Russian Circles / KEN mode / Helms Alee
The Metro; Chicago, IL

[03-16-2014]

Chicago is a brutal town. How brutal? A building on the south side caught on fire, froze over from the influx of water from firehoses, and then caught fire again while frozen. This city is brick and concrete and hard angles and six-month winters and natives who’d rather see a tourist get hit by a taxi than offer directions (myself included). Naturally, brutal music would spring out of this unforgiving soil.

Russian Circles fucking destroy live. I’ve been a huge nerd for this band since they played a show at my alma mater in 2007 in support of Enter, and they’ve only honed their craft in the ensuing years. It is dizzying how cavernous three dudes on a stage can sound, and the support for Memorial is their magnum opus of making and playing crushing, enormous, desolate music.

Everything about this show lined up. They played The Metro, one of my favorite venues in the city, and brought along two other trios, KEN mode and Helms Alee, as openers. A friend whom I was meeting at the show ran late and asked me to describe KEN mode in 10 words, but I only needed nine: “Hating god through a Drop D Southern Metal barrage.” I stand by the accuracy of my statement. Also: big ups to surprise hit of the night Helms Alee. Their show was all syncopation and prog riffs and making me wish I was alive for metal shows in the 70s.

The Metro was writhing by the time Russian Circles took the stage. The last time I saw them was 2011 at their Fun Fun Fun Fest aftershow in Austin, and Dave Turncrantz was still operating floodlights behind him with his hi-hat foot when he got the chance. Their set-up post-Memorial is now a solid two-row track light of pivoting flood lights and enough fog to give one/all of the Bronte sisters a ladyboner. Russian Circles have always been able to mold and cut a set list for maximal dynamics, but at this point they have it down to an art. From opening with “309” and slinging at least twice the decibels of Helms or KEN, Dave Turncrantz, Mike Sullivan, and Brian Cook covered the entire discography. My two favorites from the night were by and far “1777,” in my opinion their best-crafted song to date, and “Deficit” because it’s the most punishing track on Memorial and the second half of the song sounds like the most metal Zelda dungeon ever. Can that be the rest of my life, metal Zelda dungeons?

[Photo: Robert Elwood Photography]

St. Vincent
Commodore Ballroom; Vancouver, Canada

[03-25-2014]

Chances are if you have heard of any music venue in Vancouver, it’s the Commodore Ballroom. With a capacity of about a thousand, the Commodore is the tipping point between the city’s many fine clubs (The Cobalt, Biltmore, Fortune, etc.) and fabulously appointed concert halls (Orpheum, Queen Elizabeth, Vogue, etc.). It ties the city together, and there are few music venues in North America still thriving that boast its kind of history.

Designed in brilliant art deco style by H.H. Gillingham, the Commodore Cabaret was built in 1929. Unfortunately, that also was the year of the great stock market crash and subsequent depression, which had the effect of forcing the venue to close mere months after it opened. A section of the original stylized wall paneling is still on display near the coat check, a small piece of the art deco design puzzle that becomes rarer by the day in this terminal city presently infected by condo gentrification. To keep the Commodore alive in those lean years, the owners focused on dinner and dancing, with an evolving house big band (12-14 piece orchestras) the venue would maintain into the early 1970s. From the 30s to the 60s, the shadows of traveling artists Count Basie, Cab Calloway, George Burns, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tommy Dorsey all darkened its stage. However, it wasn’t until Drew Burns took over its lease in 1969, and changed its name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom, that it became iconic.

Under Burns’ direction, Captain Beefheart, New York Dolls, Kiss, Tim Buckley, Bo Diddley, Canned Heat, Talking Heads, and the Ramones all played there in the 70s, including the first Vancouver appearances by Patti Smith, Blondie, Devo, Tom Petty, The Police, and the North American debut of The Clash. The ’80s saw gigs from U2, XTC, the Cure, the Cramps, Iggy Pop, Gang of Four, Echo & The Bunnymen, Pixies, and others, while the 90s hosted the likes of Nirvana, The Pogues, The Buzzcocks, Primus, Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Beastie Boys, David Byrne, P.J. Harvey, Jesus Lizard, Stereolab, and too many more to name here.

Good times can’t last forever, though. When Drew’s lease ran out at the end of 1995, his vision went with him. The venue sat empty for three years, leaving a big hole in the local scene, until Live Nation (then House of Blues) dumped $3.5 million into renovations, replaced the bouncy dance floor and colored bubble pillars with a more subtle design, and started filling the venue with impressive names again. Under their control in the 2000s, the Commodore landed marquee performances once again, even convincing Tom Waits to play his first club show in nearly three decades to commemorate the venue’s 75th anniversary.

