The Missing Link Festival: Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness
The Fox Theatre; Oakland, CA
On May 8 in Oakland, CA, two high-and-mighty heavy metal tours collided and cooperated to create a huge metal-fest at one of the East Bay’s classiest joints, The Fox Theatre. The Fox originally opened in 1928 as a movie theatre and was designed with ornate, delicate crafting inside and out, with the architectural flair of an Indian Temple and a wholly unique style that redesigned building styles on the West Coast. After being closed down in 1966, the venue only recently reopened after a massive renovation. Although an unlikely choice for a crusty metal-fest, the class and spiff of the Fox could not deter a horde of the Bay Area’s finest metal fans from coming out and getting sick with metal. The lineup was so thick that many days of mental preparation were not out of line — Mastodon, Between The Buried And Me, High On Fire, Baroness, Priestess, Valient Thorr, Black Cobra, Bison B.C., and more.
I attended with a good friend, Elvis deMorrow, in tow and we sat down for a post-concert conversation about the show as we let our metal hangovers subside.
Chizzly St. Claw: Metal brain. I laid in bed the next morning and felt tinnitus from earhole to earhole, despite the fact that the biggest complaint was the lackluster sound up until Mastodon. It was still loud enough to cause some sort of damage to my faculties.
Elvis deMorrow: Yeah, it was a dangerous brew: The early bands sounded terrible through the mix, but they were still pretty punishing volume-wise. Worst of both worlds.
C: It’s a bizarre venue for eight metal bands.
E: Also, as you know, earplugs generally filter out mid and high frequencies more than the low. So because the drums were overpowering guitars in the mix, it sounded even more unbalanced with ear plugs in. I kept switching mine in and out. There was a clear move upward in volume for High On Fire; the drums sounded like stampede under the second floor. I could tell Mastodon were too loud up front, but the guitars sounded so good I opted to take the punishment. My skull got rung pretty good.
C: I couldn’t help thinking the High On Fire drums had some kind of effect on them, like a slight delay or reverb. They sounded supernatural, like thundering horse’s hooves. High on Fire was the only 3-piece we saw, but they sounded so big.
E: Agreed. The cut down from two guitars to one for High On Fire clearly benefited them. I think they likely brought their own soundman, whereas the openers probably had the “house” man on the boards. There was something weird & thunderous about their drums, though I remain underwhelmed by their songwriting approach, leaving me clearly in the minority at this point. They just don’t interest me very much at a riff, vocal, or solo level. A solid ensemble, but nothing special to my ears.
C: I can’t help wanting to call Between The Buried And Me the Coldplay of metal.
E: Between Buried & Me are the NIN of metal!
C: Fair enough. NIN and Coldplay are the Phil Collins of noise. Between The Buried And Me seemed so out of place compared to the other bands.
E: I was loving Baroness because they brought the disco beats. No one should ever be afraid of the disco beats — all good guitars work well with disco beats. Then Mastodon played the entirety of their latest record, which is maximum disco beats. Every song moves in full circles, which becomes hypnotizing then a bit monotonous.
C: I was impressed by Baroness as well. Except for the dude’s vocals, which were too monochromatic for my tastes. I guess I have such a soft spot for Eric Adams that anyone who only re-enacts the chorus from “I Turned Into A Martian” underwhelms me.
E: It’s too bad that a band “ambitious” as Mastodon don’t push the vocal melodies much past the status quo of the last 10 years. The metal genre always benefits from dynamic and inventive singers, from Ozzy on to today. But they are always in short supply. Ozzy & Halford had more than three vocal melodies. Even Hetfield & Anselmo are diverse by current standards. I think Mastodon successfully broke the “taboo” of singing in a proper contemporary metal band; now they need to sing more than a handful of melodies.
C: Even though the crowd brought it up a notch for the Mastodon slampit, it still was a sub-par performance by the Bay Area metal thugs.
