard “Everything Happens to Me,” and all of a sudden my dreams of vaudevillian pop, shoegaze, and drone combining into a singular genre seemed totally tangible. Brion played a few other brief tunes including a fascinating solo piano piece before taking requests. It became apparent this audience contained its share of Brion diehards when the crowd started shouting for tunes from Meaningless and soundtrack one-off’s before yelling for covers. As a result, Brion played a ton of his own pop tunes, which he typically tackled in an extremely stripped-down fashion, as opposed to the repeatedly looped versions he’s been known for in the past.
After acknowledging a few initial requests, it was clear Brion wanted to pursue his own muse. He unveiled a work in progress that has much more in common with the experimental music world and the sampling notions of vaporwave and John Oswald than both the pop and soundtrack work he’s known for. Brion had two projector screens setup and a device that (using some sort of Max/MSP or Jitter patch I’d imagine) would loop, tune, and change the speed/pitch of found video clips in real time. On top of these time stretched/processed videos, Brion began structuring one of the best pieces of fractured pop music I’ve ever heard. It was impossible to tell if it was an old, obscure Brion number, a cover, or (hopefully) a new work, but the way the warped video/audio blended with Brion’s live instrumentation and plaintive vocals hinted at a new world of possibilities for the marriage of true plunderphonics and traditional pop song craft. Brion would go on to employ this new video processing instrument of his on a spirited cover of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and a wonderfully dissonant/cathartic version of his own “Same Thing” that closed the set (on the latter, the processed video became an impossible soloing tool of sorts).
Throughout the evening, Brion frequently joked about it being “one of those days” and his lack of an ability to play “upbeat” material. While the selections from his discography hinted at a possible underlying personal melancholy permeating the set, a sing-along cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and a truly remarkable interpretation of a Les Paul tune more than made up for the perceived imbalance. However, upon leaving the venue I overheard several audience members complaining about the dourness of Brion’s set. I found this shocking. Even Meaningless’ sunniest moments barely mask the pain, self-loathing, and paranoia hidden beneath the songs’ sugary surfaces. One of the mystical things about Brion’s live set was how the stripped-down versions of his songs, along with the additive chaos of his looped pieces, highlighted the emotions underneath in the same way. The combination of the wistful with the instrumental shimmer of Brion’s arrangements is what makes his records so endlessly listenable, but it’s equally thrilling to watch the composer alternately strip it all away and pile it up live. Perhaps, this different vision of Brion’s aesthetic is why his live shows are so legendary. All I know is I’m not going to wait nine months to experience one again.
Chance the Rapper
The Metro; Chicago, IL
“Everybody in this room is lucky to be alive right now.” At the end of “Pusha Man,” the writhing, meditative gem at the center of Acid Rap with a heart as broken as Son House probing the ‘Murder Season’ phenomenon of Chicago summer, Chance the Rapper left the silent, brimming crowd at The Metro with this memento mori kids on the South Side shoulder every day like a backpack. I came into this show and watched from the balcony expecting a juke bacchanal celebrating the ascension of the city’s next son, which happened, but I didn’t expect the substance-addled fervor of a sold-out Saturday night to stare me in the face with an old man’s lucidity and tell me for some, life is a luxury. I wanted to cry.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to The Metro in the past 10 years, but on Chance The Rapper’s sold-out debutante weekend, it was different. An electric gravity poured out of the eyes and open mouths of the teenage legions swarming every square inch and seeped into the banisters and columns lining the concert hall. The effect reminded me of a dimmed United Center waiting for Rose to stride out of the tunnel. When Chance strode on stage to the war call of a chant of his name, it was hard to tell the difference.
Since Acid Rap dropped a little shy of a month ago from the date of the show, Chance’s unhinged, feral expression splayed over the album art has darted into the collective consciousness of the music scene in Chicago and infected hype into media outlets and fans alike with the viciousness of a viral outbreak. He’s really something of an anomaly in recent Chicago rap: intense but not nihilistic like Chief Keef, inventive but more probing than The Cool Kids (Mikey Rocks, aka Sir Michael Rocks, opened up the show), and referential to Chicago music tradition but not self-absorbed like Hollywood Holt and Murder Club (whatever happened to him?). The look on his face on the album cover and in concert says not even he knows what to do with himself, and it’s that comportment that earned him this sold-out weekend.