The great sightlines of the open floor design make the Commodore a near-perfect place to see an explosive artist like St. Vincent. Her sound is so vibrant, her performance so captivating, both of which have exponentially improved even since her last appearance at the Commodore in 2011.

Indeed, a former Polyphonic Spree cultist and touring bandmate of Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark has been through a lot of changes. She released her major label debut, moving from the legendary independent 4AD to a Republic sub-label for her eponymous 2014 record, which has reached her highest point on the U.S., UK, and Canadian charts yet. Her music popped up on Boardwalk Empire and Twilight, while her appearance on a Season 4 episode of Portlandia all but cemented her pop culture relevance for this generation. Perhaps most importantly, though, her 2012 full-length collaboration and tour with David Byrne (who also has multiple Commodore appearances to his credit) seems to have given her wings on stage and in life. It’s with no false modesty that her new album was self-titled. She has just arrived.

Eventually, the lights dimmed and, after fashionable pause, the synth lead from “Rattlesnake” kicked in and Clark drifted into position. She was totally pale, save her piercing blue eye-shadow and a floral disemboweling on her summer dress, her wild blond mane channeling the kind of Einstein-crazy of which Wayne Coyne would approve. Clark’s guitar sound and technique is impossible. It sounds something like Steve Vai or Tom Morello, but placed in an indie art-pop context well beyond the comprehension of either. On this tour, she relied on supporting guitar/synth player Toko Yasuda (formerly of The Lapse, Enon, and, briefly, Blonde Redhead), keyboardist Daniel Mintseris (who Clark later introduced as “a priest of ones and zeroes”), and percussionist Matt Johnson (“thrower of hot lava” and former drummer for Jeff Buckley) to create the skeletons for her to flesh out with her elegant vocals, delivering cerebral yet relatable lyrics, and tasteful guitar. She shreds with alien theatricality, ever mind-boggling yet never showboating, favoring intuition over classical training as a dozen assorted pedals forge her distinctive timbre. Her voice was incredible too, an angelic tone pure as the driven snow one minute and modulated with guttural tones the next.

Apparently working with artistic director Willo Perron (of Lady Gaga fame) and choreographer Annie-b Parson for this tour, Clark gave off a far more confident vibe onstage than she did when I first saw her at the 2010 Calgary Folk Fest. She seemed reluctantly thrust into the spotlight by her undeniable talent and vision back then, just after her sophomore album Actors hit the shelves. Now, her nervous energy has been channeled into effortless smiles and plot-driven gestures, like trading skitter walks with Yasuda as they swapped riffs, slowly rolling down a set of stairs at the back of the stage, taking her pulse during “Digital Witness,” and head-banging harder than Beavis and/or Butthead on “Your Lips Are Red” (which bore little resemblance to the version on her 2007 debut Marry Me).

Some of the biggest cheers and sing-alongs went to older material, namely “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” from 2011’s Strange Mercy. Her set-list heavily favored her new album, though, and she did an amazing job of balancing her older tracks with her present style, having evolved from its comparatively simplistic beginning and baroque development to the maximalist noise-pop present, what she described as “a party record you could play at a funeral.” Nothing was played exactly as it was on record, but nothing was alienating. The arrangement for “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” from Actor was more dramatic than the studio version, using electric instead of acoustic guitar and driven by digital strings rather than embellished by an organic string section, likely out of necessity but employed to great effect. The titular track from Strange Mercy received the most drastic change, performed in the encore with only Clark’s emotive vocals and mournful electric guitar.

As of late, the Commodore’s soundsystem has been sounding tired, the victim of too many excessively loud shows tipping over the distortion boiling point, yet Clark held it together admirably while demonstrating Bowie-level charisma. While Yasuda added essential ingredients on the Theremin and Moog Voyager, Mintseris triggered choir and synth patches with a MIDI keyboard, and Johnson filled in the blanks on a hybrid drum kit, you couldn’t take your eyes off Clark for a second. She twitched, shrugged, and nodded, burning a hole in the fabric of space/time with her smouldering glare. She’s unreal. It doesn’t seem possible by the laws of physics and chance that a human being could be this weird, gorgeous, and talented.

But seeing is believing. It’s heartwarming to watch someone who came out of the gate so full of promise realize their full potential. Annie Clark is a fantasy become corporeal, maximum skill and style. Right now, she deserves all the fucking praise she can get.

