No Fun Fest 2007: Day 4
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-20-2007]

No Fun Fest never lasted four days before because doctors told Carlos Giffoni ears could not take that much stress. Incredibly, audiences were able to survive three days for three years. So, Giffoni, being accredited in Science and all, expanded the festival to four days. Here’s the catch: he took basement bands out of the equation and let merch hounds rule the downstairs. Boo, on that count. Yeah, for day four.

We made damn sure to be in front of The Hook at 6 PM sharp on Day four ‘cause our boys Air Conditioning were slated to jam with American Band. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend, as the conglomeration cranked out about a half hour of brutal sludge. The destruction unit sacrificed Air Conditioning’s usual horrific melodies for a room-engulfing harsh noise sound. Air Conditioning’s Matt Franco’s guitar fed into effects and Robert cackled his bass and screamed. Lee Counts drilled some sheet metal and Facedowninshit psycho Jason Crumer twisted pedals, channeling the god in a black mass celebrating decadence via electronics. The set was raw and damn good.

Deathroes took the stage next, demanding a blackened room for the strobelight in their set. This paid off, as the lights accentuated Gerrit and Sixes’ creepy drones. Sixes, who has long been one of the best at creating an interesting, subtle drone, managed to invigorate throughout with his electronic maelstrom. Gerrit, who I ignorantly never bothered to seek out, mirrored the amazing sounds, playing perfect counterpart. In all, the band achieved what Damion Romero and Hive Mind failed on the first day; generating excitement from a live drone.

Ludo Mich read a poem and created a capella noise with two beautiful women. Hurrah. Stegm, featuring Dominick Fernow (a.k.a. Prurient), blasted ear drums with blasts of electronics that teetered between harsh noise and black metal. Fernow sang with a doom-, then black-metal voice.

Leslie Keffer presented some interesting ideas during her set, such as “Can Rodger Stella stay onstage with two dozen beautiful, dancing women without touching a single breast?” Answer: “Apparently.” Her alleged collaboration with Stella featured a few blips of heathen noise greatness before degenerating into a Madonna-driven dance party. Stella stood onstage with some kind of keyboard, slowly lifting it and lowering it, then climbing off the stage mid-set to take a stroll through the crowd. When Keffer cranked Madonna and invited noise ladies to shimmy onstage, Stella wandered back, obstructing the view of the spectacle and glaring at the audience with his slack-jawed moon-face. Interesting, to say the least.

Burning Star Core and Aaron Dilloway, two of the final acts, boasted impressive sets at No Fun Fest in years past. This year was no different. Aaron Dilloway’s set was more sustained and just as incredible as last year’s ten-minute masterwork. Okay, maybe it was a little less, but Dilloway built a heady toxic stew of a soundtrack to dismembering a corpse. Clicks, clacks, rings, and screams all melded into a spontaneous composition which was sound logically and just plain nasty. Burning Star Core jammed with Zaimph, better known as Marcia Bassett of Double Leopards/UN/GHQ fame. The collaboration laid down a ’70s rock stomp and proceeded to blast the piss out of it, adding drones and, of course, C.S. Yeh’s outerworldly mic-spittin’. Outerspace sonics were a great way to end the evening.

We left before Thurston Moore took the stage. After all, we could see Thurston anytime in Northampton. Right? Saying goodbyes to worldwide friends in the basement, I spotted Rob McCulloch, guitarist for NEGATIVE FUCKING APPROACH. After shaking hands with McCulloch and explaining how much I love his band, I begged my ride to stay at the venue. Just for one song. PLEASE! C’mon, I just want to hear them play “Lost Cause.” It’s only 40-fucking-seconds long. Please. No! NO? No fun, indeed. I don’t wanna go back to work. I want to live in a deviant noise community forever. No fuckin’ fun. Oh well, someone dope me up until next year.

{Day One} + {Day Two} + {Day Three} + Day Four

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 1
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-17-2007]

It was No Fun Fest weekend, and my friends and I made damn sure we booked out of work an hour early. With ride and shelter situations straightened out, we hit the highway, but I’ll be goddamned if New York City traffic planned our night differently. Missed Orphan Fairytale’s opening ceremonies, which all of us were looking forward to, but at least we made it to the festival, which was chock-full of friends and acquaintances.