E: Any time you have a guy in a Zappa shirt who just wants to “watch the band, man” up in front of the stage two feet away from a Kerry King doppelganger, then the GDF (Gross Domestic FUN) is going to be negatively impacted all around. Everyone has to compromise in how they want to enjoy the show, which will prevent the overall magic from rising through the roof.
C: We saw no death or thrash metal on this bill, which I think contributed to the overall lackluster slampit scene. Well, that and the jackboot efficiency of the Fox security force. Their stormtrooper approach keeps it clean… Perhaps cleaner than metal should be? At least first aid was quick to aid the puking waste-oid with road rash on his nose in the smoking hole. That’s one squad that should always show up quicker than later.
E: Yeah, I thought for the most part the security had the PRC style down: omnipresent but seldom seen in action. I think a lot of the incongruent behavior was simply due to how classy the joint was. It is rare to see anything tougher than Santana in a venue like that, or maybe Tool would play there.
C: Avett Brothers. Eww.
E: I think this speaks a lot to the civilising potential of one’s surroundings and why most contemporary Americans have been severely insulted, degraded & retarded by our architectural and civil engineering environments over the past several decades. A Minnesotan once told me: “if you don’t clean your apartment before you host a party, the guests will totally trash the place.” He was correct. You go to the Fox Theatre, I don’t care who is playing — you don’t feel compelled to piss on the carpet. In general, venues that implicitly ‘invite’ more use and abuse will make for better tribal catharsis/raw thrills. Venues that look like the Fox interior will make for better Santana solos.
Club Europa; Greenpoint, NY
With plumes of volcanic ash spewing forth from the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, a major havoc was wrought upon air travel and, as nearly all flights in and out of Northern Europe were frozen, many musicians on their way to major festivals and gigs were forced to change their plans and cancel scheduled concerts worldwide. On Friday morning, a number of performers (including Mighty Boosh star Gary Numan) announced they would be unable to catch their scheduled flights to the Coachella Festival in California. Later, around midday, it was announced the mighty stoner super-group Shrinebuilder would be stranded in New York, and wouldn’t be playing at the legendary Roadburn Festival in Tilllsburg, Holland. It was bad news for Roadburners but good news for us in New York, as Shrinebuilder would attempt to appease the volcano by booking a last-minute show at Club Europa, the Polish disco in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they would deliver their own brand of volcanic spew.
Scott Kelley of Neurosis, Al Cisneros of Om and Sleep, Dale Crover of The Melvins, and Scott “Wino” Weinrich of the seminal groups Saint Vitus and The Obsessed took the stage in what would ordinarily be a nocturnal-emissions-causing dream for napping doom fans. But the site was indeed real, and the cadre of slow-metal pioneers would proceed to barrel through an incendiary set that set the sparse but dedicated crowd ablaze in a firestorm of Hawkind-inspired space rock, punishing metallic riffs, and shamanic grooves. As Wino shook a head full of long, gray hair, Cisneros grooved righteously to the slinking karma loops of his own bass. Scott Kelley pounded away on his wood-grain guitar while bellowing deeply in his inimitable and proprietary growl. As a gestalt, the group was unbelievably tight and had the chops to change gears on a dime, going from pummel mode to cryptical envelopment in a heartbeat. The sharing of vocal duties between the four added a depth to their sound unheard in each members’ flagship projects. On tracks like the epic “Solar Benediction,” Shrinebuilder stretched to the great reaches of inner space, allowing plenty of room for some long-form, free-rock exploration. As an extra treat, Scott Kelley, after stating his unpreparedness to play their third show in NYC in six months, announced they would try something they had not tried live before. It turned out to be an absolutely electric version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blues-laden “Effigy,” which had the crowd unequivocally roaring for more.
It may seem a somewhat inevitable observation, but it’s at least a bit noteworthy that, in the end, not even a giant volcano could stop the mighty Shrinebuilder.
