the sound and the fury

anyone paying attention to the dates on this blog may have noticed the decrease in frequency of posts in the past several months. since i've been busy with my own sounds (nothing new online yet), it takes a lot these days to get me out to one of the many shows i recommend through upcoming.org at the right. this past friday at turned out to be a bill i couldn’t pass up since i had a free night: four dark rock bands whose names i recognized, hosted by new york underbelly. i’d never been to crash mansion before, so this was a perfect opportunity to check out two bands i’d heard of and linked to on myspace but never seen, and reaccquaint myself with two others who’ve been undergoing some changes lately.

the december sound hail from boston, so this was a semi-rare chance to catch them. i found them through loveless music group, which gave me a clue to expect some variation on shoegazer music. although i recall their songs online as good, they took on another dimension live due to the full depth of the guitar sound being given room to breathe. they had an unusual setup in that the lead singer/guitarist stood off to the side mostly facing the rest of the band, while the keyboardist took center stage. this subtly diffused the focus to the group as a whole, a very interesting idea. their songs were well-balanced between a distorted guitar wash and ethereal synth melodies, with the bass and drums keeping things grounded. they were impressive also in that they were not just aping my bloody valentine, slowdive, or ride, but focused on building their own sound from various influences. they built up to a crescendo of looped guitar noise and bowed out gracefully.

surprising me by being second on the bill were a place to bury strangers, who delivered one of their best performances. the drummer accidentally knocked his electronic pads off his kit early on, or they might have matched the destructive power of the knitting factory show i first saw them at. it’s hard to build a wall of sound as noisy and yet forceful as they do without the full effect of distorted and reverberating drums, but they manage very well. kudos also go to the soundman, who was able to make oliver ackerman’s vocals cut through the mayhem throughout, which i’ve never heard before. their new bassist seemed to fit in better than last time i saw them, and the drums had more regimented punch and less punky abandon. the wildness was left to ackerman, who attacked his guitar more fiercely as the set progressed. this culminated in his turning on the strobe light for the final song, which dissolved into a hailstorm of distortion before he decided to attack a fender twin reverb amp. he banged it on the floor repeatedly to cause a series of huge metallic thwangs that closed the set.

this was a tough act to follow, but the funeral crashers rose to the challenge. musically and visually, they hang at the turning point between punk and deathrock. they aren’t as unschooled or brash as early punkers, or as depressed and theatrical as deathrockers or goths. the singer’s vocals lie somewhere between bauhaus-era peter murphy and monotone ranters like jello biafra. the latter comparison was also driven home by the seeming socio-political bent to the lyrics i could make out. they also had three television sets, which might have been ready to flash some kind of media commentary, but seemed to be simply more of a visual element. while they had the most retro vibe of the evening, there are some good original elements to their music, particularly some forward-looking guitar work and the way it locked in with the bass at times seeming to create a third instrument.

this was the first time i’d seen other passengers (top photo) without a second guitarist, and the first time in well over a year when they had no visuals behind them. the first issue was due to a band member departure, and the second was brought on by the sudden tragedy of a/v queen berkoy’s computer dying. send condolences, donations, and offers to lend powerbooks to her email address.

these two missing elements pushed OP to new kinds of energy and noisemaking. second guitar duties were filled in by singer billy, forcing him to leave out his keyboards. obviously this made for a harder sound overall as well as a seemingly frustrated attention split between the audience and the fretboard. main guitarist kevin also filled in more spaces than his usual edgy effect-laden sparseness. the effect was almost like watching a different band than the moody progressive outfit they were developing into. their playing reminded me of the backed-into-a-corner (literally) energy of the first time i saw them at bar 169. they’re definitely worth seeing, as they tend to put a lot of effort into each performance.

towards the end, kevin made a quick effect pedal change that cost him his entire sound, so he angrily plugged directly into his amp and wailed away brilliantly without much audible difference. this came to an abrupt end as he took a backwards dive into the drumkit, still playing from the floor. james continued to beat individual drums while billy intoned a kind of impromptu requiem. the sound dissolved in chaos as they left the stage.

i hope crash mansion and new york underbelly keep booking exciting shows like this. it’s a good venue that deserves support and so do these bands.