Rounding the un-genrified, dockside neighborhood, a faint buzzing wandered within earshot as we jogged to The Hook’s front door. After a frisking and ticket securing, we opened the black curtain to an all-too-familiar scene: darkness punctuated by a red-lit bar and a green-lit stage with roughly 200 music-hungry fans and a handful of stragglers on the dancefloor. Evil Moisture welcomed us to the four-day weekend by slaying the audience with madcap, rage-filled hums and squeals.

After some loud yelps, I wandered outside, escaping the scent of stale beer and body odor to catch up with friends from around the states. Two smokes and a few beers later, Lambsbread’s opening chords summoned the audience back. When we arrived indoors, Rat Bastard announced the band was just plugging in. A few minutes later, those evil mothers cranked out one helluva mind-bender. Kathy sketched a dissonant fuzz landscape, while Zac blurted out some Hendrix-of-noise noodlings and Shane spackled a percussive foundation. A brief foray into Sabbath-style doom gave the head a rest from fast banging -- then BLAM... right back into lightspeed, free-hardcore riffage, ending at just the right point in the meltdown. A goddamn smoker fer sure.

Hive Mind and Damion Romero's set sounded like New Order tunes melted into one super-long drone, but it also was super boring to watch. Time to hit up the merch stands. Unlike the previous three years, organizers dedicated the basement solely to merch, not the manic intensity of small bands. Hospital Productions, AA Records, Los Angeles Free Music Society, Fag Tapes, Hanson, Bennifer, et al -- Thurston Moore running around with an underarm full of vinyl and tapes. Limited-edition cassettes and lathes galore, but since funds were limited, the place seemed more like an art museum piece on underground record packaging or a study in rampant consumerism.

Upstairs, Kim Gordon and Yoshimi began setting up. Grabbing a three $3 Pabst, I weaseled my way into a good spot. I had pumped the first Royal Trux album for the whole week prior and hoped something at the festival could approximate the feeling of that album. Thankfully, Kim and Yoshimi pulled it off with an energetic set. Kim’s noticeably improved guitar technique sounded like Neil Hagerty’s primitive playing on Royal Trux' [#1], but with a penchant for dissonance and an amateurish earnestness on par with early Half Japanese. Yoshimi’s ritualistic banging kept things in motion, while Kim’s breathy poetics drove away some power electronics fans.

Preparation for Hair Police: smoke, piss, drink, patiently wait for the crew to do a soundcheck. Now it is time to watch skulls melt. On this night the band blurred the barrier between the spastic punk squalls of the past with drawn-out, black metal soundscapes, creating a crowd-pleasing glimpse into the band's future trajectory. Crazed no-wave synth blurts and echoing train-track bass smacks plotted a dark underworld accentuated by Mike Connolly’s horrific, high-pitched screams. Two encores and a few minutes worth of psychotic clapping later the best set of the night ends, and I kick scattered Pabst cans out of the way to see if my friends are still alive.

The night ended with a set by the legendary harsh-noise artist Pain Jerk. While the Japanese extremist wailed on some sort of metal-cased keyboard of death, John from Slogun stood on the side of the stage, flipping people off and spitting on the people in the front of the crowd. He made crying gestures and continued to provoke the crowd as Kohei Gomi shredded eardrums, constructing a wall-thick, scraping metal sound. Slogun punched a few people and a mini-melee started, with Gomi intervening. I didn’t understand the violent stage show surrounding Gomi’s performance, but the barrage of sound distracted one from dwelling too long on ersatz.

For the first time in a few months, I walked home with a severe ringing in my ears and a smile on my face. I couldn't wait to see what No Fun Fest curator Carlos Giffoni had planned for the second night.

Day One + {Day Two} + {Day Three} + {Day Four}

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 3
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-19-2007]

Of all the bands I forgot to mention in my No Fun Fest day two summary, Anti-Freedom rocked the hardest. A one-off band featuring Shane Mackenzie and Zac Davis of Lambsbread and Dennis Tyfus, the band blasted through a set of faux-punk songs with Tyfus seemingly singing the same set of lyrics for every song. Davis melded Black Flag chords and Demo-Moe feedback with Sonny Sharrock-style skronk accentuations while Mackenzie wore any remaining white spots off his skins. Eventually, John Olson joined in the fun, drumming in place of Mackenzie.