Holy Fuck / Nice Nice
Troubadour; Los Angeles, CA
On stage right of the Troubadour in West Hollywood was a pile of keyboards in a box. It seemed fitting, given they were all made probably before 1992, with some carrying the name Casio. But if there’s something to be understood about Brian Borcherdt, it’s the pile doesn’t matter: Those keyboards can and will last a long time, and they are his primary arsenal in
fighting the Zerg enchanting and blowing people’s minds as co-leader of the dirty electronic group Holy Fuck. If nothing else, it was a casual display of power.
Opener Nice Nice were ending their tour as opener for the band. The Portland duo played the co-headliner more than the opener: They had an utter confidence that was pleasing, and a strong momentum to boot. Their layering was nuanced, and worked in building tension in the performance, very similar to label-mates Battles. It also filled the room quite well, and the chant-like rhythm coming out of the drums gave the crowd something to work with. This act is as much a testament to their new label Warp’s ability to pick up incredible talent as it is a solid back-up to Holy Fuck. Expect them to really hit it big in the next year or so.
Holy Fuck jumped in, complete with their keyboard arsenal and ground-floor strobe lights, and kept punching it loud with very little let-up. Even when they were switching up for the next song, somebody kept playing. Opening with Latin number “Stay Lit,” and segueing into LP’s opener “Super Inuit,” the momentum was meant to be fierce. Really pulling through were drummer Matt Schulz and bassist Punchy McQuaid, who provided exemplary rhythm, keeping Borcherdt and Graham Walsh’s antics on a leash when needed. Not that such antics, such as switching between the start of “Safari” and “Lovely Allen,” were unnecessary: Their liveliness made their sound much more powerful, and made the crowd equally vibrant.
There were awkward moments, such as the melody loop of LP single “Lovely Allen” being off-key, but nothing that could bring down the set and its ferocity. Set (and Latin) closer “P.I.G.S.” culminated the ferocity into one final explosion of layering and improvisation that left a mark on the crowd that stepped in for the evening. One has to wonder what magic or processor in those old Casios would make so much noise …
[Photo: Ze Pequeno]
Mike Watt & The Missingmen
The Smell; Los Angeles, CA
As critics, we tend to be cynical about reunions and legends; side projects and follow-ups. We complain about the disappointment of seeing artists after the raw periods of their youth. Sometimes it’s sad, like watching Rick James take a break after every two songs, but any failure will come from simply not meeting whatever expectations history has created for the artist. There’s always the possibility that I might have seen him rock harder had I been at an original Minutemen show but, frankly, even with all the covers, it’s a non issue. When someone reaches a certain level of legitimate greatness within the rock community something shifts in their responsibility as a performer. They can do new and interesting work (Please do!), but their success will always be viewed in terms of how well they sparked whatever energy they brought to the past and how well they transported original fans to the time they inevitably see as being when “bands were bands.”
In this way Mike Watt, backed by The Missingmen, succeeded terrifically. Every second Watt was onstage was a lesson in what jamming econo looks like. Every crease in his face. Every grimace. Every sweat stain. I think he made everyone feel at least a little excessive in some way. There was a noticeable, and refreshing, absence of cell-phone photography that I attribute to the clear sense that anything unrelated to the music didn’t matter.
Watt was plagued by an unusually large number of sound problems. Most significantly, there were no audible vocals coming from Watt at all for the first two songs. As much as that sucked though, it did present a chance to see just how much he puts into a performance. It’s something else to see a man pushing it all out, veins popping, just to have his vocals escape over the music for even one word.
After Watt yelled for the sound lady to, “just fucking turn it all the way up,” and getting nothing in the way of results, Tom Watson gave up his own mic and they switched back and forth depending on who had primary vocal duties. It was a bummer to lose the backup vocals, but it was worth it to see Watt hand the dead mic to someone in the crowd and say, “Here, stick that up my ass or something.” Watson, for his part, continued to scream all of his parts directly into the empty mic stand as if nothing was wrong.