The show was sweat, sweat, sweat, and I wasn’t even in the pit. The lotus haze-party atmosphere sidled through the writhing mass of bodies in the pit to songs like “Good Ass Intro” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” The amassed kinetic energy of hundreds of slippery kids juking in one swaying lake of bodies created 100 percent humidity. From my vantage the floor played out like a party down I Spy: spotting a 16-year-old fainting, figuring out which bobbing snapback produced the latest in a mobius strip of weed clouds, seeing a boyfran go for full grope on his ladyfran (some to success; others not so much). But the entire time no one was distracted; it was all on Chance.
At his most intense, I can’t think of any other comparison for him on stage than Hamlet in a soliloquy. He’s got heavy shit on his mind, and he raps like he wants you to hold onto it. It’s really in his eyes; when he’s in the middle of strangling a verse he looks like he’s conjured an invisible straw man to fill with his knives and daggers. And it stands to reason; his songs have a social element to them, with the gurgling vitriol of Chief Keef, and the honed lyricism of Common.
Even while I’m writing this and wrapping up, I’m still jarred by “Pusha Man.” The murder epidemic of the South Side has simmered on the periphery of national attention for years, and still a large bulk of the American public are unaware it common for a student there to develop PTSD or know at least one person (if they’re lucky just one) who has died as a direct result of gun violence. Since the era of Benji Wilson loose guns and unbridled violence have become subject matter for generations of Chicago rappers, and Chance is the latest to grapple with these monsters. He’s confident, he’s angry, and he wants to know where the fuck Matt Lauer is.
Varmakon (Vår + Pharmakon)
The Rink; Brooklyn, NY
Last Saturday, at a creepy loft in Greenpoint, Pitchfork and the Brooklyn record label Sacred Bones presented an experiment in buzzband chemistry. The new-wave Iceage offshoot Vår performed alongside noise artist Pharmakon, with a varied degree of success.
It made sense for the artists to perform together. Both revel in near-Satanic darkness and are clearly friends — Margaret Chardiet, who is Pharmakon, has a spoken-word piece on one track of the Vår record. Vår trade in Joy Division-esque dark pop music, which today, when you can literally buy an upside-down cross shirt for $10 at Forever21, is hard to imagine offending or disturbing anyone. Pharmakon, on the other hand, has stated her mission to make her audience uncomfortable, and watching her live, the strength of this desire is such that it leaves the crowd reeling from the pure, bubbling rage.
The artists had requested to perform without a stage, which I’m sure was great for the 15 people standing in front, but it kind of sucked for everyone else. I spend the majority of the show trying to find an angle from which I could see anything. The performance happened round robin-style, with Vår opening with a quiet and somewhat weak song (the sound made it difficult to hear any vocals that weren’t screamed). Then Chardiet began to build up to her terrifying single “Ache,” and the feeling in the room changed from hip hangout to horror movie — her performance felt like a sign from God (or whoever) that this fifth-floor loft was about to open up and swallow Brooklyn’s elite goths into hell. One of the most successful moments of the show was at the end of another Pharmakon track when Vår’s drums came in — I would totally go see an orchestral Pharmakon show. Her contributions to their songs, however, felt less useful.
Vår’s performance, which included their lead singer repeatedly submerging his head into a bucket of muddy water, felt mostly like I was watching the most metal cologne ad of all time. While Chardiet is so possessed by her darkness, it seems as if it were a demon that’s lived inside her all her life, Vår’s show was… a show. They screamed very convincingly, but the whole thing reminded me a lot of wandering around the popular immersive theater experience Sleep No More — a supposed 1920s noir hotel filled with beautiful actors enacting deranged Macbeth-inspired scenes, but which in fact is a former club in Chelsea that big-deal corporations now use to take out their clients. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I love Sleep No More, and I understand why people enjoy Vår. But when juxtaposed with an artist who has committed her life to expressing her serious, gaping angst, it’s hard for a band like Vår’s brand of darkness to seem like anything more than a passing ghost.
Gravetemple / Russell Haswell
Café Oto; London, England
This wasn’t one of those experiments where someone senior was asked to respond to a new piece of music for questionable comedy value. But if it was, this definitely would have been a choice opportunity. After I moved back to London last year, my dad and I made a habit of going to the occasional gig together — it’s a chance for me to catch up on some of the acts he listened to in his youth, and for him to become acquainted with musicians new to the scene, relatively speaking. In fact, it was my folks’ vinyl collection that got me hooked on music in the to begin with — I recall being utterly enthralled when I was a kid, listening to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Grace Jones records as they spun on our haggard turntable.