[St. Vincent photos: Caily DiPuma]

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Reitschule; Bern, Switzerland

[02-15-2014]

“We just like to swear a lot,” is probably as frank an explanation of a song title as you could ever hope to hear from a frontman, and it suits the bellicose path Silver Mt. Zion have been forging of late, what with Fuck Off Get Free being a hail of fuzzed guitars and amped violins. Accordingly, their set at Bern’s Reitschule — a reclaimed horse-yard now functioning as a cultural center for people of an anarcho-socialist-communist-feminist-leftist persuasion — was coruscatingly direct, and as the opening quote implies, it began with a surge through the title track from their latest. And it didn’t end there, since the band thrashed out renditions of every other track on the album, reveling in their migration from the plaintive elegies of yesteryear to the indignant tirades of the present.

Moving from “Fuck Off Get Free,” they bullied “Austerity Blues” and “Early Grave Blues,” producing voluminous walls of sound that fattened as they were increasingly reminded of everything that pisses them off from day to day. “Austerity Blues” was introduced as a tribute to, “How the rich keep wanting more, and the poor keep getting less,” and though the sheer force of the assault threatened to singe ears, the space provided by the live setting allowed the heavily FX’d violins of Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss to take the foreground, wherein they could venture into and explore new melodic territory, territory that radiated the quintet’s inimitable fusion of sorrow, vitriol, melancholy, and determination.

In fact, it’s this inclusivity and openness that’s one of the most striking aspects of the Mt. Zion live set. The band were assembled in a symmetrical V formation, with Trudeau and Moss opposite each other at the front, Menuck and Thierry Amar mirroring each other in the row behind, and finally David Payant manning the drums at the V’s tip. Coupled with the fact that each member is equipped with a mic for vocals, this arrangement subtly communicates their ideals of equality and democracy, which they also artfully manage to unify with the ideals of individuality and individual expression evoked by the deeply personal laments of each instrument. This marriage was borne out when, after the escalating heat of “Austerity Blues,” Menuck confessed its blurry ending is “all noise, it’s all just noise; we’re all just making [self-absorbed, uncoordinated] noise,” but that they nonetheless end together as a unanimous entity, since they “look at each other, and we go 1, 2, 3, 4 — uh, the end.”

Outside of the gracefully punishing Fuck Off Get Free material, they treated the audience to Kollaps Tradixionales closer “Piphany Rambler,” and to newie “All Their Kings Are Dead,” another prolonged, transcendent punk jam that showcases an aggravated breakdown and newfound taste for semi-falsetto vocal hooks. Yet despite the energy streaming out of the amplifiers the Swiss crowd were, for whatever reason, a little polite in their applause, with Menuck at one point asking them, “Is everything OK, what the fuck is going on? Are you guys alright?” Regardless, the band said goodbye to them with a powerful, St. Valentine’s version of “What We Loved Was Not Enough.” And for me at least, this was more than enough.

Setlist:

01. Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)
02. Austerity Blues
03. Rains Thru the Roof at the Grande Ballroom (For Capital Steez)
04. Early Grave Blues
05. ‘Piphany Rambler
06. All Their Kings Are Dead
07. What We Loved Was Not Enough

Encore: Little Ones Run

Dolphin Tears & Angel 1
Body Actualized Center; Brooklyn, NY

[12-27-2013]

Cutting out the mysteries flourishing around reality at the Body Actualized Center, the Beer on the Rug “showcase” — as was presented to me by way of DeForrest earlier that night — completely bugged out. I’ll keep it short, ‘cause the fellow editing this piece ALSO had his mind hacked that night and we’re still all trying to put things back in place.

Dolphin Tears was ACTUALIZED within a tank. The tank was filled to the brim of water, and rolled out by Total Reality International label owner George. The whirling and mutilation of electronics began to sound off as arms along the side of this tank transformed, reaching above the tank’s opening. Sprinkles and twinkles of glitter dust down upon the pool of water, which brings about the emergence of a dolphin that grows into a full-sized echo, sonaring out of the water and into the audience’s psyche; the audience is dancing of sorts, or laying on the ground. Slowly, the bottom rolls out a rubber circle, and beings to blow it up with air as the dolphin is dancing within the splashing tank. The walls of the tank are removed, water is caught within the bloated rubber, and with the last bit of room, the dolphin jumps out and into the pool, finishing the act of metamorphosis in sound and body.

