• review: gilead media music festival

    2 maj 2012, 22:13

    Gilead Media Music Festival
    April 28th and 29th, 2012
    Electric Lounge & Lanes, Oshkosh WI

    Saturday, April 28th

    Darger + Plague Mother
    I’m not generally a noise enthusiast, but this 15-minute collaborative set was closer to drone than harsh noise and it started the day off on a surprisingly pretty note. I enjoyed this set more than I anticipated, despite the phalanx of photographers standing between the crowd and the performers, taking close-up pictures of their shoes and shit. I’m sure everyone will be very excited to revisit those photos of Darger’s shoes.

    Arms Aloft
    This melodic punk band was definitely an oddball on a bill packed with experimental metal. They reminded me of Hot Water Music or something and they had great energy and helped set the eclectic tone for the weekend.

    I have weirdly picky taste when it comes to doom metal, and this Iowa trio didn’t really do it for me. They were naturally quite loud and slow but there was nary a melody to be found in the guitars and harsh-harsh-harsh isn’t enough for me when the music is really slow.

    I’ve seen Milwaukee hardcore lifers Protestant a few times before and they always put on a hard-hitting, energetic show. The crowd at Gilead was very into them, and they ended up being a highlight of the first day. I hadn’t heard much of their newer output and the songs ripped pretty hard. Also, their drummer makes awesome faces and Anderson Cooper really gets into it on the bass.

    Get Rad
    Liked Protestant, Get Rad plays lots of local hardcore and metal bills and their fast, party-dude hardcore is always a barrel of fun. This show was no exception. Bonus points go to the bassist who not only jumped from the top of his bass amp off the stage and onto the floor while playing, but also tossed a water bottle into the crowd, later slipped on it, and faux-angrily yelled “Who the fuck spilled water down here?!”

    This Oregon-based doom band started their set promisingly with lengthy, haunting, unaccompanied clean guitar passages and really got my attention, but then they just bashed away on some harsh atonal doom stuff and I found it kinda boring. My friend Nick said they were his favorite of the day and shelled out like thirty bucks for their new double LP, so your mileage may vary.

    Fell Voices
    I was excited to see this idiosyncratic Californian black metal trio and they were excitingly idiosyncratic. They started their set by asking all the photographers to get out of the audience’s way, which I appreciated. Their ferocious blastbeats and fuzzy, swirling guitars were augmented by shrieking vocals performed without microphones, something I’d never seen attempted. It made for a pretty cathartic and hypnotic set. Oh, and this happened later, by the bathroom:

    Fell Voices’ Bassist: Is that an Urfaust shirt?
    Me: No, it’s actually for the old German band Faust.
    Fell Voices’ Bassist: Oh. (walks away)

    Ash Borer
    Ash Borer is a much buzzed-about California black metal band and I was interested to hear how their lo-fi sound would translate to the live setting. Unfortunately, I found it to be kind of a mess. The bass overwhelmed the mix and turned their riffs into garbled sludge, and having two guitars and keyboards further mashed the riffs into a samey muddle. I was pretty wiped out by this point, so I walked out after fifteen minutes and fell asleep leaning against a table.

    Ah, finally a doom band I can get into! Loss from Tennessee combine slow, plodding beats with mournful melodic guitar and bass parts, guttural vocals, and suicidal lyrics. They took quite a while to set up and I was physically exhausted by that point, but they were mighty impressive and they nailed all the strikingly pretty guitar parts. My friends and I split after about twenty-five minutes due to an extreme need for food and sleep, but I’ll definitely see Loss again if they come through town. On the way out of the venue, I saw a fest attendee standing way too close to a passing train and I thought maybe he’d taken Loss’s lyrics to heart and was about to end it all. The irreparable act!

    Sunday, April 29th

    What a weird live setup this band had – a drummer playing live and doing vocals, a dude pressing buttons on a computer triggering pre-recorded bass and guitar parts, and two inexplicable laptops sitting on stools showing urban decay footage of imploding buildings and stuff. This setup made for a live experience that wasn’t particularly thrilling, but the drumming and vocals were impressive. Just wish this dude had some friends to play with.

    Baby Boy
    The screamo side project of a few Thou members was solid and hard-hitting, but I was trying to conserve my energy, so I listened to the set from a chair in the next room over while texting my wife. I did enjoy joking with a friend about whether they were named after the Tyrese movie of the same name.

    This Fell Voices side project felt amateurish and unrehearsed. They bummed me out.

    A Scanner Darkly
    Man alive, this reunited heavy spacey grind band really woke me up! Adam Bartlett (who runs Gilead Media and put together this fest) did vocals for the set and it was a gut-punch of blasting grind and heavy doom passages with some really creative and unusual guitar work. The set lengths at this fest were quite brief for the most part, and this performance was one of a handful that really left me wanting more.

    I was excited to see the final Milwaukee band on the bill since I recently picked up and heartily enjoyed their album Clandestine Abuse. The four piece sludge metal act was just as crushing as I’d hoped, and they had a strong stage presence. My neck was just getting used to the abuse when they reached the end of their third or fourth song and the drummer kicked over all his drums and cymbals and the second guitarist launched his instrument into the crowd. Set’s over. I definitely wanted more Northless and will be checking out a local set soon.