I mention this set because a lot of Saturday’s No Fun Fest lineup was, well, no fun.

Although we were in Brooklyn, a ride mishap made us miss Demons’ set (my friends argued they’d already seen Demons twice this year, and though I've seen them before, I wanted to check them out with Twig Harper). We eventually arrived just in time for Sickness, who I’d esteem as one of the best ‘noise’ artists out there. He took the stage and began to play a subdued set plagued with amplifier shortages. Wandering to the back of the audience, I couldn't hear Sickness’ performance, save for a few murmurs. This led me to believe he did not play through the PA. After another false start, he left the stage but not before telling the audience to have fun at their “hug fest.” And so began the bad vibes.

Sickness stayed onstage to help his buddy Slogun with the next set. Slogun, known for confrontational, violent performances, sounded absolutely abysmal in the best possible way. Horrific harsh-noise ambience and serial-killer clips slinked out of the sound system as he stood cross-armed, stage left. He spit at a few unlucky concert goers, swore at a few more, then shouted hyper-manipulated battle chants into the microphone. A few guest vocalists joined him onstage, kicking the audience in the face and yelling at the “fucking pussies” in the crowd in a ploy to get someone to fight them. Before leaving the stage, he told the “fucking pathetic” crowd they weren’t even worth his time. The crowd played right into Slogun’s hands, booing him off the stage. From message boards and various interviews with Slogun’s John Balisteri, I gather Slogun’s live shows are supposed to place violence in the face of those who watch it from a distance on the television. I guess I’m just a hippie pussy, then, because I shied away from it.

Or maybe I’m not enough of a hippie because I found most of Religious Knives’ set very ho-hum. Their first tune, a heavy psych ditty complete with a cool bleeding fuzz guitar line, lacked passion. Vocally, Mike Bernstein just doesn’t sound great unless he hums into the mic over a layered drone. On the other hand, their fractured dub song elated me with its jubilant slack beat and seamless melding of dissonant sound elements and dub music.

My hippie ass loved the old hippies of Los Angeles Free Music Society’s set. Ju Suk Reet Meate, Tom Recchion, and Jackie Oblivia created the best sounds of the entire festival. Recchion sketched an ambient desert with his laptop, while Oblivia processed records on an old Califone portable player run through a few pedals. Meanwhile, Ju Suk slowly tortured a keyboard and strange stringed instruments. The records’ disorienting, looped vocal sounds joined the creepy noisescapes, birthing a soundtrack to a bad trip. Moments of harsh dissonance furthered this concept -- pure fucking magic. A drunk kid climbed onstage mid-set, stripping off his shirt and falling down, taking Recchion’s equipment with him. The Smegma one-off jammed for a few more minutes before calling it quits. The crowd cheered loudly and part of the band looked as if it would play an encore. Oblivia waved off the idea, though, as the drunk guy ruined some of the group’s equipment. After the show, Ju Suk said the performance was the closest thing to a LAFMS performance this generation is going to receive.

Keiji Haino kept the magik going with a three-part, hour-long performance. He began the night strumming a small, abnormal acoustic instrument and shouting incoherent melodies, sounding like an aboriginal Jandek with a violent side. Soon, he picked up his axe and amps flowed with majestic walls of chord-reverberation glory. He swaggered about the stage with a Hendrix-at-Woodstock pomp, bleeding his doom metal chords before engaging in a psych-noise spazz-out. Putting down his battered guitar, he grabbed a mic and proceeded to scream unintelligibly into it. Processed through a series of pedals, the vocals became blistering sound missiles protruding from the speaker. My ears rang for three days afterwards, but each time I thought about why they rang, I smiled. Haino’s set proved more interesting and enthralling than any of the festival’s harsh noise acts.

