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Archive for September, 2007

Plastic People of the Universe: still got it

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Last night I had the chance to see The Plastic People of the Universe, which was great because I missed them here two years ago when they were guests at the Czech embassy. I’m not all that familiar with these guys — I have Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and Muz bez uší, the album of their earliest live recordings. I’m not very well-acquainted with the latter, but I think pretty highly of Egon Bondy. Regardless, given that the bandleader Milan Hlavsa passed away in 2001, I really had no idea what to expect from this incarnation of the band.

What I was treated to was a melodic, accessible brand of sorta-avant-rock — still a little out there and experimental, but not enough to scare off anyone even moderately familiar with dissonant music, and nowhere near as edgy as their early stuff, at least the stuff I’m familiar with. There were tons of catchy themes, bouncy rhythms and melodic guitar solos; the most out-there stuff were the vocals (mostly chanted or spoken), the sometimes weird keyboard harmonies, and the occasional white-hot sax solos. I was a little surprised at how prominent a role the guitarist was given; he’s a very good player but many of his solos were a little too straightforward for my taste. The sax solos were more up my alley, soulful and searching; and the highlight of the entire set was definitely a rendition of “Apocalyptic Bird” from Egon Bondy, which dispensed with the annoying keyboard squalls present at the beginning and end of the studio version, but faithfully rendered the funky beat and blistering sax work.

This was a really fun show; if not the most compelling one I’ve seen this year, it was great to see these guys looking so hale and hearty and having a great time. Also nice to see that they were able to draw a crowd of probably over 100 folks (and interestingly enough, I think more than half of the audience was female). I might have to pick up some more of their material at some point.

Exploding Stars at 1am

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

The last (first) of the three concerts was Exploding Star Orchestra, whom I saw at Velvet Lounge on Thursday the 13th as part of DC’s Sonic Circuits festival. This is a festival of experimental music, mostly of the noisy electronic improv variety as far as I can tell. Certainly the five (!!) groups that played supporting sets at this show were along those lines: making a shitload of noise with the occasional rhythm and the even scarcer melody. The one exception was the last guy, who played some ironic rawk mixed in with more avant-garde stuff; I could have liked this stuff, but by that time wasn’t really in the mood for anything but the band I’d come to see, so I sat it out. Overall, this was not really my bag at all, especially since they all invariably played way, way, way too loud.

Exploding Star Orchestra, on the other hand, were refreshingly good. The actual band is a 12-piece jazz group headed by Chicago trumpeter Rob Mazurek, who have released a single album thus far, interestingly enough on Thrill Jockey — a label better known for indie and post-rock. On this tour, the band was down to a five-piece (trumpet, sax, vibes, bass, drums IIRC), but still managed to create a very full sound not far from the album. They played both of the big suites from the album, which came off extremely well; while I find the record a little soporific at times, the aggressive, repetitive beats were much more energizing in concert and they held my attention the whole way through. Still, the best thing they did was a new piece, which was quiet, introspective and absolutely beautiful. They didn’t tell us what it was called, but hopefully it’ll surface on a new album at some point — it was easily the best thing I’ve heard from this crew.

I didn’t get home until almost 2am because of the five opening sets (the first of which didn’t start until after 10pm), but it was almost worth it thanks to the Exploding Star set. I think I was just a bit starved for some live jazz, too, not having seen any since early June.

Circle’s NWOFHM @ DC9

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Been to several shows since I last posted to the blog. I’ll talk about them in reverse chronological order, in separate posts. This past Thursday, I saw Circle, the Finnish psych/metal/whatever group, at DC9, a little club here in DC that usually caters more to the local indie-rock and dance scenes (ie, there’s a reason I’ve never been there before this show). It was kind of a surreal experience. I’m not all that familiar with this band’s work, having only heard Tower before the concert, and that is, from what I understand, a pretty non-representative sample, consisting as it does mostly of lots of electric piano and having a very relaxed, nearly ambient feel overall.