    Mutilation Rites
    I spent the first ten minutes of this set eating a sandwich in the parking lot, but when I got back inside, this New York blackened thrash group (their sound is too beefy to be pure black metal) was in full-on kill mode. They’re one of the more conventional metal bands of the fest but they put on a good, energetic show. I can definitely see them getting booked on some big metal tours in the future.

    The Body
    This Rhode Island-based noise/sludge duo broke the medium down to its core descriptors – loud and hard. Loud being the insanely downtuned guitar pumping bassy riffs through the high-powered amp setup, and hard being the drummer bashing the slow and mid-tempo beats as hard as possible. Throw some weird high-pitched shrieks on top and that’s one dirty, heavy sound.

    This Minneapolis black metal band pretty made all the other Sunday black metal bands look like amateurs. Their 10-15 minute compositions didn’t have any lousy atmospheric interludes – just five sweaty dudes playing fast and hard and one tiny female vocalist wearing floral-print culottes and putting on a vocal performance that bordered on legit scary. She looked and sounded seriously possessed.

    It’s a shame that these dudes had to follow False. It would be unkind of me to say more.

    My friends had been pumping my expectations up about Thou all weekend, and I must admit that the fest’s final band lived up to the hype with a heavy set of sludge/doom that whipped the crowd into a frenzy even after watching 18 other bands. They hit real hard but didn’t sacrifice riffs for pure volume. Their individual performances were so locked-tight that it was clear that these guys are pretty road-tested and they know how to put on a show. Their usual shows are much shorter and I feel that maybe the set went on a little too long (they played their album Tyrant in full, plus an extra song or two), but I really enjoyed getting pushed around by both the crowd and the music.
  • review: maryland death fest 2009

    27 maj 2009, 02:53

    Crushing the Cenotaph: Maryland Deathfest 2009
    Fri 22 May – Maryland Deathfest VII
    (written and soon to be posted on

    A couple friends and I drove from Chicago to Baltimore in a car with leather seats and no air conditioning, blaring metal loud so we can hear it with all the windows open while doing eighty down the Pennsylvania turnpike. We took turns plugging our mp3 players into the tape adapter and playing songs from bands we were going to see that weekend that not all of us were familiar with ("What?! You really haven't heard the new Cattle Decapitation?! Fuck, dude!") and by Friday afternoon, we were all pumped to watch some bands. A lot of bands, even.

    Friday took off running, with a solid but unremarkable set of twisty metalcore from recent Relapse Records signees Hero Destroyed. The first band to blow me away was the second of the fifty-four (!) acts scheduled to play that weekend, Baltimore's own grinders Triac, who were one of the best surprises of the weekend with their super-fast shrieking mayhem. Jig-Ai from the Czech Republic have a gory anime porn theme and their set was dumb and unenjoyable, apart from the silly faces they made, but Sweden's Sayyadina came up next and delivered a fast and relentless performance, setting a high standard for the rest of the grind bands to follow. Gnostic's progressive death metal sounded weird, wanky, and dated, despite their just forming in 2005. Cattle Decapitation opened the outdoor stage with a set of bloody death metal that highlighted the antics of their maniacal frontman and their guitarist's nutty shredding. Pigsty, also from the Czech Republic, had my favorite set of the day, cranking out grind that was sometimes dementedly fast, sometimes totally groovy, and always fun and upredictable. Cephalic Carnage played a nice selection from their catalog of weed-fueled experimental grindcore and afterwards Norway's black metal fundamentalists Mayhem disappointed me by playing lots of their older, more samey stuff and neglecting their recent, more atmospheric and weird material, though I'm sure that's what most of their fans wanted them to do. Reunited Dutch doomsters Asphyx provided a climax for the evening, playing an all-too-brief set of mostly mid-tempo tracks that made headbanging a physical necessity. My friends and I skipped out after that, missing the two final bands in order to get some sleep to prepare for the next next 13-hour day of metal.

    After stopping to get some crab cakes before the show (believe the hype), we took our place in the line that snaked around the venue. The line unfortunately made us miss the first act of the day, but we made it in time to watch Florida's Maruta tear it up in another nice surprise. Texas' Pretty Little Flower played some charming old-school grind that got a nice circle pit going, including a number of guys who'd trekked up from Texas to see their hometown heroes. Unearthly Trance was a snoozefest but Sweden's Crowpath picked things up a bit with some hard-to-categorize heaviness. New Orleans' Flesh Parade ground me to a pulp and their vocalist's deranged screech was one of the most memorable vocal performances of the weekend. The overhyped Weekend Nachos bored me with their goofy vocals and baffling short, slow songs. All that nonsense was forgotten when my personal favorites Rotten Sound absolutely obliterated everything in sight and levelled the building to the ground, their drummer almost tearing a hole in the space-time continuum with the speed of his blasting. Outside, Hail of Bullets played a great old-school set of WWII-themed death metal, with vocalist Martin van Drunen providing some of the best stage banter of the fest ("Have yourself a cold beer - we'll do the metal!") Back on the sweaty indoor stage, Misery Index played to their horde of followers with a punishing set of political deathgrind. Having to decide between the last few songs by veteran Christ-hating discordant death metallers Immolation and the beginning of giddy Swedish cartoon grinders Birdflesh was like my own personal Sophie's Choice, except way more brutal. I caught the majority of both sets and neither let me down. However, Florida's Atheist disappointed with their jazzy progressive death metal sounding even more dated and cheesy than their Gnostic side project and fellow old-schoolers Brutal Truth's set was marred by a poor sound mix and sloppy performance. Pig Destroyer destroyed whenever they weren't squandering their short set time by having their new "band member" press buttons that triggered long, pointless samples between minute-long songs. The one-two punch of the grandfathers of grind Napalm Death and the this-is-why-death-metal-rules pummeling of Bolt Thrower left the whole crowd with sore necks and satisfied grins on their faces. I took a breather outside while Phobia blasted inside and came in to catch medical monstrosities General Surgery perform gory musical operations and somehow manage to keep me banging my head despite my entire body begging for sleep. It was a tough decision to skip Wolves in the Throne Room's 12:40 AM set but we needed to rest up for the next day, so we did. I hope to catch them on tour in the future since both of my companions assured me they are a righteous live act.

