Posts Tagged ‘Rock & Roll Hotel’

The Sword at Rock & Roll Hotel… meh

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

(Random note: you wouldn’t know it from this and my previous couple of show reviews — to say nothing of the Progressive Nation tour review I have coming up next week — but I have been seeing music other than metal recently. In fact, this week, I could have gone/could go to a great show every single night except last Sunday — Candlemass on Monday; Pattern is Movement yesterday; my housemate’s ex-housemate’s band tonight; either Adam Caine/Nick Lyons or Twin Earth tomorrow; A Silver Mt. Zion on Friday; Thee Maximalists on Saturday — but unfortunately I will be seeing none of them. I’ll use the time off from showgoing to post an overdue concert review.)

The Sword 4

Last Thursday: Rock and Roll Hotel. The headliners were The Sword, a mildly ridiculous and fairly straightforward stoner-ish metal outfit who sing about things that your average stereotypical nerdilicious prog fan might enjoy. Opening were Philly’s Stinking Lizaveta (also known in prog circles, partly because guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos has appeared with Thee Maximalists, I believe) and show-stealers Torche. The former went on first and played their trademark herky-jerky heavy instrumental prog, complete with weird time signatures and turn-on-a-dime riffing. They pretty much blew the crowd away, which surprised me. Last time I saw them was when they opened for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Black Cat, and I was less than impressed. Their material seemed kind of sterile and contrived (”odd-time riff after odd-time riff,” I said in my review of that show, and little more). It definitely came off better this time, but still, I headed out for a break about halfway through the set and didn’t really feel like I missed all that much.

I’m ashamed to say I’m not familiar at all with Torche’s recorded output, but I knew there was a good chance they would be my favorite band of the night, just based on everything I’ve read about them over the past year or two. I was right. They fucking crushed. How to describe this show? The first half was accessible, heavy but melodic, nice stuff but nothing extraordinary. I suppose when people talk about this band and say things like “stoner pop” or “pop metal,” this is what they mean. It’s a skewed version of pop to be sure, but I dig it. But the second half of the show, they brought the noise. Honestly, I don’t remember much other than the last song, which was extended out to what was probably 10+ minutes but felt like twice that long. Howling feedback and white noise combined with brutal riffing: I was in a happy place. So was this guy:

Day 136: Torche 3

As for The Sword, pictured above… eh. Color me unmoved. Their records are entertaining enough, but for some reason in the live setting (maybe it had to do with followed the brain-frying performance that Torche gave), their songs seemed remarkably unremarkable. Middle-of-the-road, melodic metal, clean vocals, basic chunky riffs. The crowd was loving it; the show was sold out fergodsakes (seriously? a metal show in DC selling out?) and from where I was standing I couldn’t see anyone who wasn’t pumping a fist. But after photographing the first three songs, I quite happily retreated to my car, where Gaza’s I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die awaited me in my CD player. Guess I just like my metal a little more extreme these days.

Photographic notes: the lighting was difficult for this show. Rock & Roll Hotel has some nice backlights above and behind the stage, but for some reason they almost never use the equally nice frontlights that they have. For all three bands I was at ISO 3200, wide open with a 50/1.8, struggling to keep my shutter speeds above 1/80. I really needed faster shutter speeds because all three of these bands were moving around a lot (those damn metal bands, they’re energetic and all). I was right up against the stage, too, with a packed crowd behind me, and the 50mm lens was a little too narrow — really could have used that 17-55 I had a couple weeks ago.

Finally, one unusual thing was that The Sword requested that we (myself, a guy shooting for spin.com one other dude) only shoot the first three songs. There was also a “no flash” sign on the door, making this the first “three songs, no flash” concert in a small, no photo pit venue that I’ve ever done. Thought that was unusual, but wasn’t a problem. My photos of The Sword weren’t great, but I don’t think shooting for more than the first three songs would have gotten me anything much better. The conditions just weren’t ideal for the equipment I had (or my limited talent, I suppose).