Merzbow’s thundering set ended the night with a high-water mark. The thundering, scraping set composed by a stoic Masami Akita overpowered any idle chatter in the audience. Sitting in front of a laptop with a layout of mixers and electronic devices, Akita composed with command, ensuring fluidity within the cacophony. The grinding, oscillating industrial sounds constantly morphed and demanded attention. Though my body felt some ware, Akita entranced me. The spirited energy would continue into Sunday’s performances, proving a few bad apples can’t ruin a fun festival.

{Day One} + {Day Two} + Day Three + {Day Four}

The Dismemberment Plan
Black Cat; Washington, DC

[04-28-2007]

It seems like every band that has ever broken up and still has at least two living members is reuniting. From Iggy and the Stooges to The Police, the past few years have been rife with half-assed reunions. Most have been uninspiring, some have yielded God-awful new albums, and almost all seem to be supported, if not instigated, by major corporate interests. The tickets are expensive, the bands are phoning it in, and we, as fans, eat it up with a spoon, ignoring our misgivings and clinging to the hope that our loyalty will pay off.

But The Dismemberment Plan are not like any other band, and their “reunion,” if that’s what we must call it, went down much differently, too. D-Plan reunited for no more than two consecutive nights at hometown club the Black Cat. Both shows were benefits for Callum Robbins, the son of producer and erstwhile Jawbox frontman J. Robbins. Callum was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitating neurological condition that kills more babies than any other disease.* Tickets cost only $15, and neither the band nor the label made any money on the show. With no new material introduced onstage, one can be sure there is not an upcoming album waiting in the wings for promotion, either.

Without the taint of any hidden agenda, D-Plan were free to rock, and I was free to guiltlessly enjoy it. As a longtime fan who lived in Baltimore from 2001 until well after the band broke up in 2003, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen them live. Basically any time they played in Baltimore or DC, that is, at least every other month, I went. If I had to change plans, that’s what I did. They were simply that good live. This show was no different and was perhaps even better because this time I didn’t take for granted that I’d ever be able to see them again.

After a grateful introduction from J. Robbins, met with both respectful silence and heartfelt applause, The Dismemberment Plan opened with “Do the Standing Still.” I’m pretty sure they were reminding us that, even though a few years had gone by, dancing was still de rigeur. Much like the farewell shows four years ago, the set was packed with hits and crowd-pleasers. D-Plan have always known how to give the people what they want. They performed for two hours; they took requests; they played on, good-naturedly, while fans packed the stage (as has long been the tradition) and crushed them in during “The Ice of Boston.”

"Seeing" The Dismemberment Plan is not really a passive experience at all — it’s completely interactive. Almost every song has a call-and-response element, whether it be singing along to the torch-y “What Do You Want Me to Say” and anxious “Time Bomb” or shouting “Dismemberment Plan gets rich!” at the end of the noisy, high-speed farce that goes by the same name. During “Back and Forth,” Travis Morrison exhorts the crowd, deadpan, to “Throw your hands in the air / And wave them like you just don’t care” — and that’s just what everyone does. All of this happened on Saturday, and neither the band nor the audience skipped a beat, as though no time had passed. This is the kind of show we’re all betting on when a band that we love dearly reunites and we go to see them. As far as I can tell, this is the only reunion show that I’ve ever left totally satisfied, without a hint of ambivalence.

According to Morrison, the band have always known they would reunite from time to time for benefit shows in their hometown. Hopefully this means we’ll be able to see D-Plan again in a few years and help them give back to the community that was so instrumental to their success. Meanwhile, I’m not hoping for a permanent reunion, new songs, or even an East Coast tour. The Dismemberment Plan gave us 10 years of intelligent, experimental songwriting and (have I belabored this point enough yet?) some of the most exciting live shows of all time. They quit while they were ahead, and though it’s impossible not to miss them, we can be proud that they’re keeping both their legacy and their commitment to the DC community intact. And when they ask us, as they always have and always will, “How’s Washington?” we can actually believe that they care about the response.

*It’s no secret that working in independent music is not especially lucrative, and care for children with SMA is prohibitively expensive. To donate to Callum Robbins or Fight SMA, an organization that is searching for a cure for spinal muscular atrophy, please visit J. and wife Janet’s blog.