    As I woke up Sunday morning, I could not believe I had another whole day of this. After our wonderful hosts made us pancakes (thanks Martin and Katy!), we slammed some Red Bull and dragged our weary bodies back to Sonar just in time for a lackluster several opening hours. Complete Failure were the exception, playing a nice tight set of passionate, experimental grind. Agenda of Swine were competent but generic, The Endless Blockade tried to be provocative with lots of noise but failed, Lair of the Minotaur and Magrudergrind were fine but whatever. "Fine" doesn't cut it. After the non-stop excellence of Saturday evening, bands needed to be pretty exceptional to get me excited on Sunday. Kill the Client stepped up to the plate and finally gave me something to get enthusiastic about - their intense frontman leapt off the stage and screamed his head off from the pit while the band was flawless and blistering onstage. Splitter was like Rotten Sound Junior - they were definitely solid and if they would have played Friday afternoon when I had lots of energy, I'm sure I would have loved them. The Red Chord are always a blast live, and their technical prowess and cavernous breakdowns got me all worked up. I watched a few songs of Despise You but left after they tried to play the same thirty second song three times but repeatedly screwed it up and couldn't get to the end. Inexcusable! Shame on you, Despise You! Amateurs. Yakuza, Catheter, and Absu were all uninspiring in different ways, but a major highlight of the weekend arrived as experimental black metallists Krallice hypnotized me with their unconventional harmonies and epic song structures. As Abscess was playing some gory old school death metal outside, experimental Polish grinders Antigama (whose name I discovered I had been mispronouncing for years - it's an-tee-GAM-ah, not an-TIG-ah-ma) were blowing minds inside with some of the most creative and out-there drumming and unpredictable songs of any band of the weekend. Lots of people were outside and missed out on a truly stellar performance. Aura Noir thrashed old-school and made me wish the schedule didn't have any conflicting sets so I could have seen more of them. Trap Them was another highlight of a very back-loaded day, playing a hybrid of grind and passionate hardcore that really got the crowd into a frenzy. Australia's blackened death warriors Deströyer 666 played furious battle-ready hymns of anger and indignation and I'm sure their set pleased the guy I saw with their big, bold logo tattooed across his chest as well as all the other death metal fans in the house. Sunday's main stage headliner Pestilence canceled due to visa issues, so Bolt Thrower played a second set indoors to their diehard fans. We took a break and walked to 7-Eleven for Slurpees. We got back in time for Texas brutallists Devourment's brand of dumbed-down slam death, which somehow managed to be amazing. Listening to their music is like playing with those oversized Lego blocks for preschoolers but their crowd-pleasing brutality suprisingly got us all very excited, even eliciting cries of "hip, hip, hooray!" from some slap-happy fans near where I was standing. The final act of the fest was Japanese black-metal funderground saviors Sigh, who played a song that sounded like metal video game music and held my interest until my body hit a brick wall sometime around one in the morning and I had to go sit down.

    As it has been in years past, Maryland Deathfest was an endurance contest, and it sucks to have to fight through pain to watch bands play. When it was all over, I was driving back to the Midwest with a neck sore from headbanging, arms sore from fist-pumping, throat sore from yelling "YEAAAAH!", and a refreshed feeling of camaraderie with all the world's metal fans. We blared grindcore all the way home.
  • review: mastodon in chicago

    2 maj 2009, 14:22

    Thu 30 Apr – Mastodon, Kylesa, Intronaut

    "Fire in the Eye! A Review of Mastodon in Chicago, April 30th, 2009"
    soon to be posted on

    Mastodon has evolved oddly. They began in 2000 as a death metal/hardcore/math hybrid with a healthy Southern rock influence and have since developed into a progressive metal band that has replaced its ample heaviness with psychedelic groove, Ozzy-esque vocals, and fantastical album concepts. Many fans who loved their first album Remission (which still sounds just as killer as it did in 2002, by the way) were put off by the shift since Mastodon's sound was unique and a true breath of fresh air on the metal scene. Their sophomore album, Leviathan, was a totally worthy successor, combining the pure riff power of the first album with an overarching concept, a few clean vocals here and there, and their first ten-minute-plus song, the amazing "Hearts Alive." 2006's Blood Mountain is beloved by many, myself not included. Its attempt at "progressive" just ended up sounding like random unrelated parts smushed together and its goofy concept was a sad departure from the effectiveness of their early lyrics.