Full set is at Flickr. I’ll leave you with a shot of Stinking Lizaveta:

Stinking Lizaveta 3

Great show: Earth & Kayo Dot

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Okay, sorry for the major delays in updates both in the site proper and this blog. I’m going to try something here. In 2008, I’ve been focusing a lot on my photography, and doing a lot of live music photography in particular. I’ve started a photography blog, and will be cross-posting concert reviews, with photography notes, at that blog and this one. So at this blog I’ll continue posting my usual ramblings, as well as concert reviews, but the concert reviews will now include more photographs and a few paragraphs of photo-geek stuff that you can safely skip over if you’re just in it for the music. We’ll see how this works. Not that the photos will usually look better at the photography blog thanks to the black background there. Anyway, here’s my first shot at it — a review of a great show I saw last night, Earth and Kayo Dot. Sunday night metal.

Earth 9

“Metal” is stretching it a bit, but both of the touring bands I saw last night at Rock & Roll Hotel, Earth and Kayo Dot, have their roots in it - the former in their classic drone-metal albums of the early 90s, the latter in their evolution out of avant/prog-metal group Maudlin of the Well. Still, this was about as different from Saturday’s prog-metal (when I saw Symphony X and Epica, review to come) as it could get. Earth plays glacially slow, crushingly loud instrumental music that, were it not for the volume and subtle drone tendencies, could almost be called doomy country & western. Kayo Dot is pretty much uncategorizable, straddling some invisible line between rock and rigorously composed modern classical music. The opener, Stymphalian Birds, was a solo noise/drone act that was surprisingly quite excellent. Needless to say, there was no symphonic metal bombast going on here, no drunken screaming fans, no call-and-response fist-pumping.

Earth was who I’d come for and they did not disappoint. The touring version of this band is a four-piece of guitar, bass, drums, and keys/trombone (trombone very sparingly used on one song only). They played almost exclusively stuff from the new album, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, which was fine by me as I think the album is pretty excellent. Live, their music sounded pretty much identical to the album versions, with one key difference: sheer volume. This stuff, when heard at bone-rattling loudness levels, becomes even more doomy and impactful than on record. Yet it still retains its beauty, with slow, repetitive melodies shining through wonderfully. It was also impressive to watch these guys play so damn slowly - drummer Adrienne Davies (pictured below) especially. I’m sure it takes massive concentration to play these songs, where sometimes there was a full second or even more between individual beats, and they pulled it off easily.

Earth 6

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kayo Dot (sorry Aaron). I always get the feeling that much of their material is going straight over my head - lots of abstractness and subtlety when I am longing for more intensity. Live, they held my attention better than on record, and it was fun to see just how intricately composed some of the pieces are, with all the musicians either reading from their charts or watching bandleader Toby Driver (below) intently for cues. The majority of the set was very quiet and slow-moving, with a few heavier parts intermingled; calling this band “metal” at this point would be a total misnomer. The pleasant surprise was a stunningly lyrical guitar solo from Driver during the last song - not sure what song it was but it was gorgeous. By that point, it seemed like they had already completely lost some of the audience, though - a couple of the guys in the front row next to me looked noticeably impatient with the whole affair.

Kayo Dot 7

Photographically, this was a tough show to get anything exciting, between the mostly static performers and completely static lighting. At least there was enough light (barely), but it was patchy and strongly hued. This weekend, in fact, I had a first: I blew out the blue channel in several of my photos. I’m used to screwing up and blowing out red highlights, but blue is a new one for me. Still managed to get some decent shots, but nothing as dynamic as Saturday night’s show - which, all things considered, is hardly surprising. I shot wide open with my rented 17-55 again (boy was I sad to return it this morning), between 1600 and 3200 ISO, shutter speeds as high as 1/160 to preserve blue/red highlights, as low as 1/40 at times to try to get the performers who were standing deeper in shadow.

The nice thing about shooting at Rock & Roll Hotel is that, except at completely sold-out shows, it’s relatively easy to move around. I mostly shot from right in front of the stage, but during Earth’s set I moved to the side and slightly behind (which I how I got the headline shot of Dylan Carlson haloed by the spotlights up front). No problems like Saturday at Jaxx where I was pinned to one spot and not even in the front row.

One last Earth shot to close out this post… check out the full set at Flickr for more.