the title of this post comes from a classic book by william faulkner


so bright, so strong

a hope long-held by many became reality last year when nitzer ebb caved in to demands for a live reunion show. this was followed by the announcement of a 2006 world tour. having imploded personally and artistically in 1995, the two members have done a few other projects, but their classic records continued to play in underground dance clubs, expanding their reach to new audiences. when i went to a t.raumschmiere show in 2004, the hipster/techno crowd at knitting factory was being warmed up by NE’s “warsaw ghetto”, an early rare single. besides countless industrial bands, their influence has been heard recently in avant-pop/techno label ghostly international band kill memory crash and even t.raumschmiere himself. what they’ve clearly learned from NE is that if you have basslines and beats good enough, you don’t need much else.

the irving plaza show was opened up by another band following this template, albeit filtered through the berlin/detroit axis and powered by almost lo-res digital sounds. motor came to my attention via a remix for depeche mode. the word described the movement of the mix so well, i thought it was just a title and not a band name. the german/new york duo was joined onstage by a third tweaker, who added some very welcome live squelches and percussion to the proceedings. they weren’t especially visual (they had projected images but you could hardly see them as there was no screen), but they did their best. the kick drums pounded out sub-bass frequencies while every aspect of synthesizer filters was explored. while somewhat monochromatic, it has an edge missing from most techno and is excellent dance music. however, while the crowd listened attentively and applauded, they were clearly reserving all their energy and enthusiasm for the headliner. a rough spot to be in, but motor handled it well.

three triangular flags bearing the NEP (nitzerebbprodukt) logo and each of the quintessential “industrial” symbols from their first album (cog, hammer, star) dropped down. the live blond female percussionist strode onstage to whoops and applause - clearly a woman being able to hold her own in a very male-dominated field has garnered her respect in the short time she’s been playing with the group. in fact, there were a lot of women at the show, more than you might expect for such angry, masculine music. next bon harris came on to much greater applause, followed (after a calculated pause) by a roar for vocalist douglas mccarthy. while many industrial bands favor dehumanized, over-processed voice, mccarthy stands nearly alone as being one of the most distinctive vocalists in the genre.

i knew what to expect and was not disappointed. there is no better way for them to begin a show than with the quasi-metal buildup of grinding synths and halting drum rolls of “getting closer”. the tired rock cliché ending of the full band beating the last note of a song to death is inverted and synthesized into one of the best intros ever. bon surprised me and tag-teamed on vocals (as in the picture above), adding to the energy by criss-crossing the stage in a mirror of douglas’ movements. after that he went behind a second drumkit and manned the ubiquitous mac powerbook which has replaced their racks of gear.

not that the band need a lot. their music, like their lyrics, is a perfect minimal expression of directness and anger. from what little they give you, you can infer the rest. some may call their music mindless and simplistic. but really, when you’re faced with lines like “money for blood /don’t take that cash away / don’t take that cross away” mixed with a southern US-accented televangelist sample over a single relentlessly ominous bassline and punishing beat, what more do you need to understand their point?

because they’re so easy to learn as well as bring so primal, mccarthy had a lot of help with his lyrics on sunday night. the packed house tried to match his guttural scream word for word. i don’t know how he can even speak, much less continue to sing and shout after a few nights of shows. the thing about nitzer ebb is, there are almost no breathing points. no long ambient intros, no ballads, no extended solos during which anyone can rest. the music is full-on energy from start to finish, and all members are very physically active onstage. they did an amazing job, especially for a couple of guys in their 40s.

the set was almost the entirety of their classic ‘belief’ album, with the singles from their first, third and fourth albums. there were a few surprises in some of the less-known choices such as “captivate”. while i was initially happy they’d chosen to do the highly-underrated “ascend,” sadly it didn’t come off anywhere near the album version. on the other hand, “godhead,” which to me falls flat on the recording when the band, as ben put it, “tries to be slayer,” came off as powerful all the way through. it was especially great because the more widespread video/radio mix has re-recorded “clean” lyrics which completely erase the song’s original seedy, nasty, sexual lyrical tone. that song, and indeed many aspects of NE seeming to be an aggressively homoerotic experience, i was surprised to find out recently that mccarthy is married with kids.

clearly NE cares about their fans, which is one reason they inspire such devotion. mccarthy took time at one point to hand out bottled water, and thanked fans at the end of the show. bon harris lingered in front of the audience both coming and going, with a look of amazement and intense gratitude. he kissed his hands and offered them to the audience, bowing repeatedly and mouthing “thank you.”

no, thank you bon, for writing the best basslines in the world.

the title of this post comes from a collection of early singles by nitzer ebb.


