No-Neck Blues Band (Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain)
Issue Project Room; Brooklyn, New York
It’s hard to believe an institution such as the No-Neck Blues Band (or NNCK) are celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year. Timeless veterans whose work defies easy documentation, they have existed in various (but mostly continuous) forms since Orthodox Easter 1993. Made up of eight individuals who are themselves doyens of the New York underground, the (preferred anonymous) members of NNCK share percussion, guitars, bass, piano, woodwinds, voice, and electronics to create free music that takes cues from previous travelers but buries any reference points in anarchic theatre, ritualized spectacle, and deep listening. Those historical markers might include AMM, Mahogany Brain, Amon Düül, MEV, Seventh Sons, Cromagnon, Godz, Alterations, CCMC, Circle X, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
On Orthodox Easter 2013 — traditionally a day of celebration at the old NNCK headquarters in Harlem, now obliterated to make way for Columbia University expansion — De Stijl released digital versions of their back catalog via iTunes, something that seems far afield from the grubby legacy of paste-on mystery. Yet in light of providing access to information, such a move makes complete sense.
On a warm weekend in October, a shade over five months after their official anniversary, NNCK convened for one of their increasingly rare live performances at Issue Project Room in downtown Brooklyn. Two days earlier, a gallery show of the band’s flyers and posters opened at Audio Visual Arts in the Lower East Side, proving — as if such a gesture was needed — that their imprint on New York’s musical history is indelible. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, where Issue Project Room normally acts as a concert hall — rows of folding chairs set up in its vaulted stone quarters (it’s a former Masonic temple) — it became a space for communion. In this case, it was mostly dedicated to standees or floor-sitters, and became something akin to what one might imagine the American Center in Paris looked like in the late 1960s.
NNCK was preceded by two sets — the first featured Suzanne Langille singing a capella and reading fragments of Kafka, offset by the electronic patchwork of Camissa Buerhaus, while the second was a duo between guitarists Loren Connors and Tom Carter. Both were short, paving the way for an hour-long set of No-Neck in one sprawling and tense improvisation. With their semi-official “drummer” absent for the occasion, the percussion section was scaled back to snare and floor tom, along with an array of cymbals. The group stamped itself out theatrically from the beginning — one individual loping about in a cardboard appliance box, covered in a black sheet while the guitarist/flutist wrapped band members in paper towels and hurled toilet paper into the audience, all amid string scrapes and tinny feedback. With figures stalking the makeshift ‘stage,’ the proceedings took on a surreal menace distinct from the electroacoustic drift and clatter that slowly began to take shape.
Past performances have erupted in somewhat severe actions on the part of the performers — one player cut himself open (accidentally, supposedly) onstage at the 2003 De Stijl Festival in Minneapolis and, on a later occasion, a bladed percussion instrument got alarmingly close to audience members. Amid hurled fruit and participatory acrobatics, NNCK might seem like a Darby Crash-fronted AMM, though a closer analog might be to Actionism (without the sex and macabre). One figure motioned with a glass pitcher, gently tapping it with a woodblock and gesturing to the fact that it could easily be shattered in his hands while a compatriot writhed on the floor, tearing apart cardboard and clutching a large sledgehammer.
The visual element of NNCK has often been a crucial component, and it was certainly in near-full force at Issue Project Room, though one must be careful not to attribute too much to the “performance” of performance. There is a detailed level of communal improvisation that backs up and overcomes the group’s actions, as close-miked drones and deviant accents coagulate into percussive swells, only to fall away into distant nattering. One interesting addition was the employment of the venue’s piano, adding a witheringly romantic undertow, tight comping, and occasional string rattles slicing through the drift. The dry snare attack was often obsessive and lent a mad urge to the music, alternately banal and biting, as organ and guitar swirled and ricocheted off theater walls and Scratch Orchestra tribalism begat punkish rage and progressive slink. Perhaps it was a result of the packed house and captivating space, or the fact that NNCK performances are less frequent now than 10 or 15 years ago, but they were intensely keyed into both one another and whatever strange force guides them to create and antagonize. The music may have been brought together from disparate elements, but it cohered and seemed both logical and with a sense of direction.