    Which brings us to this year's Crack the Skye. In a lot of ways, it makes sense as the next step in the band's development. It has the fewest songs of any of their albums, the longest average song length, the least growling, the most clean singing, the fewest holy-fuck-this-is-so-metal moments, and a concept possibly even more nutso than their last. Why, then, is it so much better than Blood Mountain? Mastodon is on tour right now playing the album in its entirety, so I was hoping that would be illuminated last night.

    First, though, there were a couple opening acts. After paying twenty-five dollars to park in a lady's garage since the Metro in Chicago is located oh-so-conveniently three blocks from Wrigley Field and there was a Cubs game starting at the same time the doors opened to the show, I arrived a few minutes before Intronaut hit the stage. They're much more on the metal side of progressive metal than Mastodon is, and their futuristic vibe propelled by the outstanding drumming of ex-Uphill Battle drummer Danny Walker hit the audience hard. After a frustratingly lengthy gear setup, Kylesa took the stage with their melodic, double-drumming Southern psych-metal, and they were so good that I forgave them for the forty-minute downtime. The rest of the sold-out crowd was right there with me, too: after yelling and booing when the band continued to dick around onstage in front of their already set up gear, we could not help but cheer the righteous sludge of the Savannah, Georgia five-piece.

    It had been a while since I'd seen Mastodon live. I discovered them right as I was getting into metal and saw them an average of twice a year between 2001 and 2005. After that, nothing. I showed up to a show in spring 2007 but they canceled due to an illness of singer/guitarist Brent Hinds, probably related to his getting his skull cracked open in a fight earlier that year. So the last time I saw them, Blood Mountain hadn't come out, they were still on an indie label, and Brent didn't have any face tattoos. I was excited that they were playing the whole new album because I'd heard the songs from the first two albums performed many times and wanted a taste of what nowadays-Mastodon sounds like live. They walked on stage and without speaking a word, immediately launched into "Oblivion," the first track off Crack the Skye. My first impression of that song when I'd heard the recorded version was confusion and maybe even a bit of betrayal - it's melodic rock without much metal in it at all. But after listening to it more and hearing it live, I forgave them, because it works. That was my impression of the album in general, and that's what separates it from Blood Mountain - yeah, it's different, but this time they got it right. They then played the rest of the new album, and the crowd went predictably apeshit. The songs are heavier live, and even the two ten-minute-plus songs kept everyone's attention.

    A guy standing near me turned my way during "Quintessence" and made a face that clearly implied "I cannot believe how amazing this is." I gave him the same face, and we exchanged a couple comments between songs about how great everything was. They played in front of a huge video screen displaying digitally weirdified clips from old movies about Czarist Russia, swirling stars, and other mood-enhancing images. Crack the Skye soared. After a brief break, they came back and peformed another forty five minutes (!) of older material, making the set dangerously close to two hours. The handful of tunes from Blood Mountain did not really sway my opinion of that album (though "Crystal Skull" is admittedly one of the best songs they've ever done) and the Leviathan stuff is still brutal. And even though I'd come to the show to hear new stuff, I still shed a single tear when they only played one song from Remission. The crowd was getting totally worn out when bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders said they had one more song. I think everyone was expecting the fan favorite (and recent Guitar Hero playable track) "Blood and Thunder," so when they launched into the fourteen-minute "Hearts Alive," I was both excited because that song is great and a little disappointed because it was late and I was tired and the thought of that much more show was exhausting. But you know what? It was excellent, and now, twelve hours later, I don't regret driving two hours, paying the same price I paid for the ticket to park, and dealing with Cubs fans in order to see the show. Mastodon has always ruled, even with their minor missteps, and they probably always will.

    The setlist, for completists only:
    "The Czar"
    "Ghost of Karelia"
    "Crack the Skye"
    "The Last Baron"
    "Colony of Birchmen"
    "The Wolf Is Loose"
    "Crystal Skull"
    "Capillarian Crest"
    "Iron Tusk"
    "March of the Fire Ants"
    "Hearts Alive"
  • review: meshuggah and cynic in milwaukee

    18 feb 2009, 01:52

    Sat 14 Feb – Meshuggah, Cynic, The Faceless

    Meshuggah’s style is totally singular, instantly recognizable. These Swedes have been doing variations on a theme for almost twenty years now — counterintuitive, blocky riffs mirrored by drummer Tomas Haake’s ridiculous footwork, his hands playing much simpler beats framing the whole thing. And, of course, Jens Kidman harshly yelling sci-fi lyrics about pineal gland optics and the exquisite machinery of torture. Meshuggah stopped at the Rave for a traditional Valentine’s Day celebration - a big room full of dudes dressed in black listening to loud progressive metal.

    I’ve been a fan of theirs for probably ten years now and hadn’t seen them live, and I was very curious how a crowd would “dance” to their music. It’s so strangely metered that headbanging seemed unlikely, so maybe people would just stand still? Bang their heads at random intervals? Turns out their live sound is totally pulverizing, and the basic meter kept (usually) by the cymbals was solid enough for a healthy amount of spirited rhythmic jerking among the masses. The song “Bleed” from last year’s excellent ObZen was beefy and relentless, and it got one of the best crowd responses of the night. They played a few tracks from one of their slower, more experimental albums, Nothing, and the aptly-titled “Straws Pulled at Random” added a bit of groove to the mix. The highlight was closer “Future Breed Machine,” the opening track to their classic album Destroy Erase Improve, with its mechanical alarm intro leading into insanity, awkward robotic shuffle, spacey melodic break, and insanity again, in that order. We went nuts.