Gravetemple was probably not the most sensible concert to have chosen for our most recent outing. But having said that, the generation gap may have proved almost irrelevant as Attila is closer to my old man’s age than he is my own. Where the curiosity lies is in the music the former is responsible for. The supergroup got together in 2006, and consists of metal-drone master craftsman Stephen O’Malley, prolific multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and the former Mayhem vocalist himself, who also contributed to a number of sunn 0))) offerings. Earlier this year, the collective’s 2008 LP Ambient/Ruin got a re-release on O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint, hence this triumphant reformation and mini-tour of Europe.
The gig was sold out, and as we stood outside in the evening rain, taking in the deafening sound check, we made bets on whether Café Oto would be able to maintain its license after the show. Additional speakers had been stacked up so high behind the band that the interior was almost unrecognizable. So loud was the group’s collective output that the windows rattled uncontrollably in their panes. We spied one of the ladies at the bar chalking up a sign underneath the cocktail menu: EARPLUGS. 50P.
Once the sound check came to a bludgeoning close, the doors were opened and people filled the place. Russell Haswell unveiled an arsenal of equipment at his makeshift stage — there is no elevated platform, so those at the very front were only a couple of feet away from the stacks of speakers that surrounded them. As intrigued as I was to find out what my father thought of Gravetemple, I also wanted to discover what he made of Haswell, who is renowned for exemplifying the very harshest of live noise. Whereas O’Malley and co. rely on long-form feedback, resonance and distortion set-pieces to create walls of pandemonium, Haswell builds, crumples, and shifts a range of frequencies in forcing out his unpredictably savage display.
Dad took the whole thing in stride; pint of Helle Weisse in hand, looking on curiously as Haswell approached his machines. The Coventry artist started by building a gloomy atmosphere with white noise and church bells. While the volume was felt simmering with crackle, it wasn’t fully tested until a few minutes into the set — the audience could taste the potential, and waited patiently for it to be unleashed.
A sonic magma of fierce mechanical gush hurtled out of the speakers, accompanied by blistering snaps, ruptured snares, and a screaming pulse. Each variation was jack-hammered through a coarse of frequency shifts and sporadic temp thrusts — the impact was incredible. It was one of the most fascinating noise performances I have witnessed, and my dad seemed to agree. Though he had never seen anything quite like it before, the set reminded him of the festivals he had been to in his teens; Stonehenge, Knebworth, etc. Essentially this was nothing new, but the experience had been refined and intensified, making it more powerful and captivating — Haswell was indeed spectacular.
By the time Gravetemple took to their positions, we were as close as we could get to the center in the now packed-out café. Attilah began his vocal gymnastics and for minutes at a time, the high pitched ringing of O’Malley’s guitar raced through Ambarchi’s gear. It felt like the sound was dialing directly into my nervous system and pinning me to the spot; there was nowhere to move, no means of escape. People were standing in a kind of transfixed cramp — proof that nobody had bothered with the earplugs — until the strings collided once again to create a shuddering drop; Atillah hummed and murmured and moaned at his workstation, apparently hypnotized by the aural forcefield his group were creating. The set was spellbinding; more of an addition to the Ambient/Ruin material than a reenactment of it, though the shifts in pace, mood, and style slowly emerged over the evening’s course.
So it seems the exploration of volume tolerance isn’t so fresh after all — it was very much a part of the gigs my dad had gone to as a youngster. But technology, low ceilings, and a seeming desire to break a record for noise complaints had pushed those boundaries further than either of us had ever experienced. This was the first of a two-day residency at Oto. “Would you go and see them again?” I asked as we walked back through the soaked streets. “Without a doubt, son,” was all I could make out through the tinnitus and aftershock.
Roundhouse; London, UK
After years of doubt and suspense, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual was released in April, and its delivery did more than satisfy the gnawing need that had been building among their fans in the seven years since their release of genre-defining masterpiece Silent Shout. Not only is the highly conceptual album more than an hour-and-a-half long, it was released alongside a manifesto, comic strip, and rare interviews from the band laying bare the radical feminist and egalitarian principles the LP espouses. How they would bring this vision, a radical departure from their previous work, to their live show was a mystery. Would they have a “band”? Would their faces, for once, be visible? Would they just throw some bell hooks quotes up on a screen and walk away?
The Knife’s performance at London’s Roundhouse on May 9 was more spectacular and satisfying than I had dreamed. Their opener, simply advertised as “DEEP AEROBICS,” was a buff, black drag queen wearing a dreamcatcher as a necklace and a long white wig, who comedically worked out the crowd with hip and rib isolations and synchronized jumping as thumping electro played. If this seemed an odd choice for a band whose last round of shows had more in common with a horror movie than a jazzercise class, the inconsistency was quickly compensated for by their performance.