It should be mentioned that this performance was part of Issue Project Room’s 10th anniversary fall series (Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain), which has brought such diverse figures as Rhys Chatham, Cooper-Moore, Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley, William Basinski, Omar Souleyman, and Charlemagne Palestine to downtown Brooklyn. Hopefully their work as a venue and organizing body will continue to garner as much support and interest as it has over the last decade. Similar words could be said of the No-Neck Blues Band — here’s to the next two decades.
Emo's/Antone's/Dirty Dog; Austin, TX
I’ve been toying with the metal thing of late, albeit a zone of the genre that is not AT ALL represented in this piece (if you want to know wherein my loyalty lies, check out Grave Upheaval, Swamp Witch, Sut-Hex, Prosanctus Inferi, and/or Ash Borer). But hey, a festival organized by Phil Anselmo will always get consideration from me, especially if its lineup includes The Melvins and Repulsion (though Crowbar cancelled). And so a mantra was created as the date approached: HOUSECORE, HORRORFEST, HORRORCORE, HOUSEFEST, COREHOUSE, FESTHORROR, HOUSEC-diofajp ldkap slASODdfkla jpsdfpjas dfjasp dfjspjJFASOdSATAN!!!!!!!
And on and on. And if you think this intro is confusing and scattered, you should have tried sitting in my boots in various venues the weekend before Halloween in Austin, Texas. It was perhaps a festival meant to break those involved (me and a photog who flew in from Portland, OR), yet if the devil thinks he’s going to knock my cock off the fest axis, he’s going to have to do better than that (in fact, Fun Fun Fun Fest is coming up this weekend and I didn’t cancel).
Still, tribulations abounded:
- Photog had a delayed flight. Then, they lost his luggage, then found his luggage; then, even as he watched his luggage being carted away, was not allowed to retrieve his luggage.
- While trying to find his luggage, photog’s flight left, so he was delayed again, not arriving until after midnight Thursday, the first day of the festival. Whoops.
- At the airport in San Antonio, my PIECE of FUCK-SHIT iPhone took me to the SECURITY ENTRANCE, where no one ever goes. I should have suspected something was amiss when I pulled onto a 20 mph road in the middle of nowhere on the way to an international airport, but C’MON Google!
- Once I finally did pick up said photog, I had to inform him that Texas, the highest-alcoholic-per-capita state in the nation, doesn’t sell beer after midnight. And so he had to spend the first night of his trip sober. Whoops.
- We missed grind legends Repulsion for no good reason.
- On one occasion, I got into a disagreement with a cab driver (Who kept saying, “You mean the Dirty Dog over on Rio Grande”? NO, NOT THAT ONE, YOU ASS), and my photog that was so intense I had to tell my longtime friend to, ahem, “Shut your goddamn fuckhole for a second and let me talk to this motherfucker.” Then I showed the driver the (desired) address on my phone, which he disagreed with, at which point my companion finally came to my side of the fence and demanded the driver stop and let us out. The driver then cordially charged us $16 for a mile’s work.
I know, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But combine that opening stanza with two days of constant traffic, low money flow, and a trip that had been misplanned in the first place (the Horrorfest schedule was put up so late the photog booked his flight in a random manner, which caused us to miss Pig Destroyer and Phil Anselmo & The Illegals, two of our main targets, and several important films including Susperia), and you’ve got a hottt, heaping helping of stress soup (not as good as ass soup).
Another general problem was my conflicting feelings going in. You see, over the last half-decade I’ve slipped back into Metal mode somewhat, knowing full well how wonderfully awesome and ridiculously awful the mindspace can be. And attending Horrorfest reinforced many of the inklings that caused me to turn my back on metal in the first place without providing the inspiration to tamp them down. But I’ll get into that a bit more later. At this point, all I feel I can do is jump head-first into a bucket-of-guts band/movie roundup, in order of appearance, and let the chips (of brain) fall where they may.