    The show was opened by technical death metal upstarts The Faceless, who, judging from the t-shirts in the crowd, drew a lot of younger fans to the show. They played a solid but not outstanding set full of blasts, Necrophagist-inspired sweeping neo-classical solos, and an occasional bass tapping break. Reunited new-age-metal (really) band Cynic was in the middle of the bill, and apart from a few technical difficulties, played an outstanding set of their unique style. They drew mostly from their recent album Traced in Air, a bizarre but enticing combination of old-school Death riffage, accomplished drumming, and AutoTuned (really) melodic vocals that actually sound awesome. They also played a few tracks from their only other album, the revered Focus from 1993, which still sounded fresh and got an enthusiastic response.
  • review: alex chilton in milwaukee

    10 dec 2008, 03:02

    Sun 7 Dec – Alex Chilton, Grant Hart

    My introduction to the music of Alex Chilton was by way of his Scottish disciples, Teenage Fanclub. Pretty much every review of their work names Chilton's '70s band Big Star as the blueprint for every note Fanclub has ever played, so I sought out the influential Memphis power-pop band and their wonderfully jangly, satisfying albums #1 Record and Radio City. Chilton, who co-led the band with Chris Bell, had seen previous success with the blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops. That was all 35 or more years ago, though, and I'm not familiar with his solo material, so I wasn't sure what to expect from his live show.

    The opener was Grant Hart, formerly the drummer and co-songwriter of Hüsker Dü, now a solo artist. He performed without a band, using just his voice and guitar to play strong and heartfelt songs that all stayed a little rough around the edges, a slight reminder of his punk heritage. His voice went from a Dylan mumble to a post-punk bellow, depending on what the song needed. The set felt informal and a little sloppy, but his audience interaction and dirty guitar tunes kept everyone's attention.

    Chilton's set can best be described as simply "rock 'n roll," with emphasis on the "'n roll," that distinction so frequently dropped when describing music made after, I dunno, the reign of the Beatles. He clearly adores rock 'n roll, and he crafted his set accordingly. Chilton has a few decades of original songs to choose from, so his song selection was surprising - about half the tunes were cover songs. Some of the cover choices were from the Les Paul and Chet Atkins school of jazzy solos over intricate, classic chord progressions, others were more rockabilly (a rollicking, faithful version of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" as well as Adriano Celentano's "Il Ribelle" sung in Italian) or soul (a long-forgotten Stax Records single called "Claim to Fame") or even disco (an unexpected and wonderful version of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You.") He prefaced the Jackson cover by saying that crowds have either loved or hated it, but everyone at Turner Hall seemed to be firmly in the former camp.

    Chilton was backed by a utilitarian bass and drum rhythm section who played their parts dutifully and didn't try to show off, always submitting to the star of the show and following his cues. I have one gripe about the band – neither the bassist nor the drummer performed any backing vocals, so the gorgeous harmonies from many of the Chilton originals as well as the covers were sadly absent. Despite that, Big Star classics like "In the Street" and "When My Baby's Beside Me" still chimed across the room and the Box Tops' hit single "The Letter" retained all the charm of its original version, with Chilton showing no sign of being bored of singing the same tune for the last forty years. Chilton's voice has barely aged at all, occasionally bringing to mind My Aim Is True-era Elvis Costello.

    I find it odd that Chilton is sort of a cult hero, since this was the kind of show that I believe anyone (and possibly their parents as well) could enjoy. The performances were lively and accomplished and both Hart and Chilton charmed the audience. I just hope he plays a few more of his own songs next time.
  • review: yes in milwaukee

    30 nov 2008, 15:18

    Sat 29 Nov – Yes

    My friends give me a hard time when I go to see old bands. When I mentioned I was going to see Yes, I got the same response from them as when I went to see Steely Dan, the Zombies, Cheap Trick, and Rush in the last few years: "How old are those guys?" I think that question is kind of irrelevant – I belong to the school of thought that gives aging artists the benefit of the doubt. A once-great band always has the potential to be great again. At the very least, seeing them perform their great material with fervor can be just as satisfying as if they were a young band.

    That said, I was still a little nervous that I would hate this show. I haven't heard any Yes albums that were recorded in the last thirty years (full disclosure: Close to the Edge is the only album of theirs that I've given my full attention.) To add to my apprehension, this tour is not your standard Yes tour because it's their first tour since 1981 without original vocalist Jon Anderson – and they hired a guy from a Canadian Yes cover band to take his place, Rock Star-style. So, with trepidation, I took my seat at the Riverside and waited for the lights to dim.

    Yes took the stage to a grandiose symphonic backing track and launched into the memorable opening riff from "Siberian Khatru," and my disquiet began to subside. The new singer, Benoît David, sounded startlingly like Jon Anderson circa '72 and clearly loved and respected the band's canon. Guitarist Steve Howe killed it all night, playing real pretty when he needed to and tearing a hole in the sky when the songs called for something with sharper edges. They also played the other two multi-part suites from Close to the Edge album, which was great for me since I was worried I wouldn't recognize any of their material. But even the songs I hadn't heard from albums like Drama and Time and a Word sounded great and kept my attention.