Within a ‘poof’ of purple, Angel1 is found floating above where the pool once was, drumming at a rhythm of all open hearts, towering with a voice of every being. Layered in a halo of mist, the mighty voice of Angel1 echoed across the audience as chords of every note within the life of music. Breathing amongst the holy, chimes of bells and lush melodies skitter across a beat that danced with and as an audience to the performance. Still robed within a cloud formation, Angel1 lofted along the stage area with ease and was protected by a man practicing sword formations. More of a yogi-worrier than an attacker, this swordsman fended off all negative energies within the immediate area and softly made evil entities flee. Dancing ensued across the wood floor in praise of Angel1’s magic and might, and sweat became healing, as one melted into the other.

LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$
Trans Pecos; Brooklyn, NY

[12-11-2013]

Trans Pecos was dark inside, which is pretty usual for backdoor-style venues in Brooklyn, and had a bunch of hidden and mysterious passageways, doors, and windows outlined in the shadows, throughout. Sam Hillmer was serving beer in a side corner room. The fellow from Words+Dreams, Matt, was DJing 100% Silk and DJ Clap in the play space, and was pretty much the only person in the room. People ended up showing around an hour later, which [again] is pretty usual for backdoor-style venues in Brooklyn.

A table is set up by the sound guy — I think it was the sound guy — and electronic junk and wires were dumped upon it. Two dudes donned the play-stage area and began trying to put all these electronic bits and pieces together on the table using cassette tape reels as adhesive and CDs and records as stabilizers for their concoctions. Assuming it was LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$, I snapped a picture, and immediately after, a projector screen blinked on and a mixture of VHS recorded clips began to shuffle through at random: vegetables, women working out, old science videos, sunsets, prepared meals, traffic, passenger-view driving, animals running and raring, skateboarders, etc. Then, creaking out of outlined shadow passages of the venue, emerged (in sync with the music and practically choreographed) seven or eight women dressed in Nike neon-tight workout gear from the Jazzercise-era of the mid-90s.

While (presumably) LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$ ripped through the guerrilla electronic style of mind-hack mixture, as heard on their **$$EXT8PE, these women began to aggressively tear each others’ clothing from their bodies, revealing that they were animatronic beings. At their elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders were lines revealing dips in their circuitry as they grinded into every nook and cranny on their automatic bodies, flowing mechanical clear fluids upon the crowd and drenching LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$. This measure of liquid made it seem as though their mix sparked more transitional initiative, finding further development by way of sampling worlds and dimensions. VHS images projected over all of this, making the visual of this reality seem as though it were an impulsion of color and shapes and noises.

As one dimension opened up another, the real world collapsed and out emerged a vision of Weller-esque RoboCop, wielding an enormous lazer; the pile of humping lady-bots behind LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$ parted and made room for the sci-fi being, swarming his existence, and is swallowed in the mound of fake flesh. The mess of orgasm climaxing as the music began its end, members of the display individually wobbled and/or crawling out, weak, finding their ways back into the passages from which they came. RoboCop had disappeared within the logic of things, yet the eye strip from the bot’s helmet has somehow been integrated into the LAMPGOD & **Ł_RD//$M$ installation. All at once, the music completed, the VHS fried out and smoked the projector, and the two fellows picked up their pieces and left the court. The audience, now packed, has been left in awe, and makes its way to seats within the venue.

Neurosis
Roseland Theater; Portland, OR

[11-23-2013]

Neurosis is an exacting band. So exacting that after every song the quintet played, the lights onstage would go dark and the three guitarists at the front of the stage would spend an uncomfortably long stretch of time tuning their instruments before launching into another psych-metal epic. So exacting that every move Noah Landis made – from hitting a synth pad with a drumstick or playing two notes on his keyboard – looked like it took every bit of his concentration to pull off. So exacting that when someone or something caused Steve Von Till’s microphone to get knocked over, you would have thought someone had stolen a guitar pedal from him. He spat and swore and looked completely off-put for far longer than anyone should in such a situation.

That kind of attitude works for Neurosis. Their music is so tightly wound that to let one little sound or step slide would cause the entire edifice to come crumbling down around them. The result wasn’t a staid, mannered set, surprisingly. The volume and intensity that all five men brought to the music burst forth more strongly than those darkened moments while the audience waited for the group to start up once again.

The long tune-ups that we had to endure might also have been a result of a new austerity the band is exhibiting now. Two years ago when Neurosis played the same venue as part of MusicFest NW, they had an elaborate visual presentation with them and tore through the show like the quick swing of a katana. With no bells and whistles and no guitar techs to hand instruments off to, all that was left were the five players and their slow-boiling musical fury. Nothing was lost as a result other than a few extra minutes of sleep by the time we made it home, dizzy and deliriously blissed-out from the show.

  

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