Varmakon (Vår + Pharmakon)
The Rink; Brooklyn, NY
Last Saturday, at a creepy loft in Greenpoint, Pitchfork and the Brooklyn record label Sacred Bones presented an experiment in buzzband chemistry. The new-wave Iceage offshoot Vår performed alongside noise artist Pharmakon, with a varied degree of success.
It made sense for the artists to perform together. Both revel in near-Satanic darkness and are clearly friends — Margaret Chardiet, who is Pharmakon, has a spoken-word piece on one track of the Vår record. Vår trade in Joy Division-esque dark pop music, which today, when you can literally buy an upside-down cross shirt for $10 at Forever21, is hard to imagine offending or disturbing anyone. Pharmakon, on the other hand, has stated her mission to make her audience uncomfortable, and watching her live, the strength of this desire is such that it leaves the crowd reeling from the pure, bubbling rage.
The artists had requested to perform without a stage, which I’m sure was great for the 15 people standing in front, but it kind of sucked for everyone else. I spend the majority of the show trying to find an angle from which I could see anything. The performance happened round robin-style, with Vår opening with a quiet and somewhat weak song (the sound made it difficult to hear any vocals that weren’t screamed). Then Chardiet began to build up to her terrifying single “Ache,” and the feeling in the room changed from hip hangout to horror movie — her performance felt like a sign from God (or whoever) that this fifth-floor loft was about to open up and swallow Brooklyn’s elite goths into hell. One of the most successful moments of the show was at the end of another Pharmakon track when Vår’s drums came in — I would totally go see an orchestral Pharmakon show. Her contributions to their songs, however, felt less useful.
Vår’s performance, which included their lead singer repeatedly submerging his head into a bucket of muddy water, felt mostly like I was watching the most metal cologne ad of all time. While Chardiet is so possessed by her darkness, it seems as if it were a demon that’s lived inside her all her life, Vår’s show was… a show. They screamed very convincingly, but the whole thing reminded me a lot of wandering around the popular immersive theater experience Sleep No More — a supposed 1920s noir hotel filled with beautiful actors enacting deranged Macbeth-inspired scenes, but which in fact is a former club in Chelsea that big-deal corporations now use to take out their clients. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I love Sleep No More, and I understand why people enjoy Vår. But when juxtaposed with an artist who has committed her life to expressing her serious, gaping angst, it’s hard for a band like Vår’s brand of darkness to seem like anything more than a passing ghost.
Gravetemple / Russell Haswell
Café Oto; London, England
This wasn’t one of those experiments where someone senior was asked to respond to a new piece of music for questionable comedy value. But if it was, this definitely would have been a choice opportunity. After I moved back to London last year, my dad and I made a habit of going to the occasional gig together — it’s a chance for me to catch up on some of the acts he listened to in his youth, and for him to become acquainted with musicians new to the scene, relatively speaking. In fact, it was my folks’ vinyl collection that got me hooked on music in the to begin with — I recall being utterly enthralled when I was a kid, listening to Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and Grace Jones records as they spun on our haggard turntable.
Gravetemple was probably not the most sensible concert to have chosen for our most recent outing. But having said that, the generation gap may have proved almost irrelevant as Attila is closer to my old man’s age than he is my own. Where the curiosity lies is in the music the former is responsible for. The supergroup got together in 2006, and consists of metal-drone master craftsman Stephen O’Malley, prolific multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and the former Mayhem vocalist himself, who also contributed to a number of sunn 0))) offerings. Earlier this year, the collective’s 2008 LP Ambient/Ruin got a re-release on O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint, hence this triumphant reformation and mini-tour of Europe.
The gig was sold out, and as we stood outside in the evening rain, taking in the deafening sound check, we made bets on whether Café Oto would be able to maintain its license after the show. Additional speakers had been stacked up so high behind the band that the interior was almost unrecognizable. So loud was the group’s collective output that the windows rattled uncontrollably in their panes. We spied one of the ladies at the bar chalking up a sign underneath the cocktail menu: EARPLUGS. 50P.
Once the sound check came to a bludgeoning close, the doors were opened and people filled the place. Russell Haswell unveiled an arsenal of equipment at his makeshift stage — there is no elevated platform, so those at the very front were only a couple of feet away from the stacks of speakers that surrounded them. As intrigued as I was to find out what my father thought of Gravetemple, I also wanted to discover what he made of Haswell, who is renowned for exemplifying the very harshest of live noise. Whereas O’Malley and co. rely on long-form feedback, resonance and distortion set-pieces to create walls of pandemonium, Haswell builds, crumples, and shifts a range of frequencies in forcing out his unpredictably savage display.