Anyway, the band is a four-piece of guitar, bass, drums and keys, with the keyboardist and bassist doing their fair share of singing. The keyboardist was fully decked out with all the (in Steve F’s words) rock star accoutrements, including studded belt, bracers, and some kind of suspenders, and was one of the most bizarre frontmen I’ve ever seen, between his strident vocals and his unconventional dancing (through one of their more metallish, fast-paced songs, he spent the entire song essentially sprinting in place). The music was more along the lines of what I’ve heard about these guys than Tower — a meshing of hard rock, metal, and ambience, all served up with a heaping portion of repetition. There were a few songs that did absolutely nothing for me and a few that I thought were totally brilliant. Often the band seemed to fall into a kind of formula, bouncing a bit predictably between ambient textures and heavy riffing, but when the combination really worked, they were awesome.

All in all, I was sold enough to want to buy a couple albums. Steve had given Andexelt his highest recommendation, but sadly they weren’t selling it, so I came away with Tulikoira and the second Pharaoh Overlord album (the latter band is a spinoff project headed by the Circle guitarist but featuring most of the rest of the band as well). Tulikoira seems like a pretty representative album of the band’s heavier sound, but while I like it well enough, I really like the Pharaoh Overlord album — it’s got the ambient, almost trancey feel of Tower, but uses ominous riffs instead of relaxing electric piano. It’s almost like a kinder, gentler, much more melodic drone/doom metal, with the addition of lots of acoustic guitar for texture.

I enjoyed the Circle show quite a bit, but it also illustrated to me how bad I am at going into a show without knowing much about the band. I almost never enjoy those shows as much as I should, merely because I’m not familiar with the music beforehand. Hopefully these guys will tour again soon, after I’ve had a chance to digest some more of their stuff.

Do Make Say Think and the danger of high expectations

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

This past Monday, I saw my second Do Make Say Think show of the year. The first one was one of the best concerts I’ve seen all year, and their new album, You, You’re a History In Rust, is one of my favorite new records of the year. So needless to say, I was going in with pretty high expectations. Not surprisingly given those sky-high expectations, I was a little bit disappointed.

This time around, despite having exactly the same eight-piece band (I’ve heard that at shows closer to their home base of Montreal, they sometimes play with as many as 12 instrumentalists onstage), they seemed a little sloppy, which especially came through in the new songs with vocals. The singing is pretty rough on the album, but in a charming sort of way; at this show, it was downright bad. Also, they played a lot of older songs that are less compositionally rigorous than the new stuff, and instead focus on establishing a groove or a jazzy rhythm and riding it into the ground. I like that stuff well enough — it has a kind of trancelike effect on me after a while — but it just isn’t quite as compelling as the more song-oriented new material.

The world was set aright, though, after the encore, which consisted of beautiful renditions of three of the best songs from the new album: the gorgeous, acoustically centered “A Tender History in Rust,” the powerful and energetic “The Universe!” and the satisfying denouement “In Mind.” The latter is a perfect example of how Do Make Say Think craft gorgeous melodies and then mess with them just enough to keep you off-balance, but not quite enough to keep you from enjoying the songsmanship (I just made up a word). It starts off beautifully but quickly becomes cacophonous, at first retaining the central melody and even building on it with ecstatic vocals, but then gradually just turning into glorious noise. It’s a fabulous way to close the album and an even better way to end a concert.

So although the bulk of the concert was a little disappointing, the encore made it all worth it. I went with three friends who enjoyed the hell out of the show, and it’s good to see the appeal of this band growing (I’d guess there were 300+ people there that night). Best of all, they seem to be really hard workers, touring incessantly, so hopefully there will be some new material coming sooner than later!