    The near-capacity crowd predictably skewed older than most concerts I attend and they were seated for the majority of the two-hour show. However, during particularly righteous or epic passages, many fans leapt from their seats and cheered with uncontrollable enthusiasm. The band was spirited, the fans were spirited, and the Cinemascope soundscapes floated grandly through the Riverside.
  • discussion: "blueberry boat" by the fiery furnaces

    16 nov 2008, 16:42

    The Fiery Furnaces
    "Blueberry Boat"

    I think one of the reasons I love "Blueberry Boat" so much is its density. Each song has complexities, and especially the longer, more substantial songs ("Quay Cur," "Blueberry Boat," "Chris Michaels," "Mason City," and "Chief Inspector…") have so much to discover that each listen reveals new things I missed: little synth gurgles that I never really thought about, bizarre tempo changes, and even little jokes here and there (especially in "My Dog…"). The lyrics are somewhat puzzling, but they can be really clever and occasionally pretty poignant as well. I know most of the words on the album but I only really "get" the full meaning of a few of the songs - the title track, "1917," "Spaniolated," "Wolf Notes." That's about it. Anyway, this is going to be long, because I have listened to this album probably 50 times and I have a lot to say about it. I apologize if reading it is tedious. I had a lot of free time at work today.

    1. "Quay Cur" - I can barely believe the cajones of the Friedbergers, putting this massive, maze-like song first on the album. Starting with that long drum-machine intro, going into Eleanor's slightly pitch-shifted vocals (so slight that I didn't notice for a long time), and then the really pretty lullaby part towards the end, there's just so much to digest in this song. And I really have no idea what it's about, it just has a similar travelogue feel to some of their other longer songs. Matt's melodic sensibilities really shine in the last couple minutes of this song. I really wish he would split the vocal duties more evenly with Eleanor on the other albums like he does on this one. He has a really charming voice that I find very sympathetic.

    2. "Straight Street" - It says something about this band and this album when this track comes across as fairly straightforward. There are no really jarring musical changes in the song, but the lyrics are really out-there, with Eleanor doing her fast-talking thing that she really embraces later on the "Widow City" album. A strong track, but not a standout. I also don't know what this song is about, but it seems to be about a cell-phone representative in Damascus who is dealing with a rival cell-phone company accusing her of using pig by-products in their phones. What? Exactly.

    3. "Blueberry Boat" - A classic. I think this song is Eleanor's best vocal in the entire Fiery Furnaces catalog. It really suits her voice, and the story about a ship captain refusing to give in to the vicious pirates is a nice little allegory about standing up for what you believe in, but it stays pretty whimsical. And the way the lyrics develop the mood of the crew on the boat - "Pontoon put-put with the tape on ten / Dixie Cup pink wine in the Labor Day sunshine." I think it's a really beautiful way to describe it. The music is as unpredictable on this song as it gets for them. Kitchen-sink style. This band is just so unpredictable, they create these bizarre song structures that flop between the different parts in such strange ways. And at the end when the pirates throw her into the ocean and the motif gets all wonky, it's like the equivalent of a muted trumpet going "Wahh-wahh" and the narrator looking into the camera and shrugging comically. I also love the following lines: "Down below deck, sip the south island sec, think when last put in port, I was sorting the sort. And then a girl caught my eye as she was waving goodbye. 'Tell me, my dear,' I said, warm and sincere, 'Who d'you know on this ship?' n'then she curled up her lip. 'I don't know no one there yet, but just wait - see what you get.'"

    4. "Chris Michaels" - Ah, the song that really hooked me onto this album. Musically, they're channelling the Who's shorter epics, like "A Quick One," but again with the impenetrable lyrics. The lyrics are baffling in another way this time, like a slice of life from some gossiping teenagers followed by a crazy trip around the world by way of identity theft. This one also has lots of good Matt-Eleanor vocal interplay. I'm sure this and some of the other lyrically similar songs (namely "Mason City") all fit together in Matt Friedberger's head, but I don't think he gave us all the puzzle pieces. The "My baby's got a stick stuck out her beak" part kills me every time. Lyrically, of course I have no idea what's going on, but the tune of that part is dynamite. And then the switch into "remember that girl down the end / she was my friend" is so drastic, yet delightful. Then before you know it, you're bumping into people, stealing credit cards, and writing in "Chris Michaels."

    5. "Paw Paw Tree" - This is probably the weakest song on the album for me. It takes a while to get moving and when it does it's still kind of boring.

    6. "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found" - Almost every lyric in this song is jokey. I think it's a pretty charming song, but to me it's a minor entry into their canon. I think now is a good time to mention Matt Friedberger's ridiculous guitar solo technique - he has basically one guitar phrase that he just moves around and bends and picks wildly. I'm really glad he doesn't overuse guitar solos because I think it would get old reeeeally fast. In moderation, though, it's kind of fun.

    7. "Mason City" - This is another wonderful head-scratcher of a song. Check out about 3:11 in this song, when they start the drum beat of the next part four bars early, so it overlaps with the Eleanor part quite disruptively, but then it all makes sense when the next part starts. Sort of, at least. This song and the next one blur together in my head since they're both long songs with tons of different parts toward the end of the album, and I have no idea what either of them is about. More ridiculous guitar soloing in this song.