Dad took the whole thing in stride; pint of Helle Weisse in hand, looking on curiously as Haswell approached his machines. The Coventry artist started by building a gloomy atmosphere with white noise and church bells. While the volume was felt simmering with crackle, it wasn’t fully tested until a few minutes into the set — the audience could taste the potential, and waited patiently for it to be unleashed.
A sonic magma of fierce mechanical gush hurtled out of the speakers, accompanied by blistering snaps, ruptured snares, and a screaming pulse. Each variation was jack-hammered through a coarse of frequency shifts and sporadic temp thrusts — the impact was incredible. It was one of the most fascinating noise performances I have witnessed, and my dad seemed to agree. Though he had never seen anything quite like it before, the set reminded him of the festivals he had been to in his teens; Stonehenge, Knebworth, etc. Essentially this was nothing new, but the experience had been refined and intensified, making it more powerful and captivating — Haswell was indeed spectacular.
By the time Gravetemple took to their positions, we were as close as we could get to the center in the now packed-out café. Attilah began his vocal gymnastics and for minutes at a time, the high pitched ringing of O’Malley’s guitar raced through Ambarchi’s gear. It felt like the sound was dialing directly into my nervous system and pinning me to the spot; there was nowhere to move, no means of escape. People were standing in a kind of transfixed cramp — proof that nobody had bothered with the earplugs — until the strings collided once again to create a shuddering drop; Atillah hummed and murmured and moaned at his workstation, apparently hypnotized by the aural forcefield his group were creating. The set was spellbinding; more of an addition to the Ambient/Ruin material than a reenactment of it, though the shifts in pace, mood, and style slowly emerged over the evening’s course.
So it seems the exploration of volume tolerance isn’t so fresh after all — it was very much a part of the gigs my dad had gone to as a youngster. But technology, low ceilings, and a seeming desire to break a record for noise complaints had pushed those boundaries further than either of us had ever experienced. This was the first of a two-day residency at Oto. “Would you go and see them again?” I asked as we walked back through the soaked streets. “Without a doubt, son,” was all I could make out through the tinnitus and aftershock.
Roundhouse; London, UK
After years of doubt and suspense, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual was released in April, and its delivery did more than satisfy the gnawing need that had been building among their fans in the seven years since their release of genre-defining masterpiece Silent Shout. Not only is the highly conceptual album more than an hour-and-a-half long, it was released alongside a manifesto, comic strip, and rare interviews from the band laying bare the radical feminist and egalitarian principles the LP espouses. How they would bring this vision, a radical departure from their previous work, to their live show was a mystery. Would they have a “band”? Would their faces, for once, be visible? Would they just throw some bell hooks quotes up on a screen and walk away?
The Knife’s performance at London’s Roundhouse on May 9 was more spectacular and satisfying than I had dreamed. Their opener, simply advertised as “DEEP AEROBICS,” was a buff, black drag queen wearing a dreamcatcher as a necklace and a long white wig, who comedically worked out the crowd with hip and rib isolations and synchronized jumping as thumping electro played. If this seemed an odd choice for a band whose last round of shows had more in common with a horror movie than a jazzercise class, the inconsistency was quickly compensated for by their performance.
Shaking The Habitual is explicitly about breaking down our assumed perceptions in order to open ourselves up to different truths, and that’s exactly what The Knife’s show accomplished. They came onstage with a band consisting of five or six people in shiny hooded cloaks, playing, shockingly, what seemed like honest-to-god instruments. This in itself put this show in a different realm than the Silent Shout tour, which found Karen and Olaf standing alone between four screens of trippy projections. This time, one of the performers was playing an unrecognizable, custom-made, bass-like instrument that looked like a sawed-off part of a tree laid horizontal, and was used to replicate the unsettling strings on experimental track “A Cherry On Top.” It got better — at the conclusion of the song this instrument was flipped over to reveal a drum machine on the other side, which was played for the next few tracks.
But we hadn’t seen much yet: after a few songs as a “band,” the cloaks came off, revealing brightly colored sequined outfits, while Karen, Olaf, and cronies assembled themselves for what would be a nearly hourlong dance routine, while their music played in the background. Though they clearly aren’t professional dancers, their performances had obviously required a lot of training and forethought. The choreography riffed on everything from musicals like West Side Story to the Nutcracker to traditional African dance, creating a disconcerting post-modern atmosphere while both older tracks and new singles like “Full Of Fire” blasted into the incredible space, sounding like a showtune from hell. To me, this was the most important part of the show. As a former high school dancer, I’ve been mystified by the lack of dance in underground and DIY art spaces in recent years, so to see a band that is creating some of the most interesting and risky music today make such perfect use of it was awe-inspiring. Aside from the theatrics, to have the whole band, who we’d just seen in a traditional live music set-up, abandon their instruments as tracks were obviously played back out of their control certainly shook up at least a few long-standing ideas of what it means to play live as an electronic artist, a debate that has been raging for decades and has resurfaced recently in light of the EDM explosion.