two hearts beat as one

i really wanted to go out last thursday and support my friend bianca’s DJ set, but when i found out ellen allien and apparat were playing live as a duo the same night, i had to take a rain check.

i ended up getting to hiro ballroom after midnight. there was a velvet rope and clipboard-wielding door person, who told punters the room was at capacity. presold tickets were honored of course, but not without standing on the same inexplicably barely-moving line as those hoping to buy. meanwhile, friends and associates strolled to the front of the line and got slipped tickets and immediate entry. the whole scenario seemed designed to hold things up just to keep up the show of a crowd of 10+ people looking anxious to get in.

once inside the ballroom itself, i noted the old-fashioned mini-stage with curtains, looking as though it was designed to barely hold a 4-piece jazz or doo-wop band. it jutts out of the same side wall the entrance runs into, which is a bad design move, since people wanting to see the stage competed with people wanting to come and go and order drinks. also, amazingly, several people in the packed room were smoking. perhaps being part of a hotel, the ballroom is exempt from the standard nightclub smoking ban. the final straw of this bad setup was the elongated tables surrounded by sitting people - right on the edge of the dance floor at calf height.

fortunately, none of this has anything to do with ellen allien and apparat. i saw them once before, playing separate opening sets for t. raumschmiere at knitting factory. sadly, allien only played a DJ set then, but she was so good at it and so fun to watch i didn’t mind. things have changed a bit since then, as she’s released an even better solo CD as well as orchestra of bubbles, the duo release she and apparat were promoting. like excited kids, they crouched together behind the cloth-covered tables of equipment as the DJ before them finished his set. each had a mac laptop, bluetooth mouse, and several external devices to affect their sounds. when they stood up, cheers rose.

they immediately launched into two tracks from the aforementioned album that were dark-edged, but with a joyous energy. their music together is a seamless mix of allien’s berlin techno roots with the artier twists and turns of apparat’s IDM bent, bound together by a secret love for pop melody that both have played with in the past.

on the third song, allien stepped away from the gear and picked up a microphone, which drew more cheers. she has a great voice for techno - she keeps her lyrics and melodies simple, she stays in key, she doesn’t try any vocal gymnastics, her voice cuts through the mix without being annoying. as savvy laptop artists, they had her a little processed so she fit into the music perfectly. a few times over the course of the night, such as on the excellent “way out,” she deliberately bent her melodies into yells, perhaps to introduce a more “live” element or simply prove it wasn’t prerecorded or auto-tuned.

however, after each turn at the mic, she seemed eager to get back in front of her laptop, which gets her much respect from me. sadly, women in music aren’t very encouraged to do much else than sing and look pretty, to sell their persona and the promise of sex. that allien is a musician and DJ first and a cute female singer a distant second in a male-dominated field is admirable. even moreso since her own music is so great. as a perfect example, her first vocal was her own “stadtkind,” which seems to have a semi-political bent rather than being personal or sexual in nature.

this was not a pure ellen allien show, however. her relatively straightforward, analog-sounding techno (excellent though it is) is given new dimensions by the digital sheen and inventiveness of apparat. it’s a near-perfect balance, as allien’s own compositions could sometimes be said to be a bit too simplistic, while apparat takes a few too many melodic and rhythmic twists and turns to appeal to more than the chin-scratching segment of the electronica crowd. the merging of their talents has resulted in a nearly-perfect union.

apparat also happens to be one of the more interesting laptop performers i’ve seen, because he makes such a show of tweaking his effects and doing jump cuts live. there’s also a fairly clear cause and effect to his actions, which i think is the main thing people miss when watching someone use a laptop. the top picture isn’t the sharpest i took (seriously low light in there, and i hate using flash), but it best captures the physicality of his gestures. one of his favorite tricks of the night was to loop a small section of a song and substitute it for the rest of the track, sometimes doubling the repetition as allien warped effects on top of it until a climax. this made the live versions recognizable yet clearly changed from their recorded versions. as a finale, allien handed him the mic, and after a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed it with both hands and let out a long, grating, ultra-punk rock scream before abruptly stopping the music. they gave each other a hug and a kiss and left the stage. so much for the ideas of laptop performance being cold, detached, boring, and unchangeable.

i’d been pretty tired before the show, almost considering not going, and the irritating venue made me want to leave right after (another DJ began almost immediately - an unenviable slot). but on the street i was wide awake, blood pumping with excitement at what i’d just seen and heard.

the title of this post comes from a u2 song.