    8. "Chief Inspector Blancheflower" - A very strong song, one of my favorites. The intro Matt-as-a-kid-with-ADD part is very memorable and works well. The low mumbling transitioning into Eleanor's part at 3:05 ("So I joined the police force!") is another goosebump-inducing moment for me, though I'm not totally sure why. "And after that rustic imposition, I took a deposition. I shared a woodpecker cider with a local fratricider." The latter part of the song with Matt playing both roles in an argument between two brothers about a girl ("I started seeing Jenny." "My Jenny?!") is so incredibly charming and really sucks me in every time I listen to it. The chords and melody of the confrontation between the older brother and Jenny are also very Who-esque. I think the ending of this song has Matt's best guitar solo on the album, even though it does use much of that same technique he loves so much.

    9. "Spaniolated" - Who knew a song about getting kidnapped and sold into slavery could be so pretty? This song shows how they can take a shorter story to make just as compelling a piece. The line "He put me in the hole of his old rusty crawler / And fed me three pills each day to keep me from getting taller" is possibly the creepiest line ever, but Eleanor delivers it in such in such a clever, nonchalant way.

    10. "1917" - I didn't get into this song right away since the whole first half of it is pretty obtuse. I read somewhere that Matt's mumbling about old baseball players, and apparently the song is about the 1917 World Series, which the White Sox (the Friedbergers' baseball team of choice) won before going on a World Series drought until 2005 or something (they hadn't won another 'til after the album was released). And then the later part is the big payoff, with Eleanor singing "So I ask Dad, why can't we ever win, ever win once?" over that beautiful chord progression, framing the baseball thing as a you-can't-always-get-what-you-want sort of basic human tragedy.

    11. "Birdie Brain" - I lump this one together with "My Dog…" since it doesn't really seem to carry much weight but is still enjoyable. Eleanor's main melody in this song is really weird.

    12. "Turning Round" - This one's short but still great. I think the melody for the first 40 seconds could be a great base for a normal song, but they choose to instead have the song lightly build for the rest of the running time before just fizzling. It's kind of bittersweet.

    13. "Wolf Notes" - "Pick up your trumpet, your plastic pretend trumpet. Blow me a horn today. Pick up your tambourine, your Fischer Price My First Tambourine. Jingle and jangle today. Pick up your keyboard, your Symphonic Sound Samba Samsung. Pick out a tune today. Turn off your radio. Shut away your stereo. Put away your Discman. And play me a tune today!" It's a song about the joys of playing music, the frustration of not being good at it, the emotion you feel watching someone who is really good at it. The outro of this song is beautiful as well.

    So there you have it. My thoughts on "Blueberry Boat." Feel free to comment if you want to.
  • review: yeasayer in milwaukee

    2 nov 2008, 14:25

    Wed 29 Oct – Yeasayer, Chairlift

    Yeasayer with Chairlift
    Turner Hall Ballroom, 10/29/2008

    The press likes to make a big deal about Yeasayer's world music influences, but I think that's a pretty odd aspect to highlight from this exciting, diverse band. Apart from some pre-recorded parts that the drummer triggered from a sampler, Yeasayer sticks to the standard rock band instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards when they play live. And their songs are strong enough that they shouldn't need to be sold with some sort of high-concept band gimmick. This is not a band you can describe in one sentence.

    Chairlift opened the show at Turner Hall with their vintage electro-pop, dripping with retro synthesizers and canned beats. Their set had a song or two to appeal to every character in a banal '80s teen movie - the moody goth alone in her room, the puppy-lovesick couple slowdancing at prom, the friends taking a joyride around the suburbs. The band's single "Bruises," which was featured in an iPod commercial earlier this year, is their only infectious song, a lone crispy cracker sinking in the thick cheese fondue.

    A more drastic turn I cannot imagine, as Yeasayer took the stage and added much needed energy to the night. Surrounded onstage by two dozen glowing, color-shifting orbs, their performances made the songs sound heavier and more epic than on record, and their drummer upped the ante at every possible opportunity. "No Need to Worry" had a vigorous backbeat added to its chorus that made the quiet-loud transition that much more spirited. They played a majority of their excellent album All Hour Cymbals and a handful of new songs as well, which ride their esoteric style to new, but not entirely unfamiliar territory; that is, the new tracks are great and they still sound like Yeasayer.

    Their sound has elements of classic '70s progressive rock, a little modern dance-punk in the vocals, some beautiful woodsy harmonies, the occasional glitchy electronic noise, and yeah, I guess there are a few Middle-Eastern inspired melodies thrown in there as well. Yeasayer is riding the hype train right now, but they truly are a talented band with an original vision and I hope they're not forgotten when the next round of indie sensations breaks out, because I'm sure there's a killer sophomore album just around the corner.
  • review: deerhoof in milwaukee

    16 okt 2008, 21:13

    Wed 15 Oct – Deerhoof, Au, Experimental Dental School

    Deerhoof, Experimental Dental School, Au
    Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee WI, 10/15/2008

    For me, Deerhoof is one of the two most exciting, unpredictable, and reliably genius musical acts of the 2000s. (The other is, of course, my beloved Fiery Furnaces.) I'd never seen them before and they announced a show at Turner Hall, so I jumped on the chance and bought a ticket way in advance, knowing I'd probably go by myself, which I did.