Epica @ Jaxx: unashamedly bombastic

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

I haven’t seen any live music since Richard Pinhas way back in July, so last night I decided to go to a show at Jaxx — a bunch of female-fronted gothic metal bands, headlined by Epica. Circumstances had me arriving late at the venue, two hours after the appointed showtime, but the first opening band was still on. I caught two or three songs of their set, both of which were entirely forgettable. After a surprisingly short changeover time, Visions of Atlantis took the stage and played a 45-minute set. This is an Austrian group on their first U.S. tour (although their singer is American as far as I can tell); they just released an album, Trinity, from which almost all of their set was drawn. It was okay; I found myself enjoying it at first but I was definitely ready for it to be over when they finished. Their singer did a lot of your typical metal stage moves (fist-pumping and the like), but also broke out some hip gyrations that wouldn’t have been out of place at a pop concert. That was weird. Female vocals on top of metal riffing I can handle. Booty dancing (even if briefly) to said riffs is something entirely different.

Epica came on and, right off the bat, played a couple songs from their own just-released new album, The Divine Conspiracy. I downloaded this album from eMusic a little while ago and it was basically the sole reason I decided to show up at this concert. Previously I had heard Consign to Oblivion and never really thought much of it, but this new one I liked. It’s much heavier than most other female-fronted gothic metal out there, with lots of blast beats and an intriguing male vocal style that flits between death-metal growls and black-metal shrieks. It’s also insanely bombastic, boasting both metal’s grandiose cinematic tendencies and prog’s symphonic pretensions.

Live, they came off pretty similarly to the way they do on record. They were great performers and vocalist Simone Simons is a striking frontwoman. Also, the male vocals were impressive — the guy really does go from low-end growls to upper-register shrieks without even batting an eye. Seriously, his facial expressions stayed almost completely blank whenever he sang, which was really bizarre when he was screaming like a banshee. Set-wise, I had hoped that more of their performance would be drawn from the new album, as they played a fair amount of the old stuff that didn’t hold my attention quite as much. Additionally, it does seem like a lot of their songs are a few minutes longer than they need to be, with many of them going through numerous instrumental sections that seem a little redundant.

My favorite parts of Epica’s set were the heavier black metal-influenced sections. This was a reminder that while this gothic metal stuff is nice and all, its totally unashamed bombast making it a great “guilty pleasure,” what I really like is the heavy shit. I enjoyed this show, but in the end it mostly made me really excited for the upcoming Enslaved show at the same venue.

ProgDay in the news

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

A Triangle area, NC paper had a really nice writeup of last weekend’s ProgDay yesterday — figured I’d share it as it’s one of the very few mainstream articles on prog that completely avoids poking fun of the scene in any way. Either the writer is a fan or he demonstrates admirable restraint. Hell, if I wrote that article, there’d be more poking. For one thing, the writer calls prog “a stable stone in the rushing river of mainstream trends,” which is sort of ironic given the much-maligned “progressive” nomenclature. I probably couldn’t resist making that dig, at least.

A couple DC-related things

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

Ionarts, easily the best DC-area classical music blog out there, has a fantastic preview of the fall 2007 concert season. Among the concerts of interest for folks like me are Kronos Quartet (this Friday; sadly I’ll be out of town), Alarm Will Sound, and The Rite of Spring arranged for two pianos. Of course, none of this excites me nearly as much as the concert that Iva Bittová will be playing next year with the Takács Quartet at the Library of Congress

The second thing is a neat little retrospective at Black Plastic Bag about Melody Records, a long-running independent CD store here in the District. Melody Records has always been my local store of choice, even though there’s a smaller, more hipster-friendly place that opened a year or two ago (Crooked Beat). They have a phenomenal world music section that doesn’t especially interest me, but also a good rock section and a small but excellent jazz section — my initial adventures into the worlds of Cryptogramophone Records, Tim Berne and Cecil Taylor all happened thanks to this record store.

I buy most of my music online, and download a fair share as well from eMusic, so I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t been to Melody Records for a while (many months now). But this little retrospective has inspired me to go back sooner than later. I should probably avoid bringing my credit card though.