But The Knife are never satisfied with one interpretation of anything, and what it became clear they were saying with their intentionally glitzy set was to force upon the audience the realization that what we consider truth is always a matter of perception, and human interaction always a performance, be it of your gender, sexuality, or belief in governments, economies, and traditions. Just as The Knife seamlessly transitioned from their seemingly sincere act as a “band” playing instruments to their winking experimentation with artificiality of show, what the experience was meant to teach us was that a world where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, and class are equally permeable is possible. But most incredibly, none of this intellectual politicizing felt oppressive — to the contrary, it felt like a celebration. It was no accident that they ended their set with a rave-infused version of “Silent Shout,” thanked the crowd warmly and then left us to dance to their DJ’s beats, while the crescent of lights at the beautiful Roundhouse lit the audience with rainbows. After a show like that, what else was there to do but revel in the ecstasy of breaking down the walls that oppress us — whether politically, physically, psychically or emotionally? In seven years, The Knife has gone from icy, creepy, and detached to sparkling with warmth and humanity, succeeding ecstatically in giving us hope that we can still try to change the world.
Lincoln Hall; Chicago, IL
Do you have any idea of the aural impetus required to cause a power failure through volume? It’s hard. Really. Fucking. Hard. Professional venues are designed, and staffed, in order to accommodate a frat-sized party of decibels ransacking eardrums and the concert hall. Boris is the only band I’ve ever known that are notorious for their ability to rend PA systems and power supplies apart, and they’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. In their maturity the trio refined and polished their performance into a seamless assault of Japanese metal, the Ghost of Power Failures Past felt like it was looming over the stage, waiting to take the sound system in its jaws and shake the life out of it. Boris chose Lincoln Hall for a two-night stint of shows, the first covering their “classics” (I’m feign to use that term in that all of their songs play like an assault on the listener), and the second an experimental set trying out new material.
Boris’ set was exhausting even when viewed from 20 feet up in the balcony. They played for two hours straight, with maybe a couple of minute-long reprieves peppered in. My favorite to watch was Atsuo, the drummer. He had hair down well past his legs while sitting down, with eyeliner and neon lights all over him. Wata, the wildly skilled guitarist wielding a Les Paul Custom, who also happens to be an attractive Japanese woman, had an enclave of sweaty, long-haired dudes in the pit who all looked like they had seen more than one tentacle monster in their life. Bluh. Anyway, the show was incredible, one of the most enjoyable abrasive concert experiences in recent memory.
Purity Ring / Blue Hawaii
The Metro; Chicago, IL
Purity Ring have mastered the dangling-keys sleight. Similar to an irreverent toddler or an idiot crow, I’m easily distracted by bright lights and pretty colors (and booze, plenty of booze). When you reduce Purity Ring to their essence, the entire musical aspect is Corin Roddick on Ableton with a synth and Megan James flitting around on stage singing. In any other case, this would be boring as shit. However, they bring one of the best sets of dangling keys to the table: a massive branching network of 20 light-up cocoons responding to both music and the movements of Megan James. After four or so gin and tonics, the Purity Ring live experience felt weirdly similar to when I would get too hyperactive when I was 5 and my grandma would put on Fantasia. In both instances, I shut up immediately and watched.
Unfortunately for opener Blue Hawaii, also consisting of a dude (Alexander Cowan) on synth/sampler and a chick (Raphaelle Standell-Preston) running around singing, they did not have a wild light-up tree to distract people from the fact their show is basically a DJ set. Ergo, the experience felt like a lanky guy who looked weirdly similar to DJ Qualls and a girl who looked like one of the violinists in Arcade Fire trying to fill out The Metro, one of the best live venues in Chicago. The effect was underwhelming.
Purity Ring, however, made up for the boring-ass first 40 minutes of my time spent at this show. The crowd was way more eclectic than I’d envisioned. I was expecting a herd of attractive vacuous faces clad in overpriced neons from American Apparel; what I got was these same people interspersed with dudes in True Religion jeans and Wrigleyville beezys who look like they have memberships at Flirty Girl Fitness. I swear to god there was a couple in their 50s. Whatever. Anyway, the trap bass rattle, epileptic lights, and Megan James wandering around the stage in some sort of weird wedding dress (she makes her own clothes; I had an internal dialogue the entire show over whether or not she made it) kept me entertained for an hour, which is all I ever wanted. Oh, and there was a Soulja Boy cover. Let that be the rest of my life: Soulja Boy covers and Blue Hawaiians.
Wonder Ballroom; Portland, OR
I’d better just go ahead and admit that I fucking love Spiritualized. If J. Spaceman were to walk onstage and sing the alphabet, I’d punch myself in the face. Irrational enough? There’s a certain mood here that I’m trying to capture and make the metaphorical crux for this review.