It looked like everything was going to be fine. They brought someone’s kid onstage to replace Raul Morales on drums and the tyke was rock-solid. The vibe was great and everything felt familial, with bouncy adolescent curls collided with grey manes in the mild pit. As the set went on though, Watt began to look increasingly uncomfortable onstage and occasionally would step back from the mic clutching his ear and screaming, “Fuck.” He definitely yelled at someone in the front that he couldn’t hear anything while his companion played with the wires running down the wall in a way that evoked memories of trying to find the sweet spot on tin foil-covered bunny ears. Every time Watt flinched though, his next move would be a fierce attack on his bass. That image will stick with me for a long time and I’m left wondering who’s going to show my kids the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.
Starfucker / Butterfly Bones
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA
The Rickshaw Stop used to host an 18+ dance party called “Blow Up” every Friday night. I went a few times in high school, and by the last time I felt dirty for going — the crowd was an awful mixture of 15 year olds with fake IDs, wannabe American Apparel models, creepy mid-twenties guys who had come to grind on the 15 year olds, and an endless sea of amateur “party photographers” firing flashes onto the whole sweaty mess. The Rickshaw Stop had to shut it down last year — more than 500 people were showing up to cram into a 200-capacity venue.
It seemed about half the crowd at this show consisted of people who hadn’t gotten the memo that “Blow Up” wasn’t happening anymore, and Butterfly Bones sounded like they could have been played at Blow Up. Their music is catchy and danceable, but after half an hour of the same predictable breaks we heard all over MSTRKRFT remixes in 2006, I got the queasy feeling that I was back in high school, trying to dodge drunk guys’ attempts to grope me. To BB’s credit, electro-pop is pretty hard to get right, but their version didn’t bring any new ideas.
Starfucker (who, thankfully, are back to that name and not Pyramiddd), however, do have great ideas regarding electro-pop. They use guitars and synths equally and for interesting effects, and their songs sound like songs rather than an endless, unchanging pulse. They also know to take a break, and some of the best parts of the night were mid-tempo tracks from their newer material. They still wear dresses when they perform and they still got the room dancing so hard that sweat dripped off the ceiling, but they back up the antics and the beats with solid pop music. Electronics augment, but don’t define, Starfucker’s music, which is an important nuance to notice when you can still dance to something. I hope the “Blow Up” transplants appreciated it, too.
Silver Apples / Burning Star Core / Love Like Deloreans
Coco's 66; Brooklyn, NY
Silver Apples played two shows in New York last week, and while the second — at the modest but well-equipped Coco’s 66 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — may not have been able to boast the indie-scene cred of Oneida, the visual power of the Joshua Light Show, or the art scene cachet of the Abrons Art Center that the first had going for it, it did have good DJs playing in between sets, an impressive bill, and even some visual fireworks.
In the case of Brooklyn retro-techno trio Love Like Deloreans, who opened the show with a set of masterful Yellow Magic Orchestra-style synth jams, the band bounced around gamely behind their keyboards and provided a more interesting stage show themselves than many groups of their ilk do. But it was the projections, created by artist Jon Williams, played over the band that were most visually stimulating. While the forward progress of the songs was never in doubt, the projections played with the momentum of the set by variously interlocking and disengaging with the band’s rhythms.
Burning Star Core followed, turning in an astoundingly varied performance by way of six “parts” (for lack of a better word). The first part featured building violin loops, followed by a sparser movement of discordant riffs over a minimal drone, a quadrant featuring sampled vocalizations, a frighteningly intense noise section along the lines of Wolf Eyes’s “Dead Hills II,” and a finale during which lone member C. Spencer Yeh layed long violin double-stops over what could’ve been an ESG sample. Between the impressive volume, the often-harsh visual element — which ran from almost complete darkness to strange, diffuse, and disorienting floodlighting, to wild strobe flashes — and the stylistic shifts in the music, it was the sort of set that inspires strong opinions in all but the most indifferent. I, for one, thought it was amazing.
