Stellar Om Source / Daniel Higgs / Zomes
Brickbat Books; Philadelphia, PA

[01-29-2010]

Though I had romanticized it a bit in my mind the night prior, going to see a show at a bookstore isn’t really any different than seeing one at a more conventional indie venue. If you don’t manage to score the perfect real estate you’ll still be staring at the backs of heads, and the vast majority of those heads will belong to white men. The only difference, which may be a big one for the well-read aesthete, is that if the low-end gets especially heavy there’s a possibility that it may rattle the bones of some dusty text such that it jumps off the shelf and into your hands. Aside from absorbing some interesting sounds, I walked away from the night with a copy of Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts Forever, the memoir he wrote about accidently strangling his wife to death during a routine Sunday morning massage.

Zomes is the recording project of Asa Osbourne, who used to play guitar in Lungfish alongside Daniel Higgs. As on his 2008 Holy Mountain Records debut, Osbourne’s performance gear consists of a series of pre-recorded percussion tapes and a keyboard run through several effects pedals that distort, fuzz, and sustain the phrases. The consequence is a mesmerizing and head-nodding pop world stripped of all frills; minimal, and confidently basic. The beats and simple pop phrases conjoin in a sonically sophisticated and architectural way, and while there may be better comparisons, the repetitive sounds instantly reminded me of Jackie Mittoo. Osbourne’s bare sound structures leave much space for autonomous thinking, namely for the listener to imagine the possibility of additional pop fills that the artist cleverly denies due to his well-practiced restraint and allegiance to pop minimalism.

Daniel Higgs has a sage presence that warms up a room. He’s some sort of hyper-spiritualized and worldly warrior/comedian who has returned from outside places to deliver coded messages, warnings, laughs, and blessings. Armed with a profound understanding of oratorical power, his mostly improvised parables and chants fully absorb the listener like opium. His banjo sounded like it was played through an amplified radiator, jagged and brushed with steel wool, transitioning between folk phrases and violent raga outbursts. While his stories and lessons are enticing, they quickly become preachy. Given our constant bombardment with persuasive language – the politician, the preacher, the monsters of advertising, the boss, the culture industry, and so on – silence and non-verbal sound may be more appropriate for healing and learning. Higgs’ aesthetic, though, is deeply rooted in the oral tradition.

The crowd significantly thinned during and after Higgs’ performance. By the time Stellar Om Source, the sound project of synth-lord Christelle Gualdi, juiced up her sound stations and got the green-light waves swirling around the room it was possible to see her furiously spinning and tweaking the countless knobs and pedals. Gualdi has created a sizeable discography over the past 5 or so years, though I’m most impressed with her 2009 self-released CDR, Ocean Woman. The moods and sounds are concurrently meditative and intense, flirting with New Age sound without falling into sweat-lodge-dehydration ridiculousness and pounding the keys toward some unrealized past or future world like fellow hypnagogist Daniel Lopatin. Her synth waves delicately washed over and pulsed through the room, soothing and blasting minds out into other spaces. Without being restricted by time and beat, the rootless sounds are free to linger and float, searching for some curious ear. Seeing this music performed live only increases the joy: leaping and grooving behind the multiple sound-stations like some deranged astronaut who’s attempting to remember which button delivers the ship to eternal bliss. Regardless of whether you prefer to call this recent return to the synthesizer h-pop or neo-Kosmische or something else, Gualdi is constructing some powerful sound-worlds that deserve exploration.

[Photo: Dan Cohoon]

Sonic Youth / Sic Alps
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA

[01-10-2009]

My god, what a difference a generation can make. The last sold out show I saw at The Fillmore was The Mountain Goats, and the crowd was pushy, sloppy, and young (still a great show). The SY crowd by comparison was courteous, excited, and full of dancing energy. Old people can be awesome concert-goers. We were treated first to openers Sic Alps, who played a familiar brand of psychedelic folk-rock with occasional bursts of noise. After a brief smoke break, we returned to find the drummer switched, which resulted in an even stronger performance.

I could feel the floor moving when Sonic Youth walked onstage. The dancefloor was packed in tight, and Thurston fed off of the electricity like a drug. He’s still so boyish, and boys can’t feign aloofness when they’re giddy. Good crowds will do that to you.

As Sonic Youth continue to generate new material after being on the scene for over 30 years, their setlists tend to focus on the new stuff. Songs from The Eternal dominated the setlist and sometimes stretched out to the 14-minute mark. Similar to a jam band experience, but of course too noisy and calculated for such a label, watching Sonic Youth is like watching a modern symphony—a really bad-ass symphony. Despite playing almost exactly the same setlist as the last time I saw them, SY played an epiphanic show that could’ve saved lives and bludgeoned eardrums.