Shaking The Habitual is explicitly about breaking down our assumed perceptions in order to open ourselves up to different truths, and that’s exactly what The Knife’s show accomplished. They came onstage with a band consisting of five or six people in shiny hooded cloaks, playing, shockingly, what seemed like honest-to-god instruments. This in itself put this show in a different realm than the Silent Shout tour, which found Karen and Olaf standing alone between four screens of trippy projections. This time, one of the performers was playing an unrecognizable, custom-made, bass-like instrument that looked like a sawed-off part of a tree laid horizontal, and was used to replicate the unsettling strings on experimental track “A Cherry On Top.” It got better — at the conclusion of the song this instrument was flipped over to reveal a drum machine on the other side, which was played for the next few tracks.
But we hadn’t seen much yet: after a few songs as a “band,” the cloaks came off, revealing brightly colored sequined outfits, while Karen, Olaf, and cronies assembled themselves for what would be a nearly hourlong dance routine, while their music played in the background. Though they clearly aren’t professional dancers, their performances had obviously required a lot of training and forethought. The choreography riffed on everything from musicals like West Side Story to the Nutcracker to traditional African dance, creating a disconcerting post-modern atmosphere while both older tracks and new singles like “Full Of Fire” blasted into the incredible space, sounding like a showtune from hell. To me, this was the most important part of the show. As a former high school dancer, I’ve been mystified by the lack of dance in underground and DIY art spaces in recent years, so to see a band that is creating some of the most interesting and risky music today make such perfect use of it was awe-inspiring. Aside from the theatrics, to have the whole band, who we’d just seen in a traditional live music set-up, abandon their instruments as tracks were obviously played back out of their control certainly shook up at least a few long-standing ideas of what it means to play live as an electronic artist, a debate that has been raging for decades and has resurfaced recently in light of the EDM explosion.
But The Knife are never satisfied with one interpretation of anything, and what it became clear they were saying with their intentionally glitzy set was to force upon the audience the realization that what we consider truth is always a matter of perception, and human interaction always a performance, be it of your gender, sexuality, or belief in governments, economies, and traditions. Just as The Knife seamlessly transitioned from their seemingly sincere act as a “band” playing instruments to their winking experimentation with artificiality of show, what the experience was meant to teach us was that a world where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, and class are equally permeable is possible. But most incredibly, none of this intellectual politicizing felt oppressive — to the contrary, it felt like a celebration. It was no accident that they ended their set with a rave-infused version of “Silent Shout,” thanked the crowd warmly and then left us to dance to their DJ’s beats, while the crescent of lights at the beautiful Roundhouse lit the audience with rainbows. After a show like that, what else was there to do but revel in the ecstasy of breaking down the walls that oppress us — whether politically, physically, psychically or emotionally? In seven years, The Knife has gone from icy, creepy, and detached to sparkling with warmth and humanity, succeeding ecstatically in giving us hope that we can still try to change the world.
Lincoln Hall; Chicago, IL
Do you have any idea of the aural impetus required to cause a power failure through volume? It’s hard. Really. Fucking. Hard. Professional venues are designed, and staffed, in order to accommodate a frat-sized party of decibels ransacking eardrums and the concert hall. Boris is the only band I’ve ever known that are notorious for their ability to rend PA systems and power supplies apart, and they’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. In their maturity the trio refined and polished their performance into a seamless assault of Japanese metal, the Ghost of Power Failures Past felt like it was looming over the stage, waiting to take the sound system in its jaws and shake the life out of it. Boris chose Lincoln Hall for a two-night stint of shows, the first covering their “classics” (I’m feign to use that term in that all of their songs play like an assault on the listener), and the second an experimental set trying out new material.
Boris’ set was exhausting even when viewed from 20 feet up in the balcony. They played for two hours straight, with maybe a couple of minute-long reprieves peppered in. My favorite to watch was Atsuo, the drummer. He had hair down well past his legs while sitting down, with eyeliner and neon lights all over him. Wata, the wildly skilled guitarist wielding a Les Paul Custom, who also happens to be an attractive Japanese woman, had an enclave of sweaty, long-haired dudes in the pit who all looked like they had seen more than one tentacle monster in their life. Bluh. Anyway, the show was incredible, one of the most enjoyable abrasive concert experiences in recent memory.