I like to show up early, because I like to see the other kinds of people that show up early. Plus I don’t have a lot of friends. And I’m short, so venue floor space gains the price of Times Square reality once a 6-foot-5-type jerk-off tries to squeeze their ass right in front of me. I assumed watching Spiritualized wasn’t going to be the kind of activity during which I would dance senselessly with a bevy of strangers, and with the exception of a drunk and/or shrooming girl with great hippie dance moves who knew all of the words, I was right.
So here’s the kind of people who would show up early to a Spiritualized show: other short people who really like this band, “gear” dudes who love taking pictures of other people’s pedal boards (p.s. this shit is boring, no one cares, stop), mid-30 year olds who like to talk about their interactions with “famous” people (one lady went from some dude in Cake, to Wayne Coyne, to Gus Van Zandt in the same breath), some other folks with no friends who were actually nice to talk to (we spoke of rent prices in various cities), and people who love living their concert experience through a fucking iPhone (also, stop, no one cares, etc.). Also, the venue decided to get its fog machine on nice and early, and nothing is weirder than hanging out in a pre-fabbed fog room in full light with strangers.
I take a lot of vitamin-D to help deal with the sun-less Portland winter, and I also listen to a lot of feel-good music. I mean, all music experiences should be feel good, and I’ve not had one in recent memory that wasn’t, but hearing J. Spaceman and co. (which included the incredibly enthusiastic drumming of Oneida’s Kid Millions) play a cycle of songs that included “Shine A Light,” Rated X,” and “Let It Flow” kind of compounded all of my bullshit into one burst of physical joy. Not only that, but these were songs that weren’t played the last time I saw Spiritualized about a year ago at the same place, and thank god for that. Even my fan boy-ness isn’t impervious to a recreation tour, and this set was nothing like the last one I saw. I mentioned Kid Millions above, but it looked as if Mr. Spaceman had kicked everyone out of last year’s band except the guitar player Doggen, (who looks to be a close friend).
Last year’s arrangement had everyone spaced out into a semi-circle, with one half wearing all-black, the other white, the presentation a part of a post-album tour process. This arrangement had everyone jammed together as close as possible, and felt like a new group of musicians presenting fresh interactions. The free-jazz blowouts were frequent and varied. The guitars of J. Spaceman have straps, which he doesn’t use because he sits down, and my favorite signifier of sound assault came when he leaned back and held his guitar towards his amp, strumming the neck while everyone else took it as a sign to go all, “Pound! Pound! Pound! Errereerrrrr! Thud! Thud! Thud!” It drowned out the Wayne Coyne BFF-groupie lady and her annoying penchant to snap about a thousand iPhone photos right next to my head, an act which more or less spoiled my closed eyes enjoyment of the quiet-yet-sporadic breakdown of “Rated X.” Why do people do that? Can’t you talk about the years you used to be cool at home? Once again, vindictive sounding, but my garden-variety hipster ass dressed up for this shit; favorite button-up shirt, clean brown blazer; I take my selfie-dates seriously.
Did I mention that Kid Millions is a fucking boss? I once saw him play drums/hold together a Plastic Crimewave Sound Guitarkestra, which was about 30 or so guitar players jammed into New York City’s Cake Shop all playing “E” (or “in E,” or “maybe E,” or “E-ish”) for half an hour. That guy has energy; something of which I was afraid would overshadow the group. But it enunciated parts, especially the freak-outs. I didn’t imagine ever seeing this guy play with Spiritualized, but now it makes sense. He’s been playing with Yo La Tengo recently, as well as a number of other groups. Flat out, he’s a good musician who melds well with others.
Some songs were rearranged to the point of being almost unidentifiable. They ended the pre-encore set with “Take Your Time,” which is more or less a segway song on Lazer Guided Melodies, but as they did it, a great finale. Better than the single song, semi-reluctant encore of “Walking With Jesus.” Last year’s set ended with an exhaustive 40-minute “Cop Shoot Cop,” an experienced I was enthralled by but happy to leave in its time and place. The end of this show didn’t have that same amount of gravitas due to such, but it seems that J. Spaceman isn’t the kind of performer who looks to redo on past successes. Enough of an indication would be that they started on a new song rather than “Hey Jane” or some other album opener. In total I think I counted three new songs (memory’s a little fuzzy, and the internet tells me so).
I wish I could end this with some sort of great summarizing line, or clever coda, or other writing device that wraps up some logical conclusion, but I have none. Memories don’t work in that way; I don’t have a succinct way to encapsulate my thoughts with endpoints. I’ll still be thinking about this show, thinking about listening to music in the dark, thinking about poor attempts to turn off my collective frustration, whatever related comes around. We all want to think of ourselves as better than the adversary (in my case, the people I found myself so annoyed with), but now I realize how much I missed by vexing over the problem so much.