Thurston dedicated “Leaky Lifeboat” to his daughter, Coco, who on a recent trip to City Lights Poetry Room observed that it was “too quiet.” “Antennae” recalled the lovelorn lethargy of Murray Street’s “The Empty Page,” with melodic guitar lines plucked over a sea of analog delay and static white noise. “Hey Joni” was so fast and heavy—you couldn’t hear any hint of a tennis wrist-injury from Lee Ranaldo—it moved from avant-garde punk to dirty metal riffs faster than you could say “collision.”

From beginning to end, SY never once took it easy. What seemed like a holy-fuck-it’s-Kool-Thing moment was actually “Sacred Trickster,” which is an easy song to like, but it becomes another beast live. “‘Cross the Breeze” drove everyone into a dancing frenzy, with 20-year-old urban outfitters head-banging with 45 year-old art professors. Steve Shelley’s frantic double-time beats pummeled the song into speed metal territory. They closed with “Death Valley ‘69,” leaving us drained, but euphoric. Thurston was the last member to walk offstage as classical music blared from purple-lit speakers, a messianic image only Mr. Moore can pull off.

[Photo: Charlie Cravero]

The Fiery Furnaces / Young Coyotes
Bluebird Theatre; Denver, CO

[11-24-2009]

There comes a point in every man's life, usually when you've sat around chewing the chorus-repetition gristle-fat with a band like Young Coyotes (good first impression, great roots but no growth; set plods) for 20-30 minutes, when you wonder if you've made the right decision. You feel insecure, naked to the world. A few more bad shows and the wife'll have yr balls in a cannery jar. Not only that, but you had to spring for a babysitter and spend gas money to get there.

Bands like The Fiery Furnaces make the effort worthwhile. Boasting top-level troops at each key penetration point, FF use a traditional r'n'r quartet to burrow through the surprisingly rigid boundaries imposed -- whether self- or subconsciously -- by much of the genre. You just don't hear bands twitch, stutter, double back, dip, dive, dodge, duck, deep-dick, stop-start, jump-kick, side-swipe and twitterpate rock the way Fiery Furnaces do; it's just not DONE. This is why they bake my brain like a brick-oven rye.

If you thought their albums were pounding, incredibly intricate epics, you were right, but their live presence is equally confounding, consisting as it does of:

- a drummer giving his absolute FUCK-all to every measure;
- bass playing both nimble, bold and tough as a thimble-thumb;
- Eleanor Friedberger's singing, a bit low in the mix at times but never completely lost; a British sea captain lost his drawl in the rain and E.F. snagged it for her Blueberry Boat;
- Radiohead-bater/lover of ghost-language Matthew Friedberger on guitar: at times negligible, at times best-ever, always the driving force as the rhythm, the lead, and, most of all, the one we ALL KNOW wrote these fantastic songs (all in that so-characteristic overcoat)...

I can way without hesitation I didn't recognize all but one of these songs. Think about it: I've been following this band semi-closely for a half-decade and they put out so much material I can't even parse more than a single song from a set of 14-odd! You gotta love their fluidity. Hell, you gotta love them period. If you want the NOISE brought on you, but with a history-professor edge and some Jimi Hendrix/Ira Kaplan/J Mascis six-string pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure, I can't think of a better recommendation than The Fiery Furnaces.

[Photo: Lithe Sebesta]

Girls / Tamaryn / Dominant Legs
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[11-21-2009]

The sold-out Girls show at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill is not as triumphant as I hoped. One might think a celebration of San Francisco would be joyous, but jamming a crowd of Mission District Hipsters (Mishsters?) into a tiny venue is like putting one too many toddlers in a playpen. Tantrums are thrown, hair is pulled, dresses and lipstick compete for attention. It is difficult to consider other people when so much of your time and energy is focused on the careful construction of your own identity. Not to mention the desire to let EVERYONE KNOW YOU ARE FRIENDS WITH CHRISTOPHER OWENS and your insistence that your tits can be seen bouncing in the music video for “Lust for Life.” We get it: you’re special and unique. Now please stop making out with each other so we can enjoy the fucking show.

Dominant Legs is Ryan William Lynch and Hannah Hunt (sporting an oversized letterman jacket). They sing lush pop songs with titles like “Young at Love and Life,” featuring only a guitar, drum machine, and synthesizer. It is easy music to dance to.

Tamaryn is more atmosphere than sound. She struggles to stay on key, delivering a more “drunk at karaoke” performance than something inspired by Kate Bush or Sixousie Sioux.

It’s a shame the Girls' crowd is so awful; Owens and JR White put on a fantastic show. Owens looks adorable and cozy in an oversized reindeer sweater and bright-red vest. He is 29 years old, but a gaunt face and shockingly blue eyes suggest a longer and more wearisome existence (growing up in a cult will do that to you). They open with “Laura,” a disgustingly catchy pop song during which Owens earnestly hopes to “be friends forever” with an ex. The song drifts into dreamy territory as Owens sings “Ba-ba-ba-da-da-da” over guitar reverb, creating something beautiful and melancholic. The drumming and White’s talent on the bass make “God Damned” a harder (and much better) version than the original.

