Posts Tagged ‘Alarm Will Sound’

My favorite shows of 2007

Monday, December 31st, 2007

Well, so this was my year in shows.

If you count NEARfest as two concerts (which seems fair, since it was two days and I saw five shows), then I hit my goal of seeing 52 shows in 2007. There were tons more I wanted to see, but between playing a competitive sport, spending many spring and fall weekends backpacking, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, it was particularly difficult for me to make weekend shows this year. So all in all I think I did pretty well. Here are some of the highlights — I’m just putting these in chronological order, and not necessarily limiting myself to 10 or anything like that.

  • Atomic at Twins Jazz, February 8 (blog entry) — What a great surprise! This quintet plays a very accessible brand of free jazz; it’s really fun to hear Paal Nilssen-Love in particular playing a more straight-ahead style. Twins Jazz was packed with about 80 people who gave Atomic an ecstatic reception. Fantastic, high-energy jazz, a great way to kick off the year.
  • The Vandermark 5 at Jammin’ Java, February 16, $12 (blog entry) — Actually this was along the same lines as Atomic: great, explosive energy jazz, also very accessible (I even took three friends to this show). They were a hundred times better than when I saw them in 2006; Fred Lonberg-Holm went from being an interesting addition to a core part of the group’s sound, pushing them further and further “out.” The crowd was kind of lame but the band nevertheless played two very hot sets.
  • Zs at The Hosiery, February 26, $5 (blog entry) — This show cemented Zs as one of my favorite current avant-rock groups; before, I liked them a lot, but seeing them live really made their brilliance unmistakably clear. The image of four musicians staring intently at each other and their sheet music, while cranking out some of the loudest and most intricate (yet still aggressively rocking) sound imaginable, is permanently burned into my brain.
  • Dälek at Rock and Roll Hotel, March 2, $10 (blog entry) — Speaking of loud… Dälek on record is an intense experience, but Dälek live is something else altogether. This was my second time seeing them, and if anything they were better than the first, if a little less overtly in-your-face.
  • Do Make Say Think at The Black Cat, April 1, $10 (blog entry) — The best rock show I saw all year. DMST played a transcendently beautiful set, and I don’t use those words lightly. I love their take on post-rock, which involves a cacophony of instruments making coherent noise, often with one single instrument (an acoustic guitar, or most often electric violin) rising to the surface with a gorgeous, straightforward melody. One of the most purely joyous concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
  • Brötzmann/Pliakas/Wertmüller at The Red Room (Baltimore), April 13, $12 (blog entry) — A legendary free-jazz skronker teamed up with an extreme metal rhythm section? Yeah, this was probably the most unrelentingly intense show I’ve ever seen. Once I managed to figure out how to parse it, though, I found it enthralling, especially Wertmüller’s drumming, which alone could have given me nightmares if I’d been having a bad day.
  • The Dismemberment Plan at The Black Cat, April 28, $15 (blog entry) — DC’s biggest phenomenon since Fugazi reuniting for two shows, four years after their breakup, guaranteed a crazy event, something bigger than just a mere concert. Sure enough, this was something to behold, especially since the band was, bizarrely, at their peak, better than they ever were when they were actually together. I saw better concerts in 2007, I think, but maybe none as memorable.
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at The Black Cat, June 5, $12 (blog entry) — The third time was the charm: the first two times I saw SGM I was actually kind of underwhelmed for some reason, but this time they really brought their A game. Maybe it was just my newfound familiarity with the In Glorious Times material, but it just seemed like the band had really mastered their peculiar meshing of theatricality, creepy beauty, and crushing heaviness.
  • Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress, October 30, free (blog entry) — A very intellectual concert that I also found quite viscerally effective, which is a good combination indeed. This 20-piece ensemble played a series of pieces chosen specifically for their rhythmic complexity, and they pulled it off with gusto. There were some avant-rock type moments here, but the real fun was seeing them play live renditions of a couple IDM songs, music that was never meant to be played by humans.
  • Om at Rock and Roll Hotel, November 13, $10 (blog entry) — I guess I must just like really, really intense concerts. This one had it all: incredible feats of tension-building, wonderfully effective individual performances, high-wire drama, and above all, a sense of spiritual searching of the sort that I like to think listeners must have experienced at late-60s Coltrane shows.

Honorable mentions go to Magma, Richard Pinhas, Wilco, Aussie Floyd, Nelly Furtado, Epica, Cowboy Junkies, and Dhafer Youssef, all really great shows but perhaps a tiny step down from the above. The most disappointing show I saw was probably John McLaughlin, but then again I think I just don’t like fusion very much, so maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Isis and Mastodon were also pretty terrible, the former being particularly disappointing as I saw them put on a great show in 2006.

