Zu / Guardian Alien
Cave12; Geneva, Switzerland

[06-27-2014]

Other than having incredible drummers, you might think there’s not much uniting Zu and Guardian Alien. One plays aggravated, hyper-surgical jazz-math rock, while the other creates fluid psychedelic universes that discard all structure. Yet even if Zu can be defined as the brutal yang to Guardian Alien’s more tranquil yin, witnessing the two groups at Geneva’s Cave12 on a humid Friday night revealed they have more in common than initially meets the ear. Namely, they know their shit when it comes to amalgamating chaos and control.

This sounds unlikely at first. Unlikely, because from the beginning Zu’s onslaughts were tightly wound and rigidly partitioned into dogmatic architectures, laid down by a tyrannical rhythm section that includes new drummer Gabe Serbian (also of The Locust, Cattle Decapitation, Holy Molar, and the recently reunited ‘supergroup’ Head Wound City).

The Italian trio’s execution (probably as good a word as any) was vastly more precise and meticulous than is proper to expect from a band dealing in such ridiculously loud volumes, with the imposing Goodnight, Civilization’s new material leaving the crowd without any room for maneuver. But even with this almost totalitarian level of accuracy and domination, it became apparent over the course of the 40-minute set their systematic aggression has one aim: the liberation of an unbound emotional response, which in my case involved going fucking mental during rampant versions of “Carbon,” “Chthonian,” and set-closer “Ostia.” This is why, throughout the relentless assaults, Luco Mai’s baritone sax flurried wildly over the mechanistic rhythms deposited by Serbian and Pupillo, in the end providing visceral evidence that wherever extreme rationalization takes hold extreme irrationality is nearby.

And it was with much the same paradoxical balance between awe-inspiring discipline and anarchic liquidity Guardian Alien took to the intimate Cave12 stage. Appearing as a three-piece of Greg Fox, Alex Drewchin, and Alex’s brother, Silas, the New Yorkers streamed through a playlist that reconciled expansive, freeform electronics with intense percussive athleticism and reworked sections of “Spiritual Emergency” and “See the World Given to A One Love Entity” into blends of metaphysical static undercut by torrential drumming.

Edges were blurred to the point of nonexistence as the crew’s gadgetry buzzed and oscillated restlessly from one plastic state into another, Fox’s long-suffering skins an aural blur of ceaseless change. As the night’s soupy rendition of “One Love Entity” burst into an all-consuming finale, and as Drewchin repeated the echoing chant of “All things one thing” with an increasing mania, the haziness of the band’s music — the lack of clear boundaries between one gurgling noise-cluster and the next or one amped paradiddle and the next — revealed itself as the perfect complement to their universalizing philosophy, denying the separateness of every musical note just as the band themselves deny the separateness of everything those notes could be said to represent.

I wasn’t the only one in awe of Fox’s drumwork, so forceful and loose, and how the threesome improvise the multifarious sounds of the universe’s necessary oneness, since the receptive Geneva crowd managed to coax the trio into performing an unplanned encore. Despite being an afterthought, this encore became a high point; not only were we treated to an unheard work that exploited a reverb’d, staccato guitar pulse to engender an eerie and unsettled atmosphere, but Fox also confirmed his subscription to his own worldview by carrying his snare into the crowd, where he and the two Drewchins became one with us all. Well, at least until we all left and went home.

[Photo: Baron von Kissalot]

The Mountain Goats
Wonder Ballroom; Portland, OR

[06-11-2014]

In the past, I’ve used this live blog to air personal grievances. Whether or not it was proper, it was nonetheless publishable. So with apologies to Merge (who got me into the show for free) and Loamlands (who seem like lovely people and who play lovely music) and The Mountain Goats (who, no offense, put on a really tepid and somewhat patronizing show last night) and the many people who were clearly enjoying themselves (I don’t begrudge you), I would like to hone my focus entirely on the strange couple who stood in front of me:

Hi, couple. It wasn’t that you pushed through the already-existing, awkwardly partitioned, and funny-smelling crowd to stand directly in front of me. I’ve dealt with that at virtually every show I’ve attended since I started going to shows. It is — and was — a minor annoyance. But your positioning didn’t help. Between my eyes and the stage, you — the two of you — took up most of my field of vision, so I had to watch you, together, foremost. Every song was interpreted through — and worse — by you. “High Hawk Season” and “Black Molly” were alright — a few small pecks, some gentle PDA. “Old College Try” was a little more risqué (mostly light groping), but manageable. But what the fuck happened during the rest of the set?