Warbeast: I despise the recorded material I’ve heard from Warbeast, and if there’s a band with more (old) dude-sweat goin’ on out there I don’t wanna know about it. I mean the guitarist on the right looked like a gay Thor wannabe (albeit one that could kick Gumshoe’s sprightly ass). But much like Brutal Truth and a lot of the other more mature dragon-slayers out there, Warbizzle, once the music started, made you forget how grizzled they were by using the music to get young again. Not a single original idea to be found, just better-than-average execution and the dedication it takes to triple-stuff the crust of metal for decades without ever trying, even once, to sing a melody.
Goblin: This was embarrassing because I KNOW Goblin carry importance of some sort, and this was their first trip to the U.S.; it sucks to have to throw a baby wipe over their recently found fire. However, they didn’t give me a choice on this one. If you come out sportin’ that prog-by-numbers shit that forced me to abandon O-Rod-Lop years ago you’re going to get singed by the Gumshoe cattleprod, plain and simple. It’s just cheesy, with double-bass drum rhythms straight out of a Dream Theater cracker-jam and synths not too far removed from those paint-by-numberse GarageBand “compositions” people always want to show me (“Say that’s pretty good, dad!”). Only one tune managed to live up to the soundtrack-based hype Goblin rode to our shores, so maybe I just saw the wrong performance (they also were slated to accompany a screening of Susperia). Between this and Silver Apples I’m all gray-bearded out for 2013.
Whitechapel: Knew nothing of this band coming in, and emerged from the pummeling feeling pretty sure I had gotten to know them as well as I’ll ever need to. Whitechapel ride a blistering three-guitar attack like a steed into your worst nightmare’s anus, leaving a bloody, fecal-splattered mess behind that stinks almost as bad as the tragedy of being impaled by a rusty swordsman’s steel. The new generation of super-charged death-metal acts hit so goddamn hard you wonder what’s next, as chainsawing the head of a pig couldn’t approach the extremity of music triple-thick and dressed to torture and kill. Won’t be checking out their album(s?) anytime soon; that said, in concert don’t be afraid to church it up with these guys some time.
Down: There are people in my life, mostly former bandmates of mine, who think I wouldn’t be caught dead attending a performance by Down. Truth is, however, I’ve always held a soft spot for this Pantera side project-turned-metal-monolith. I just hold true to my ideals, i.e. that the second down album, the one with the heavy Southern undertones, sucked Southern-fried goat balls. But that’s not important right now. What you need to know is HOW FUCKIN’ HEAVY WAS THIS SHIT? And my answer is simple: Yes, it was heavy, kind sir. Playing old non-hits like “Hail the Leaf,” “Stone the Crow” (one of the only examples of twang-metal that actually works, ever), and “Bury Me in Smoke,” the quartet, now minus founding member/Crowbar dude Kirk Windstein, achieved a workmanlike bong-choke crunch that, while not anything like seeing Pantera in 1992, didn’t seem to be running on inertia nor relying on the crowd’s doubtless nostalgia. It’s not music you need to think much about, and in no way is that depressing (that is, unless you try to stretch the theme for longer than 45 minutes). Solid silver.
Necronomica: I almost forgot to tell you about this cute little short film about two metal dudes trying to make headway in their local scene by dint of the most extreme means possible. Necronomica is sort of predictable and butt-metal-y, but it’s also a lot of fun, cracking wise on the ridiculousness of playing in a band for the privilege of “free bat wings” (apparently a form of buffalo wings) at the venue alone. I won’t spoil the end for you, but be ready to imbibe the brains of a dead goat.