And with that, Silver Apples’ Simeon Coxe III took his place behind his oscillators and other assorted electronics and the main event was on. While some members of the crowd may have been surprised to see only Coxe up there, under a floppy hat, if he had internalized any particular expectations about what a Silver Applies performance was supposed to be, he wasn’t letting on. He quipped early on that he would be “playing old stuff, playing new stuff, and having some fun,” and while this was a simple plan, he followed it to the letter. Coxe’s voice, only mildly aged from the one you hear on Contact, carried each song to a new place. And, if somewhat lacking in the propulsive, paranoid character found in their original recordings, the current live incarnations of Silver Apples’ older songs have gained a weathered quality that allows them to reveal their history while also relieving them of the burden of imitating the 1960s versions of themselves.
This could explain why, while “A Pox On You” and “Oscillations” received a warmer welcome from the audience than some, Coxe was able to give every song its due and equal place in the set. Newer, spacier, more minimal numbers suited his sparse, acoustic-instruments-less setup and fit in perfectly with their environment. Oddly enough, for a show featuring a band reduced to one member, reformed to great acclaim 15 years prior following 25 years of silence, playing a small, recently established club in a generally neglected corner of an outer borough on a Sunday night, the whole thing seemed natural. The highest pleasure the show provided was that of witnessing a relaxed, seemingly happy performer with nothing to prove playing for the love of the game.
Jozef van Wissem
Morden Tower; Newcastle, UK
Last time things got cosmic at Newcastle’s Morden Tower, it was with Californians James Ferraro and Spencer Clark, whose strip-mall explorations were of a different mind than tonight’s more string-based (or, to be precise, “minimalist”) show. Mythos comes pretty easy for this place; it’s a small circular room in a stone tower set into a roman brick wall (that actually now backs onto Chinatown, whose restaurants spray a pretty steady steam of grease onto the cobbled stones). Not sure if the rats (outside) aided an “authentic baroque/medieval” experience, which Van Wissem’s lute seems to emulate in a modern setting (or throws back to in order to find new poignancy).
Sometimes found wearing medieval robes, this Brooklyn by way of Netherlands soloist was tonight in jeans and a flannel shirt, which served even more the dichotomy of new and old means: distant car alarms slipping in between the lengthy rests that marked the beginnings of a certainly stripped-back set, a slow couple of notes then a pause (repeated over 4-5 minutes) that would’ve perhaps seemed particularly drawn out to fans of local support Richard Dawson, whose more song-based finger picks (and vocals) came off actually tearjerkingly humble, like some Northeast English Basho or Rose.
Van Wissem’s set, though, eased the semi-circular room into a distinct and subtle lull, zoning out with swiped classical tidbits, deconstructing an obscure set of musical histories into songs of varied rhythm, usually preferring the more plodding sorts that sometimes confounded but summoned weirdly lunar and timeless slips of consciousness. Whatever varied songform he decided, the results were quietly subversive.
Broken Social Scene / Julie Doiron
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA
The Fillmore has a bit of a resemblance to another venue, the defunct Avalon Ballroom in Boston, right across the street from Fenway Park. The comparison here is relevant to tonight’s Broken Social Scene show: The first time this writer saw them, it was on a whim 5 years ago at the latter venue, in support of the self-titled album. Back then, Feist opened for them, long before The Reminder, and a man with a perpetual black turtleneck sent her down a separate transcendent path. The show was the stuff of legends. Admittedly, such a show is unlikely to happen again outside of the Greater Toronto area, so expectations have to be blunted, even for a new album and a tour.
Canadian Julie Doiron opened, and though she has an uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to the opener of a half-decade prior, that’s where the comparisons end. On stage, it feels more like The White Stripes in their early years in Detroit, only with the roles switched (though that might be a bit harsh for drummer William, who is actually good at both drums and guitar). Julie herself acted incredibly hokey and chummy at times. Worse though were the couple of songs where dissonance was employed, as well as one song where her singing rhythm sounded incredibly awkward. For a folk artist who has collaborated with the likes of Mt. Eerie and Okkervil River, she was exceptionally mediocre.
