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.

Julia Holter / Lucrecia Dalt
Village Underground; London, UK

[11-11-2013]

After spending the last few months immersed in Lucrecia Dalt’s sound, I was intrigued to find out how the music would translate onstage. Her latest album, Syzygy, sounds like it was custom designed for private playback in an area no bigger than the Barcelona flat in which it was recorded, so I wondered how that was going to unfurl in front of a large audience. As it happens, the Village Underground was the perfect venue for exploring that — it has a dank ambiance that sits wonderfully within the space that Julia Holter would later describe as a “trapezoid.” The stage was arranged with two mics, Dalt’s signature moogerfrooger midi murf and a home-made foot controller that channeled her bass as she approached the audience. I felt a heightened level of tension as the Colombian musician stood beneath the venue spots and Simon asked, “What do you think she will open with?” I lost all train of thought. The main hall was just beginning to fill as Dalt meandered into “Waste of Shame,” the first of three songs taken from Commotus.

As the opening number unraveled into a longer, more expressive version of the original, it became more apparent Dalt’s compositions are never static. Her music doesn’t exist as a singular moment that’s unmodified or void of alteration as she moves each number into a different living space. The tracks, under the names they have been given on record, felt like guidelines more than anything else, and this lent each rendition an alternate dimension in which to roam — a license to remain unadulterated and free while taking on new sonic forms. Even as a running trilogy, “Inframince,” “Soliloquios,” and “Vitti” were adapted for the stage, it was as though they were being presented not as songs but ideas continually in motion. Despite how personal and captivating they were to hear live, I was forced to think about my experience with these songs and the way it transforms over time. Our perception of music is, after all, cradled by the environment in which it is heard.

That sensation was less evident during the Commotus material, wherein “Turmoil” played out as a stunning highlight that was immediately more powerful but perhaps less thought provoking. “I’ve been doing business with the devil”, that memorable line, which sounds so poignant on record, was given a fresh sense of urgency with a backdrop of slowly pulsating beams as the artist stood with her hair draped across her face. It’s difficult to say where the suspense was grounded, but I was surprised at how affecting the music was, considering the form it took. Dalt’s intentions appeared to echo in the set closer “Mirage,” during which she poured over “absurdity in abstraction” and “contemplation.” Indeed, it was only while reflecting on the show that it dawned on me just how bold the performance was — but hey, it’s been a great year for Dalt. She has consistently proven to exceed every sense of expectation.

In contrast to Lucrecia Dalt’s soft-spoken seduction, Julia Holter wasn’t shy when it came to sharing her thoughts that evening. A third of the way through “In the Green Wild” she casually griped, “There’s a fly on my keyboard,” jabbing a run of bum notes on her Nord Stage 2 in an effort to scare off the gatecrasher that had just touched down on her piano. Clearly the insect had good taste, having been entranced by the floating charms of opener “Maxim’s I” and then quickly pulled in by the cloistered discord of its followup. But even if it momentarily distracted the object of its unrequited affection, the song barely suffered, carried and magnified as it was by Holter’s band, who over the last few months of touring have quickly become her not-so secret weapon. Consisting of drums, saxophone, violin, and a cello that, for “Green Wild,” was moonlighting as a double bass, they painlessly settled into the de-industrialized warehouse that was the Village Underground’s main hall, filling its cavernous space with aural torrents as strident as they were elegant.

You might not expect that coming into a Holter gig; having heard the ornate, confidential nature of her records, you’d be forgiven for supposing her sets were cyphered, semi-withdrawn affairs that implied more than they explicitly revealed, teasing at the emotion underlying her music but never fully delegating it to our voyeurism. Well, you’d be wrong, because with the brunt of the four well-oiled minstrels behind her, the strains of Loud City Song and Ekstasis assumed a rancor and febrility that imbued them with a volatile dimension. “Horns Surrounding Me” became an emergency scramble through crashes of sax and violin, the ghostly arpeggios of “Marienbad” were intersected by walls of turbulent improvisation, and “Maxim’s II” throttled towards a near-cataclysmic ending, easily upping its recorded version in terms of riotous abandon.

In the midst of these heightened energetics was Holter herself, her voice keeping an imperturbable clarity and poise that levitated above her band’s animation. And just because they were in a bullish mood didn’t mean that she or they neglected more intimate material. Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” was the perfect foil for the labyrinthine rendition of “Four Gardens” that preceded it, the cover’s delicacy translated into waves of fragile euphoria, borne out by Holter’s body language. Equally penetrating was set closer “In the Same Room,” the haunted estrangement of its lyrics and instrumentation proving a hit with that same fly, who’d been circling incessantly around the stage for the entire set, and who probably wasn’t the only new convert to what was some intoxicatingly rarefied, yet powerful, music.

[Photos: Baron von Kissalot]

No-Neck Blues Band (Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain)
Issue Project Room; Brooklyn, New York

[10-20-2013]

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.