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 2
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-18-2007]

As the cold night’s air wafted its way through Brooklyn, a thick molten steam rose in The Hook. Around 500 music fans caught Incapicatants’ screaming jovial mess and reciprocated the lunacy by leaping about, shaking each other in celebration, banging heads and pumping fists. No Fun Fest day two’s lineup simmered with a screaming, cerebral harsh noise set and their infectious affability spread to the crowd. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Highlighted by mind-bending collaborative performances from Mouthus and Axolotl and Raionbashi and Kutzkelina, Friday’s artists spanned the globe and the experimental music spectrum. As variety is the spice of sound anarchy, virtually no one performer overlapped aesthetically with another. The schedule saw a power electronics performer opening for drone rockers and an analog sound designer following bizarre European sound terrorists.

If there’s one thing I learned in life, it’s you can’t depend on friends. We waited for our ride for around two hours before he called and bailed out. His loss and ours too, as the wait made us miss Charlie Draheim’s set. My friend also missed an amazing night of music and a marked improvement over the festival’s first night. We arrived in time for Princess Dragonmon’s laserbeam punctuations and push-button Atari feedback attack. Not a good start to the night, but the set allotted us time to stock up on beers and puff a few smokes before Grunt.

Grunt took the stage with some kind of metal box, which he shook and hit to create sharp metal sounds. He yelled into the box and delayed his voice while constructing an eerie backdrop with knobs and pedals. Although faulty amplifiers kept shorting out, it added an extra thematic quality to the set. Eventually, something amp-wise burned and forced him to start over. Fantastic for the crowd, as Grunt proved innovative in the tough realm of harsh noise. I think the metal box contained magic.

The most ethereal set of the night belonged to the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration. The trio created two long-form drones that kept the crowd’s attention with thick layers of morphing sludge. The first drone saw Mouthus guitarist Brian Sullivan playing with pedals, while Axolotl’s Karl Bauer caressed violin strings, processing them through a series of electronics. Mouthus' Nate Nelson accentuated the jam with free-jazz drumming. Though the trio’s sound-making method was in touch with Bauer’s musical approach, the jam sounded more like a loud, hard-nosed Mouthus skronk than Axolotl’s psychedelic, space-alien drone. After the first piece, the band couldn't ignore the loud cheers and kicked out another -- Sullivan picked up a guitar and laid down a warped vortex of fuzz while Bauer fiddled with his table of tricks. As the view of Bauer’s gear was obstructed from most of the crowd, the noises he generated seemed otherworldly. The tune sounded like an Axolotl composition generated using Mouthus’ set-up. Sullivan and Nelson ended the set with a frenzied guitar/drums duel, accentuated by a cacophonous avalanche of sound snowballed by Bauer.

As good as the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration was, Raionbashi and Kutzkelina nearly schooled them on their home court. The duo inter-cut harsh scraping with atmospheric creepiness and yodeling, constructing a disorienting, masterful set. Raionbashi sported the coolest haircut ever: a normal cut with the front portion of his scalp shaved bald. He lingered in the background with Kutzkelina in the forefront. As Raionbashi spackled layers of industrial hiss, Kutzkelina began taking off clothing. With memories of Macronympha dancing in their heads from last year's fest, males stood on their tippy-toes to catch a glimpse of what they thought would be Kutzkelina’s nude body. Instead, she unearthed a milkmaid dress. The noise stopped and a silence fell over the crowd. “YEEE-DE-HAA-DEEEE-OOOO-HAAA-DEEEE-OOO-HEEE-HEE,” she sang in an old-world yodel. In a few minutes, she became the set's centerpiece, and Raionbashi's freaky fade-in sounds further bewildered the audience. The set ended with the blow of an air horn and a few seconds of silence before the crowd erupted in applause. In an era where droves of dissonant sounds are no longer all that strange, it was nice to discover bizarre factions remain in the noise universe.

Giffoni performed next with analog gear and didn’t disappoint. Though he meditated on a group of boring video game sounds for awhile, his performance contained transcendent passages lacking in his previous festival sets. Sissy Spacek blasted through a set of spazz core on par with Man Is The Bastard. The band destroyed punk-rock concepts for about three minutes before their guitarist smashed his axe to shreds and the singer dove into the crowd, effectively ending their set. The best was yet to come, however, as the legendary Incapacitants stormed the stage around 1 am.

Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosaka smiled devilishly while creating a large spiked ball of fluctuating feedback and horrific noise-treated yelps. Both bounced around the stage, occasionally pausing to immerse in the frenzy they created, rolling their eyes in the back of their heads, shaking. Of all the bands playing the festival, Incapacitants received the best response. The mosh-pit kids swayed with glee, and the rest of the crowd gyrated to the wild non-rhythms. Some dude even pounded his face bloody to match the band’s intensity. He couldn’t.

After the show, I couldn’t hear friends talk. We limped to the subway to patch ourselves up. Our ear fibers better strengthen by Saturday, because Merzbow and Keiji Haino surely won’t be playing acoustic sets. Can’t fuckin’ wait.

{Day One} + Day Two + {Day Three} + {Day Four}

Modest Mouse / Love as Laughter / Grand Archives
The Orpheum Theatre; Minneapolis, MN

[04-20-2007]

After having my Friday night flight from Chicago to Minneapolis delayed due to a mechanical problem and after watching the pilots and mechanics scratch their heads in the cockpit for an hour, I luckily was rushed to a new plane and was able to make it straight from the airport to the Orpheum just in time to miss Love as Laughter's set. I was bummed I didn’t get a taste of Grand Archives (ex-Carissa’s Wierd), but I was just glad to have made it at all. I should have known when my friend bought the tickets and I said “I’m sure my flight won’t be delayed” that I was asking for trouble.

After having seen Modest Mouse twice in the most horrible venues in the country for sound (Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom and Milwaukee’s Eagle's Ballroom -- stay away from those ballrooms people), I was thrilled to finally get a chance to hear them in a theater designed to house music. True, their popularity has surged immensely since those two shows (I about died when I heard a Muzak version -- placid male singer, drastically reduced tempo and all -- of “Float On” in my local CVS Pharmacy the other day), but I’ve really been digging the new album and figured I was prepared to hear mostly post-Good News material. My anticipation only grew when I saw our seats; I don't know how it happened, but apparently two aisle seats in row 'P' (read: not too shabby) were still available the day before the show, something that would never happen in back in Chicago.

Modest Mouse took a stage randomly decorated with fake streetlamps. They were sporting two drummers and Johnny Marr, who added some fun backing vocals and let Isaac take a crack at him midway through the show but was otherwise relatively unnoticeable. The band kicked off with "Paper Thin Walls," one of the more thrilling songs of the night and one of the few pre-Good News tracks we were treated to. Even though I was prepared to hear mostly new stuff, I guess I still hoped for some surprise classics; only "Dramamine" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" qualified for that tag, with additional representation from typical live favorite "Doin' the Cockroach." Probably not coincidentally, these were the songs that turned into some crazy 10-minutes-long jams (I didn’t remember Isaac Brock usually going on for five minutes about "quotas" during "Tiny Cities"), while the new stuff was played pretty much straight off the records. Not unexpectedly, the Modest Mouse crowd has changed from what was once a mix of hipsters and hippies to a mix of hipsters, hippies, fratboys and scantily clad young girls. Gross.

Overall, everything sounded good and Isaac was doing some good, crazy rockin' on stage, but I think the size of the venue, though smaller than what they usually play these days, was still too big for me to feel much connection with the band. For once, I couldn't blame the sound for that. "Bukowski" had some fire and "Missed the Boat" was certainly nice, but relatively close as I was, I still felt too far away from the band. Being constrained to a seat probably didn’t help much, either, as it took away from the “rock show” vibe; it's hard to get the audience engaged from afar. As a result, the excitement I've been getting from listening to the new album seemed to be frustratingly missing for me when I heard the same songs live.

I hate to think I'm becoming too snobby about venue size, but I’m sad to say I've been pretty spoiled with life at the Empty Bottles and Triple Rock Social Clubs of the world. I think I just need to accept that the live Modest Mouse experience I wanted happened about five years ago and isn't coming back; I’ll just continue to worship their recorded material in the meantime.

Photo: Aaron Farrington

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