Slow Southern Steel: This is where I started chafing under the weight of the often-misguided confidence of metal. Slow Southern Steel has to be the most ham-handed music documentary of all time, self-congratulatory from the beginning and about as incisive as a beer belly peering out from the bottom end of a soiled wife-beater. I never liked Southern Metal as a rule, and Southern Steel drove my prejudices home like a sword to the heart with rote testimonials from low-tier bands (though the inclusions of Buzz*oven and Torche soften the blow, a tad) and self-centered views of the U.S. music scene that seemed to imply the small touring circuit is different in the South than it is anywhere else. At one point I started to get pulled in a bit. Hank III played a cool little down-South ditty and the earnestness of a lot of the testimony is hard not to cozy up to. But the confederate flags draped all around confirmed what I’d suspected: In a lot of ways, they’re cheapening metal for the rest of us. And the thing is, I’m not against the display of the confederate flag because it’s politically repugnant or ignorant, though it is most certainly both of these things. I’m against the display of the confederate flag, in this specific case, because it’s so fucking white trashy and yokel-y and completely un-rock & roll. Comparing the genesis of Southern Metal to the development of the blues and jazz is another iffy move. Puke in your hat, Southern men…
Pieces: I thought I would be seeing a million low-budg movies like Pieces over the weekend, but this was it by force of the maelstrom of bad luck that accompanied us. It’s basically a low-rent slasher flick, infused with gross-out humor (though nothing as sick as, say, Bad Taste or Toxic Avenger) and the general feeling the actors were in on the joke. I’m not a film reviewer so just wiki-pee this puppy so I don’t have to keep pretending to know what I’m talking about…
Goatwhore: Man as slutty as the goat for which they were named must be, I feel like the real whore for never having checked out this veteran act before. Alright alright, I don’t think they’re that great, but it’s a pretty good line, no? Yeah, it is. And there’s nothing at all wrong with G-whore, save that they have no personality of their own. Every song is different, normally a good sign; the rub lies in the fact that each entry in their song canon feels lifted from someone else’s. Nothing is distinct, no trick of the metal trade sacred. With all the fascinating acts active in the genre, there’s no reason to waste time on the Goatwhores of the world.
The Melvins: The buzz-riff baristas of Melvins always come to play. In this case, drummer Dale Crover even seemed to have lost about 100 pounds since the last time I’d seen him (in the configuration of the group that featured the two dudes from Big Business). As always, they didn’t play a single song I actually-actually wanted to hear (not even “The Bit” from Stag), always a problem when the band you lust after has been around for decades, and as always, it didn’t bother me. I’m not sure why they have to play “Night Goat” every time I see them, either. But who fuckin’ knows? Buzz Osbourne was wearing a cape crossed with a kimono, for the love of Sabbath. I guess I’m at a loss for words when it comes to The Melvins these days. They’re like air, or drugs, or food, or shelter: They provide what we need so dutifully we tend to take them for granted.
Birthdays; London, UK
Sometimes the UK (and even London) is a dull place, you know: too polite, genteel, and utilitarian for its own good. That’s why — after being kidnapped in the middle of an intense weather-discussing session and dumped at the front door of Birthdays in Hackney — I groggily jumped at the chance of seeing clipping., who, if nothing else, might inspire a little gratitude for the generally stupefying quiet of English life.
Helping them in their bid to splinter eardrums and corrupt the usually sexless British march toward death was MXLX, also known as Matt Williams from Beak>. Before his set Williams could be seen pacing in and out of the room/hall/moshpit/basement, a bottle of sociability in his hand. Maybe he was nervous, but once he hit the stage and unleashed his churning oscillations of Merzbow-esque digital fuzz, any suspicions that he might’ve been uptight or anxious were eviscerated. Familiar only with his excellent Black Meta album, I couldn’t tell whether he played one continuous 25-minute noise/drone piece, or strung several of his vaguely misanthropic-cum-self-loathing trips together. Either way, his waves of static all-but solidified the air, its thickening mass cut only by his own full-throated shouts and chants. Near the end, the bulging torrent of low-end gave way to a manipulated whirl of screeching high-end, which may’ve been the sound of Lucifer’s cat being sucked into space. Regardless, I took the slightly unsure applause of the crowd as a sign that his performance was impeccably caustic.