I’m not sure I’m going to try quite as hard to see every concert I possibly can in 2008, for financial reasons if nothing else — but 2006 and 2007 definitely have awakened a certain passion for live music in me that I don’t think is just going to go away. I’ve already started making a list of interesting 2008 shows

Alarm Will Sound @ the Library of Congress

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Although I still have other shows to write about, I wanted to put some words down about the concert I saw tonight (Tuesday night), Alarm Will Sound at the Library of Congress. This was the best show I’ve seen since the spring — I really haven’t seen a show since then that’s had me smiling gleefully in the midst of it, but this one had exactly that effect on me.

Alarm Will Sound is a large ensemble of about 18-20 mostly quite young musicians, playing mostly classical instrumentation (a couple violins, viola, cello, bass, various winds, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano etc) but with a few notable exceptions. I think they made it onto my radar because I heard about the album of Aphex Twin interpretations they did a couple years ago. In any case, their repertoire now is something they’re calling “a/rhythmia,” in which they play a bunch of pieces that are all based on a steady pulse, but that fuck with them either by layering additional rhythms on top or simply by messing around incessantly with said steady pulse. I’m a pretty beat-based music listener (with the exception of the various ambient musics I’ve started getting into fairly recently), and as a fan of prog and RIO, in which unusual rhythms are the norm, this was a pretty ideal program for me.

Of the pieces they played — interpretations of everything from 20th century Western classical music to rock to electronica to early music (pre-1500) — my absolute favorite was something called “Yo Shakespeare” by Michael Gordon. For this piece, the ensemble shifted around their instrumentation considerably, ditching some of the acoustic instruments for three Fender Rhodes and two electric guitars, in addition to an assortment of acoustic strings and horns. The music was a loud, polyrhythmic, dissonant cacophony that sounded to me like it could have been a direct influence on Zs, that insanely awesome avant-rock band that rocks out like crazy while focusing on intricate charts the whole time. Imagine Zs‘ material fleshed out for an ensemble of 20, with many of the resulting possibilities for increased complexity and poly-everything explored to the fullest, and you get some idea of what this piece was like. My feet kept tapping out some of the rhythms in this one for at least 20 minutes after the piece was over.

Another highlight was a composition by Harrison Birtwistle called “Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum,” a disorienting slice of postwar classical experimentation that reminded me a lot of (and I’m probably showing my total lack of knowledge when it comes to this kind of thing) Penderecki’s more chaotic stuff, in effect if not really in sound. The group also played several pieces by Conlon Nancarrow that I found really appealing — each of these compositions started off with very simple jazz or blues-inspired melodies and basically layered them on top of each other, with the melody played simultaneously by mini-ensembles playing in several different meters. These pieces were some of the the most immediately comprehensible, and accessibly beautiful, examples of complex polyrhythm that I’ve heard.

Then there were the electronica pieces. A low-key piece by Aphex Twin based on a simple bass drum beat was given life by the performers constantly shifting position, first throughout the concert hall as they meandered down the aisles while playing, and then on the stage. And a manic piece by Mochipet, “Dessert Search for Techno Baklava” (clearly a play on Mr. Bungle’s “Desert Search for Techno Allah”), was fun to watch just to see these musicians tackling a composition not meant to be played by humans; their speed and dexterity was impressive, although the song appeared to my ears at least to lack the some of complexity of the rest of the program. But maybe that’s just because it was all flying by too fast for me to hear.

Finally there was a cover of a song by The Shaggs. If you don’t know it, their story is worth reading. For the purposes of this entry, though, all you need to know is that they were called “the most horrible rock band in the world” by the New York Times, which probably isn’t too far off the mark if you’re concerned with things like conventional ideas about instrumental talent, compositional chops, the ability to sing and play in tune, etc. But here’s what the text of the concert program said:

“…the rhythmic complexity of the other arrangement of commercial music, Philosophy of the World by The Shaggs, may not be the result of intelligence… The drummer seems to be flailing, the vocals and guitar are completely out of tune, and all three are never in time with one another… It is not clear whether the complexity of their music is accidental or deliberate.

One of the guys in Alarm Will Sound apparently decided to take the Shaggs’ complexity seriously, and the ensemble’s cover of “Philosophy of the World” was actually pretty great, taking the original song’s hilariously inept drumming (they played a recording of the original first) and turning it into an asset, an insanely shifting meter that formed the basis for other rhythmic shenanigans in which the rest of the ensemble indulged.

What a pleasant surprise this was. It’s like I unwittingly stumbled into a “Classical In Opposition” concert. I expected stuff like the Ligeti and even the Birtwistle, but the overt rhythms and complex beats in the other pieces was what really sold it for me. Really great fun. Sounds like the ensemble are releasing some pieces from this repertoire on a forthcoming CD, which I’ll definitely be looking into.

UPDATE: some good reviews of this concert from IonArts and the Washington Post.