Russian Circles / KEN mode / Helms Alee
The Metro; Chicago, IL
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]
Commodore Ballroom; Vancouver, Canada
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
“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.
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
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
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.
Roseland Theater; Portland, OR
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
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
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]