I’m excited for the thrilling crescendo of “Summertime” — a song I like to play whenever I see the city skyline from a distance — but am forced to move because of a girl jumping on my head. Owens eventually stops the show and asks some obnoxious fuckers if “the bullshit is done” before security comes through and kicks them out. Girls recover with the narcotic anthem, “Hellhole Ratrace,” which has everyone singing, “And I don’t wanna die without shaking up a leg or two,” as if we are wasting our youth together.

Or maybe we are all just wasted.

Young Widows / Russian Circles / Helms Alee
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[11-15-2009]

I knew it was going to be loud before I set foot inside Bottom Of The Hill last night, and got an inkling that it might be really loud when I heard gearheads marveling over Young Widows’ and Russian Circles’ assorted Sunn and Emperor products. What resulted, however, was something skull-crushingly loud beyond my expectations. I’m still in a state of shell shock and it’s been a full day. My stomach is still not quite right, possibly because something in my inner ear was damaged, as each band operated at the same basic volume level. The quality of the music wasn’t as uniform.

I arrived ready to be won over by Helms Alee. Won over might even be a term too skewed toward the negative; I liked the idea of liking them. They’re on Hydra Head Records. Ben Verellen looks like a really nice grizzly bear or something. While I was off thinking about what it would have been like to have a grizzly bear for a best friend during childhood, I kept getting drawn back into reality by their heavy-handed use of effects. Verellen’s vocals were especially problematic for me since he was clearly screaming his lungs out but sounded about a million miles away. It was kind of like watching someone scream underwater, or if you took footage of a lion roaring and paired it with a kitten’s meow. I couldn’t get past it.

I can only say that the space-y stoner rock qualities got away from Helms Alee. It’s a shame because the parts that didn’t rely on using pedals and effects sounded interesting, and I liked how the vocal duties were split up amongst the three members. Plus, you know, I would have liked to see how that whole grizzly bear tea party thing ended. (Not that I had tea parties as a kid.)

Russian Circles suffered from almost the opposite problem. It was incredibly easy to stand there and rock my head to but I couldn’t effectively lose myself in it. I kept coming back into my head and thinking, “Wow, are we still here?” The songs churned adequately but never broke out.

If I were to run with my current bear pre-occupation I’d say that Young Widows were “just right.” They took the stage almost entirely backlit by the bright floods built into their equipment -- it definitely stole some of the power from Russian Circles, who came out doing the same thing. Timing notwithstanding, it fit better with Young Widows anyway. The lighting made for a more dis-associative experience and, whether intentionally or not, the light that did fall on their faces directed attention to guitarist Evan Patterson. Everything cooperated to expand my sense of space and time. Where there was grinding and droning it never felt like it was holding anything back; I knew it was leading to something and, instead of hanging there waiting for a climax, I could just enjoy where we were for that moment.

DD/MM/YYYY
Ryerson University; Toronto, ON

[11-12-2009]

The naïve energy of youth must be valorized at all costs. As our bodies begin to deteriorate and memories of post-show sunrises fade, we can take comfort in the fact that a new vanguard of torchbearers will emerge to put on innovative concerts that we can watch with a click of our increasingly-arthritic fingers.

Walking into the Ryerson University’s School of Radio and Television Arts, I met with an intrepid group of fourth-year students who were undertaking – for their final project – a cross-platform series of live music broadcasts. Milking the vast resources at their disposal, their spiritlive.net Third Floor Sessions were capturing performances on professional studio gear and HD cameras, edited in real time and streamed live on the internet. It was DIY on the university dime.

For the second broadcast of their online concert series they recruited Toronto locals DD/MM/YYYY. Blasting into spazzy Beefheart-y chaos they showcased a set built upon simple but jarring guitar lines and a militant rhythm section. Repetitious chants flowed like meta-structures over the songs while severed vocal bursts chipped away at the arrangements from within.

Mosh Rozenberg’s relentless drumming led the assault with a fury that catapulted him off his seat. Jagged phrasing of yelpy calls and echoey responses cut through crunchy and meandering synthesizers. Waves of distortion bled seamlessly into the constitution of each song, playing an integral roll in moving the sounds forward and sharply cutting them off at unexpected moments. “Imagine!” showed concise and restrained pop deconstruction; “Bronzage” saw the band lavishing in brooding psychedelic turmoil. Their were at once epic and handcuffed, their songs aggrandizing and ephemeral.

The set was a reassuring reminder that challenging math rock need not be solely about virtuosic masturbation. It can confront our assumptions and present a disorienting force through clever manipulation of tone, simple rhythmic changes, and contrasting violent and reassuring textures.

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