    The first opening act was a band called Au, a two-piece from Portland, Oregon. The lineup was one guy who played keyboards, lap steel guitar, and sang, and a drummer who occasionally sang and also ran around, clapped, played glockenspiel, and rang bells. And, like Deerhoof, they were totally unpredictable, very musically accomplished, and seemed to be very enthusiastic about the music they make. I mean that in a good way - the two guys were always smiling at each other, totally in tune to the tiny mistakes and improvisations the other was making. But the music sounded nothing at all like Deerhoof. The first song, "All My Friends," was like a piano ballad b-side to the Liars album Drum's Not Dead, and that song's thematic counterpart, "Are Animals," was more like alien circus music. Sometimes it was very rhythmically driving, other times all atmosphere and falsetto. I found these guys to be extremely appealing and visionary. I bought their latest album Verbs and, though it has a fuller lineup than just the two guys who were onstage last night, it captures the same feel and I'm pretty sure I'm going to be obsessed with it.

    The second opening act was called Experimental Dental School, which is probably the greatest band name I've ever heard in my life. They were another Portland-based two-piece, coincidentally or not, but they had a completely different sound from Au. The band was made up of a female drummer/vocalist and a male guitarist/vocalist who played herky-jerky grooves that definitely sounded inspired by Deerhoof, but less accomplished and with less charm and personality. They had a more solid beat, less meandering than Deerhoof, but I wasn't as into them as I was with either of the other bands of the evening. I think in a tiny, crowded room, getting pounded by the sound, this would be pretty effective, but in a big ballroom with truly unique, virtuoso bands on either side of you, the sloppiness showed and they didn't really stand out that much.

    Seeing Deerhoof perform really showed me a different aspect of their vision. On record, they're extremely meticulous, with lots of studio tricks and left-field noises complementing and disrupting their pointy avant-pop compositions. The goofy lyrics and bouts of whimsy seem planned, and make you wonder if there's a joke that you're supposed to get. On stage, they appear to be two things: totally goofy weirdos and joyfully exuberant about the music they make, smiling, dancing, and rocking out harder than I would've ever expected. They sort of go together, this lack of self-consciousness, embracing your songs and your role as "rock star" with songs that will never have arena appeal. But nonetheless, set closer "+81" had the crowd jumping up and down and singing along to the chorus of "Toot too-too-toot, beep beep!"

    And the musicians who make up Deerhoof (a drummer, two guitarists, and a bassist/vocalist) are themselves a spectacle worth disassembling. The guitarists, first of all, tore it the fuck up. They played like they shared a brain, complementing each other's playing and splitting the technically impressive parts almost totally equally, all while grinning, jumping, and dancing the whole time. The drummer was a maniac, a musical loose cannon varying from the recorded performances a lot and occasionally dropping and raising the dynamics at will, all on his absolutely tiny drum set (kick, snare, and two cymbals). There was an element of free improvisation to his performance, but it was controlled enough to keep the band from spiraling into any ill-advised jazz odysseys - they stuck to the songs, but you never know how they're going to sound. The bassist/vocalist/tamborinist was holding it all together. She nailed all her noodly, rhythmically complex basslines and sang the lyrics in her distinctive way, while joining the guitarists in lots of dancing and rocking. The performance was a great balance of being exciting/surprising and totally solid.

    So I went to the show by myself, but the set change times were short, and I got to see one of my favorite bands play songs from a whole bunch of their albums and an opening act that impressed the hell out of me and made me an instant fan. What is there to complain about?
  • review: fleet foxes in milwaukee

    12 okt 2008, 17:12

    Fri 10 Oct – Fleet Foxes, Frank Fairfield

    Autumn is really the only time of year when I'd be excited to see Fleet Foxes live. Their self-titled debut record was released to much acclaim in June, but these are definitely not the sounds of summer. Just like Dungen sounds way better in the spring, Missy Elliott sounds perfect in the summertime, and PJ Harvey's album White Chalk is amazing on frigid winter nights, Fleet Foxes have the certified soundtrack of fall 2008.

    The sold-out show at Pabst Theater was opened by Frank Fairfield, a purveyor of authentic backwoods folk music who sounded like he'd stepped off a time machine from 1930. Switching between fiddle, banjo and guitar, Fairfield and his warbling, incomprehensible lyrics engaged about half of the audience and baffled the other.

    Fleet Foxes received a hero's welcome from the enthusiastic crowd, and after an a Capella introduction, the began their leisurely paced set with album opener "Sun It Rises." The five-piece band created a full, majestic sound, with front man Robin Pecknold belting pastoral lyrics accompanied by gorgeous harmonies from three of his band mates. Their songs largely eschew modern sounds, instead of drawing solely from melodic folk-rock legends of the '60s and '70s. It was refreshing to hear the crowd embrace something other than the flavor of the week; Fleet Foxes are an earnest band playing soaring pieces like "Your Protector" and the warmly received single "White Winter Hymnal." The middle section of "He Doesn't Know Why" had an undeniable power, as Pecknold sang "There's nothing I can say/There's nothing I can do" over a strong beat that sounded positively mighty with the volume and dynamics of a live show. It's hard to tell if their throwback sound is a deliberate reaction against modern artists trying to strike gold with a shiny novel style and no real songwriting ability, or if Fleet Foxes simply write all their songs in a log cabin because that's just their scene.

    The epic power of the songs occasionally summoned bands like Mogwai or Sigur Ros, but the aesthetic was still rooted in Neil Young (the Crazy Horse years) with occasional vocal inspiration from the Beach Boys. The band's sound was bigger, grander and more affecting than on record, and judging by the new song they played during the encore, they are getting even better. A band this accomplished with only one album is a rare thing, and they show tremendous promise.

    * also posted at *