There is a lot of virtual-water-cooler (where the water is cleanest) talk about Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record around here, to the effect that this album lacks something pivotal. This writer suspects a single culprit, but will not elaborate for the sake of wanting to live in said culprit’s home city again one day. That said, whatever qualms fans may have for Forgiveness Rock Record can be put to rest: Live, these new songs really do sound like Broken Social Scene songs. Opener (and opening track) “World Sick” sounded much more natural and wet than the recording, as did fiery number “Texaco Bitches” and lead single “Forced to Love.” Lisa Lobsinger, recruited during the self-titled’s recording partly as a means to replace the eventually departed Millan-Feist-Haines trifecta, finally came into her own, captivating the crowd with “Sentimental X’s.”
“Lobbie” also performed exceptionally well with “All is All” and the legendary “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old.” For all the 2-hour set could cover though, the band only glanced briefly at the “BSS Presents” series, playing only “F-cked Up Kid” and “Been at It a Long Time,” the latter of which went into a jammy headspace. The band obviously enjoyed themselves and went at the set with the ferocity they always have. Even co-frontman Brendan Canning, sick with flu, pushed like he could run the Boston Marathon. That the band played 2 hours straight, with only a brief 3-minute break, is a testament to that. While it may be another couple years before we witness epic glory again outside Toronto, Broken Social Scene remain the incredible living force they were years ago on stage.
[Photo: Ze Pequeno]
High Places / Mi Ami
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA
This show was so easy to space out at, in a good way. Two bands that play noisy music doing it pretty well makes for a satisfying night.
I saw Mi Ami open for HEALTH a while ago, and they’ve definitely honed their live act. By “honed” I don’t mean “polished” as much as “there is a much more noticeable dissonance between their instrumentation and their vocals.” Their music by itself is hypnotic, complicated and nicely jam-heavy. With Daniel Martin-McCormick’s vocals, though, it got sort of crazy. He just doesn’t look like he can make the kind of noises he squeals into a microphone jammed halfway into his mouth. But it’s not insincere, and it works. Mi Ami are not for the faint of heart.
High Places are, though, definitely. They’re warm and fuzzy and full of droning noise sure to envelop anyone in spacey bliss. Unfortunately many of their strongest moments – intricate instrumentation and sampling or complex vocals – get lost in the dense, overpowering guitar washout present in their live set. A rare moment of clarity came on “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House,” from their latest record High Places vs. Mankind, as both their vocalists joined to sing a repeating string of words that guided the whole song beautifully. I think they sound better in the studio, where they can take the time to layer components of their music to the best effect.
The Bell House; Brooklyn, NY
Thirty-two years since they formed in Dunedin, New Zealand, The Clean still seem like just another band — and that’s meant in the most complimentary of ways. Following sets from Brooklyn’s Coasting and fellow Kiwi group Dimmer, the band nonchalantly took the stage at the Bell House, picked up their instruments and leaned into a set of tunes spanning their three decades of existence.
That the group can do this is a testament to their timelessness. When the Pixies reunited in 2004, they dusted off a repertoire of late eighties/early nineties material. When Pavement reconvened this year, they summoned up a discography that, as amazing as it is, will always bear a “Made in the Nineties” stamp. The Clean … well, they’re not beholden to any of the decades in which they’ve dipped their feet, and 2010 is no exception. The band’s set moved seamlessly from tunes like 1982’s “Beatnik” to “In The Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul,” from last year’s Mister Pop.
All three members of Yo La Tengo were in the Bell House audience, a fact that inspires a comparison between the two stalwart trios. If there’s any American band that most resembles The Clean in sonic approach and career arc, it’s Yo La Tengo. But while the latter has built that arc with an LP every few years and fairly regular touring, The Clean’s equation is a little sparser, calling for a couple of albums per decade and a smattering of live dates whenever they find the time.
The band didn’t play their most well-known “hit,” their debut single “Tally Ho,” but it didn’t matter. In an era that runs artists through the hype cycle at a breakneck pace and systematically cashes in on our fond memories of tunes from another time, it’s refreshing to see The Clean still jangling along, impervious to it all.