It began with heavy groping and swaying to the beat of “Twin Human Highway Flares.” It morphed into making out, in starts and stops, to the pace of “San Bernardino.” It continued through “Linda Blaire Was Born Innocent,” and coalesced during “Tallahassee,” in a bizarre blur of ugly and spit and hands. All of this, during the same “Tallahassee” that sings prayers to summon the destroying angel. Listen, I’m no prude. I understand love and its physicality. But love and exhibitionism are not the same thing; the latter is a display of insecurity, and, yeah, it’s unfair to force others to watch. In the future, and in the spirit of infamous mistakes, would you please relegate your interpretive dance to the venue’s dark corners? The rest of us really would appreciate it.

Otherwise, like I implied above, the show was alright, I guess.

Man Or Astro-Man?
Le Romandie; Lausanne, Switzerland

[06-07-2014]

I know we’re all a little jaded when it comes to reformed bands of yesteryear, and I realize it’s old hat to marvel at the necromantic power of the internet and its globalized fan bases to resuscitate underappreciated groups of past decades , but still, I’m a little nonplussed that the new Man or Astro-Man? LP didn’t receive more attention when it was released last summer.

Not only was Defcon 5…4…3…2…1 overlooked by the humble site you’re reading now (though we covered their set at Psych Fest 2013), but it was also denied the review treatment by “the essential guide to independent music,” which more or less entails that it doesn’t really exist. And this is a shame, because their first album since reuniting in 2010 is no mere nostalgic regression to the already “hyper-nostalgic” sounds of Is It … Man Or Astro-Man? and Experiment Zero. To give it my capsule review, it’s freaking ace, so it’s a good thing Tiny Mix Tapes got the chance to make amends, sending me all the way to a country none of us had ever heard of before, where I watched the quartet detonate their spaceage circus before a captive and impeccably sober audience.

Touching down to the anticipatory techno of “Defcon 4,” the Astromen said hello by immediately flinging themselves “Inside the Atom” with characteristic neglect for earthly standards of restraint. Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard may not have beamed down with them, but the Alambamian’s didn’t want for energy or exuberance, twitching and rushing around the small Swiss stage to the point where taking a non-smeared photograph was an impossibility. With their famed banter kept to an efficient minimum, they sped from one turbo-charged, uranium-soaked bombardment to the next, their selection balanced perfectly between older and newer cuts, ranging all the way from a scalding “Invasion of the Dragonmen” to a punishingly moody “Antimatter Man.” That said, their patented crowd interaction made the occasional appearance, since after a particularly rowdy version of “Sferic Waves” Birdstuff jumped into the crowd with a mic, handed it to some bearded and dreadlocked cheesemonger, and coaxed the guy into producing an indescribably profound hum for several seconds.

Then he announced that the band were to going to play “Aunt’s Invasion” by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, at which point I mouthed a silent thank-you prayer to the Almighty, Steve Jobs. Without wanting to detract from the evil genius of Man Or Astro-Man?, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet are so great even Rod Stewart himself could come out, play one of the Canadian trio’s numbers, and then get back to his personal mission of euthanizing music, and it would still be one of the greatest gigs ever. And if their alive and affectionate rendition wasn’t enough, MOAM? topped it off with “Man Made of CO2,” which sounded no less crazy than its recorded template and yet all the more snappy and virile.

Things only became more energetic from there, with “Defcon 5” from the newie and “Maximum Radiation Level” from Experiment Zero being two simultaneously gleeful and intense highlights. Even 20 years after their debut, Man Or Astro-Man? exist in a dimension unto themselves, apart from any single rock scene or domain that might potentially dilute the novelty and impact of their sci-fi surf rock by reproducing it ad nauseaum. Of course, it could be argued their anachronistic “goofiness” has prevented them from ever representing modern life as it unfolds for millions of people, in all its pettiness and gritty detail, but it also could be replied that it’s precisely their seeming detachment from reality that makes the whole MOAM? aesthetic so pure and potent.