As for clipping., I was curious as to how their mixture of oblique textural beats and headlong rhymes would translate in the live setting. I was also curious as to whether they’d provide ammunition for those semi-regular (and unfair) Death Grips comparisons by being antisocially aloof during their 45 minutes, since their music is pretty antagonistic in its own right. But no, Daveed Diggs was as clubby and talkative as you like, kicking off the proceedings with a version of “Intro” that — rather than beginning at full speed — gradually accumulated its dizzy momentum on the way to those “Come get it” explosions. From there they played a queue of tracks taken from Midcity and the earlier singles, including a run through “Guns Up” that had the crowd throwing into the air the closest things they had to guns, which in England is their hands. They also played “Or Die,” “Chain,” and “Jump” — three new tracks that would suggest their future direction is one that emphasizes Midcity’s nascent contrast between abrasive dissonance and more accessible hooks/choruses. The only negative point for me was that such abrasion could’ve been a little louder, simply because without the excesses of volume some of the agitated energy of their material didn’t always reveal itself.
There was probably a reason for this curbing of decibels, however, which is that it was intended to bring out Diggs’ gymnastic flow. When he reached his peaks of tempo and propulsion during the culmination of “Story” (and the above-mentioned “Guns Up”), his rhymes became a kind of runaway train that threatened to charge ahead of itself, and that whipped sections of the London crowd into volleys of unrepentant headbanging. When they finished with their debut single “Face,” this train almost took off, and for that final song the moshpit turned into a miniature dance floor, largely thanks to the small (but no less enthusiastic) number of girls in attendance. Possibly enticed by their nubile limbs, Diggs’ launched a second tour through the crowd that evening, which is pretty much where he stayed once the virtually unbroken focus of Jonathan Snipes and Williams Hutson brought the night to a close.
[Photo: Herman von Matterhorn]
Oneohtrix Point Never / Nate Boyce
EMPAC; Rensselaer, NY
Oneohtrix Point Never plays the most hard-hitting ambient music I’ve encountered. His works are extreme in their garishness to the point of absurdity, with melodies flushed out and plugged like so many unwitting Duck Hunt participants. Daniel Lopatin’s project also is like a silent version of that laughing dog, wherein every botched attempt the listener makes to lock into a groove is puckishly undermined. This is brain schism, not brain dance, but it’s bracing. And the kick-off show in Rensselaer, NY for his R Plus Seven tour reinforced this notion for me. Of course, I was among those (everyone, as I recall) who failed to recognize that there were applause breaks (sometime collaborator Tim Hecker played the same venue with no breaks), so there was awkward silence at the start.
Perhaps it never stopped. I honestly can’t tell how the audience was receiving things. Many of those in attendance were students with nothing else to do. But I was floored. Not only was the set full of surprises (for one piece, there was a churning, almost sans-live drum Add N to (X)-type progression, the likes of which I have never heard from the man), but the visual elements were perfectly synced. Nate Boyce and his contorting CGI renderings of various abstract sculptures blended with OPN’s stunted, jarring spa-core missives in a most uncanny fashion. It was a thrill to see and hear such brazen works of abstraction. Even though Hecker’s sound setup was more elaborate (apparently a week was spent setting up site-specific multiple-speaker arrangements), OPN was considerably bigger sounding. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Lopatin works with bright, clean sounds rather than decaying, fuzzy ones, but there was a lot more Maxell commercial-level intensity.
On a related note, if you don’t live too far from the capital district of New York, I highly recommend EMPAC as a venue. Most of the performers are of the more prestigious, experimental variety (though past guests Deerhunter and Japanther aren’t necessarily much more than rock music, and folk singer Josephine Foster has also played there), but the sound quality is impeccable.
Date Palms / Man Forever
The Monarch; Berlin, Germany
With Man Forever, the first thing you’ll probably notice is three guys huddled around a single drum — one of them Kid Millions of Oneida and instigator of said project — whose concerted drum rolls initially resemble the comforting pitter-patter of rain on a roof. That reassuring sound soon is internalized, swept through our bodies on a huge wash of bass, keys, and EBow’d guitar hum and drone, with the power of it lifting each witness a half-inch off the ground. A vast ocean of overtones magicked out of the mysterious churning phases of the drumming, an open sea of cascading tonal hints and gradual drifts, a few, maybe three, suitably disorientating shifts in the drone-tones (we grow attached without noticing, and the change is wrenching), the three drummers’ sticks rebounding higher and higher off the drum until, with an impressively synchronized snap-finish, it’s over.