Either way, Star Crunch, Birdstuff, Avona Nova, and Victor Vector never let up from start to finish, with the noisy Vaudois crowd lapping up every second of their kinetic freakshow. After Birdcrunch praised a short, dancing guy in front of me for having a well-shaped head (seriously), they rounded off their set (and the European leg of their tour) with the Venusian one-two of “Destination Venus” and “Transmissions from Venus” before a final salvo of “Special Agent Conrad Uno” saw Nova dive into the pit with her guitar, much to delight of fools with cameras and the arm-waving chap she’d accused of flashing her halfway through the performance. And like the gentle astro(wo)men they are, the four-piece capped this overspilling closer by trashing their equipment, leaving us all with stupid grins on our faces as we were transported safely back to Earth.

[Photo: Baron von Kissalot]

Setlist:

00: Defcon 4
01. Inside The Atom
02. Evil Plans of Planet Spectra
03. Anitmatter Man
04. Put Your Finger in the Socket
05. Planet Collison
06. 9 Volt
07. Sferic Waves
08. Aunt’s Invasion (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet cover)
09. Man Made of CO2
10. Invasion of the Dragonmen
11. Defcon 5
12. Maximum Radiation Level
13. Escape Velocity
14. Name of Numbers
15. Televsion Fission
16. Destination Venus
17. Transmissions from Venus
18. Special Agent Conrad Uno

Sun Araw
Georgia's apartment; Chinatown, NY

[05-14-2014]

I’m sitting at work, and usually when a number I don’t have saved calls me (which, I don’t have ANY numbers saved right now ‘cause I’m fucking with an old phone), I answer with my headphones plugged in, no mic, and just let the caller talk. I hear background chatter, a hang-up, and then a text: “YO man — private Sun Araw show in Manhattan in a few minutes man, totally forgot to invite you earlier. I’m so sorry!!! It will start around 6.” It was 4:30, and I’m out on Long Island. I find a train at Mineola (around the corner) that leaves at 4:53, I duck outta work telling ‘em I forgot about a dental appointment, blast it to the bank, blast it to the train, train is late by 14 minutes, buy two Four Lokos and two Black & Mild wine’s, train comes, I drink an entire can of Four Loko as I’m standing up, and arrive in the city around 5:20.

Around this time in NYC, especially the devil’s asshole that is Penn Station, people are EVERYWHERE. So I did some pushing, which was shitty, so I’m sorry if I pushed you yesterday and you’re reading this Live Blog. Ran around outside looking for the yellow line, couldn’t find it, the line to grab a cab was stretching back INTO Penn, and I see a dude on one of them bike gondolas. I grip a ride from him, his legs are individually both larger than my torso and he tells me something about Obama being in town, and I drink the second Four Loko, am probably smashed, and my buddy calls me and says, “We’ll wait 10 more minutes. It’s on the fifth floor. Ask for Georgia.” I get off the bike around Chinatown, see Fatima Al Qadiri doing yet ANOTHER interview, and the biker charges me $100 for the ride. -_-

SMASHED on booze and JACKED adrenaline, I run up to the door, buzz it and say, “Georgia, it’s Clifford, and I’m here for the show!” Georgia is a dude, which is chill, and hugs me SUPER tite. Alex Gray and Cameron Stallones already have played “Like Wine” and are in the middle of “Right Out of Town.” There’s hardly anyone here, maybe 20 people MAYBE.

I take a spot on the floor inches away from the aura Sun Araw is pulsating. Then they get into this original jam, unrecorded, and zones become deeper than dirt. It feels like Chinatown is going to stop all at once outside and look in. To the left, Stallones is occasionally shredding the most minimal licks while keying some slippery synth sounds. On the right, Gray is fucking around on a sampler and completely going to town on them buttons — maybe it’s a drum machine – flinging out tin bongo sounds, while he also moves his finger on a laptop mouse pad as if it is a Kaossilator, and it sounds like liquid metal, or as if all the programs and software on his computer are melting together. Once they finish flaying music into next-level dimensions, I foolishly forget they are about to do a collaborative tour with Laraaji and are all in New York ‘cause they are leaving that next day for Europe, and thus the legend joins them on stage.

The three played together for about 20 minutes. Honestly, I couldn’t tell who was doing what. The only time I noticed a single person’s sound was when they were either playing a solo-ish part or when Laraaji used the electronics to his left, or chose a different way to play his zither (options: fingernails, a bow, brushes, sticks). And Laraaji was decked OUT in orange, including a fanny-pack and fisherman’s hat, which blended well under the red lights above the stage and philodendron sprouting out from corners. I didn’t even notice it getting darker, but considering it was an early show, I didn’t give a shit. Oh, I also didn’t give a shit about most anything else ‘cause it was Sun Araw with Laraaji, live and intimate.

When they finished, Stallones and Gray came over and hugged everyone still in attendance. Georgia put out a bunch of wine, of which I probably had a bottle, ‘cause after I wished them a safe trip and I left, I gave a homeless lady $10 for walking directions to Penn and she hugged me really hard, and I don’t remember finding Penn or getting on the train. I just remember not being able to get into the other train car for the bathroom and now a train in Long Island smells like cheap wine. A passenger on the train asked if I wanted gum, but I couldn’t because of my braces, and Ken thinks she was picking me up. BOTTOM LINE: Sun Araw brings the adventure, always.

Red Bull Music Academy: Robert Henke's Lumière / The Haxan Cloak (US debut)
The Brooklyn Masonic Temple; Brooklyn, NY

[05-10-2014]

I arrive with minutes to spare after bumping between Fulton and Greene for 10 minutes, stupidly having misread Google Maps. My thinking was not focused on finding the temple; I was considering the structural meaning of sound, how it is ensnared by language and such — fitting. I arrive at the temple, emerging out of a mass of classic, distinctly upper-middle class Brooklyn homes. Surrounding the temple is a large line, winding around the building. But there is a second mass — press. That was for me. I merge in, state my name — in. The temple features open hardwood floors leading to a stack of speakers and a fenced-off stage covered by a screen for projection. Hanging in the periphery, eclipsed by piercing spotlights, was the balcony, which is nearly full. I wait.

The thing about this performance is that the ideation of space, real space — so not the ideation, its point, weight in space — will be under attack. I’m excited by the possibility of being bowled over by sound, physical warpings of resonant frequencies and the congealing of sounds heard and unheard collapsing spaces within a zone. I remember the first time I heard “Taku” from Monolake’s Ghosts, the sound of a metal, spherical object hitting, bouncing, multiplying, and then dividing back into a singularity, sliding from one ear to the next.

Rising before his oddly jovial audience, Robert Henke appears docile and chipper, with a sheepish demeanor that’s infectious (isn’t it strange how shy and happy the “headier” musicians appear to be?). But despite his sheepishness, Henke requests no mobile phones be used during the performance, to which the crowd responds with strangely resounding applause. With a nod, Henke darts off the stage, appearing moments later behind a wall of projectors.

Although the press essentially calls Henke’s performance an advancement of the Pink Floyd laser-light show trope, the idea of spectacle is all but lost on me, as a single slither of light dots the massive screen. Before long, the room is submerged in dangerously low tones paired with panning drones and blistering snaps. Tumultuous, chest-shattering kicks strike and tumble half a breath behind the anchoring beat, as the two-dimensional, line-and-point-oriented lights shift into a generative and measured body of pivots and throbs.

I’ve always felt a romantic dystopianism in the sounds of dubstep, and Henke’s performance proves this to be more true than I initially thought. The fidelity-draining, form-twisting aspects of dub, applied to a firm beat pattern, is spectacular in its pinning-down of sonic qualities. Despite much of the “light show,” which was phenomenal in itself, the sound design is what strikes me the most: even as fog is expelled, bridging the lights toward an evolved three-dimensional prismatic shape, I am entranced by the uncanny valley-breaking sound objects employed by Henke.

Quickly after, The Haxan Cloak (real name Bobby Krlic) takes the stage for an intensely physical set. Through gauzes of white noise spiking suddenly into broad strokes of blatantly acoustic deconstructive scapes, my earplugs become a handy friend.

Russian Circles / KEN mode / Helms Alee
The Metro; Chicago, IL

[03-16-2014]

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]