Dates Palms up next, the recent additions of bass and guitar lending slow heft to their wilted desert sway, doom-y riffs subtly steering the action in the general absence of drums. Date Palms play music that takes you places, soundscapes for desert landscapes, soundtracks for non-existent Westerns, a pleasant mélange of unapologetically evocative musical traditions. They are unhurried and expansive as I can only imagine the desert sky is; they play music that seems so closely linked to places they’ve been and I haven’t, and they do it well — it’s only too easy to think I might have been there myself. Yet they transport, and all my mental theatre has to bring up in response is received ideas, stock photography, and cinematic mythology — not that that’s Date Palms’ fault. Maybe it isn’t all quite so arid as to be entirely lonely dust and desert imagery; a particular highlight of the set for example, “Night Riding the Skyline,” brings out more watery depths with its dubby echoes and drum machine, and in Marielle Jakobsons’ violin there’s also a touch of human longing, smearing mournful melodies with a homestead-y familiarity over the proceedings — a testament to the life (no matter how tenuously it clings on) in the empty spaces.
One evening, two different trips — Man Forever’s perhaps more bodily, Date Palms’ more imagistic — and how easy it is to be snapped out of that delicate aim of trying to make my way from Berlin across the Atlantic to the desert-y open spaces by means of music alone.
Willis Earl Beal
Schuba's; Chicago, IL
Presence, stage presence, is an unwieldy weapon. Ambling between concrete musical talent and presenting self and work as a spectacle people would be interested in dropping $20 to catch a train and show up at a venue laughably over fire capacity is a needle point some musicians take care to tread. They’re admirable musicians. But like Francois 1 or Derrick Rose (when his career’s over, they’ll be in the same tier of history), some dudes are just fucking born with it. The ease they radiate in snaring a crowd is infuriating and the tandem hatred/admiration only surfaces after you leave the show.
Willis Earl Beal has a backstory constructed meticulously from Americana mythology Kerouac supplicants can only fetishize; joined the army, discharged, bummed around in Albuquerque, left cryptic drawings and CD-Rs around, discovered by tastemakers as a force of both storytelling and American music tradition. After seeing Beal in flesh and Ray-Bans, I think that’s all a front. I think he actually pulled himself out of an unfinished Jarmusch script to walk the earth and spread the word of “swagger” from the Delta Blues and the rock & roll of the mid-decades of the 20th century. He has the off-kilter oddball gait and cadence of Tom Waits (his acknowledged hero), the good looks of a young Chuck Berry, and the caterwaul of Lead Belly. He’s so goddamn cool he could roll a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and no one would call him an asshole.
His CD release of Nobody knows. at Schuba’s saw him for the first time outfitted with a full, highly capable band. Foregoing his staple Wayfarers for a black Venetian mask, the set saw a seasoned Beal parsing through Louisiana Pentecostal devil shake-downs, 12 Bar Chicago Blues sweats, and the hot-breath confessionals that marked Acousmatic Sorcery. I use the descriptive “seasoned” intently; at a young age, Beal is a showman, and a good one. Schuba’s was so full I stood on a wooden bench lining the venue like a kid at an overcrowded 50s dance hall, and I didn’t mind. His theatrics and stage positioning changed scene with every song; writhing on the floor, perched on the stool, wobbling on the mic stand. His astoundingly level speaking voice in banter between songs provided a (probably intentional) confusing contrast between the hard-life bluesman he affects and the “outsider artist” he purports. In Beal’s own words, “I equate the live experience with watching my uncle sing songs drunk.” With the nephew, it’s impossible to tell whether he cracked the bottle or drained it.
Since he began garnering attention, questions of authenticity and presentation have swirled around Beal. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what percentage is facade and what percentage is pith. My dad’s been a blues-bar musician for nearly 40 years, and I grew up in rural Indiana with appreciation and reverence for the sneer and saunter music embodies. I know of way too many acts today who clad their name in neon prints and perform what amounts to an aerobics routine without ever touching an instrument. When Willis was done, he walked off stage-left and into a sweltering Chicago alley.