Day 125: Earth

Dälek, still killin’ it

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I owe a couple more show recaps: first is Dälek at Rock & Roll Hotel, actually just a day after I saw St. Vincent at the same venue (this was a couple weeks ago and I’m just now getting around to writing it up). This show was predictably great; Dälek live is quite literally a punishing experience, and if you don’t have earplugs at one of their shows you’re doing some serious damage to yourself. This time around they had expanded to a quartet, and as this review of the Philly show amusingly puts it, “Dalek didn’t look like any hip hop band I’ve ever seen - a metalhead bass player, a laptop DJ that look straight out of Death Cab For Cutie, a giant tattooed turntable DJ, and an almost scarily intense MC.” (Oops — the “metalhead” plays guitar, not bass.)

I’ve seen these guys annually for the past three years, and each time they’ve added a member. In 2006, it was just MC dälek and Oktopus, the producer. I believe their turntablist, Still, had just left the group at that point. Last year, they added the guitarist. This year, they added the dude on laptop and keyboard. Incidentally, I don’t remember seeing any laptops at all the last two times I saw them, but this time, Oktopus and the two “new” guys each had their own laptop.

All of this lineup shifting didn’t seem to have much of a discernable effect on their sound as far as I could tell. I mean, with Dälek live, you can basically hear three things: dälek rapping, Oktopus’ beats thumping, and a shitload of howling noise, not necessarily in that order. I guess my ears aren’t quite good enough to figure out exactly what effect the guitarist and laptop guy had on the howling noise. Still, I do have to say that, though this is a statement totally lacking in specifics, these guys sounded good. Noise is at its best when it evokes emotion, and Dälek is masterful at tweaking their sheets of sound to get the emotional response they’re looking for.

I was happy with this set as it included some great stuff from Absence (”Culture For Dollars” was totally mindblowing) as well as the expected material from Abandoned Language. As with last year, the closing song was “(Subversive Script),” and what a fantastic way to end it was, seeing as how it is home to one of the group’s most lethal beats ever. Also as with last year, I was left wishing their set had been much, much longer. Oh well.

As for the other groups: I left before Russian Circles came on, which was my loss because I understand they are awesome. I didn’t much care for Young Widows, who were billed as “noise-rock” but pretty much just sounded like indie-rock with a lot of noise on top, which is really not the same thing. I saw that they recently got signed to Temporary Residence, a label I generally respect, so perhaps I’ll have to give them another chance sometime. For more useful takes on these two bands, check out this review.

And, of course, there are photos…

St. Vincent live: absolutely awesome

Friday, February 29th, 2008

On Tuesday, I saw St. Vincent, an indie-pop group headed up by charismatic frontwoman Annie Clark, who has done stints with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. Clark is a tremendous lyricist, vocalist and guitarist, and also has a penchant for great arrangements. St. Vincent’s music is a kind of melodic indie-pop that’s beautifully orchestrated and a bit off in left field a bit in terms of arrangements, song structures and so on. Their debut album, Marry Me, was a minor hit last year, so I was expecting a decent crowd. Still, her music is just enough out there that I wasn’t expecting a totally packed house, but that’s what it was. And it didn’t take me long to find out why.

As good as Marry Me is, it’s got nothing on this group’s live show. Live, these songs sound considerably different; most obviously, the band frequently tacked on noodling instrumental intros, but also there was just a lot more guitar in general. Turns out Clark is a hell of a guitarist, and her somewhat unpredictable style was pretty fun to watch and listen to — kind of a scorched-earth electric spazz-out but always with melody just around the corner. In particular, “Your Lips Are Red” featured some blistering instrumental work that just isn’t there on the studio version, and a new arrangement of “Paris Is Burning” was a simmering beast of a pop song that exploded into delicious cacophony more than once.

But the quieter, less abstruse (hi Ben) pieces fared just as well too. Chalk this up to Clark’s natural charisma as a vocalist — songs that I found just kind of middling on record became somehow beautiful live, especially with a crowd as rapt as this one was. Suffice to say, I came away impressed and a bigger fan than I was before.

This being the indie scene, there are a bunch of nice reviews of this show up in various places:
Black Plastic Bag
Counting Stars On the Ceiling
Baltimore Sun
Washington Post
Club D

Amusingly, two of these reviews mention the small army of amateur photographers at work at this show; naturally, I was one of them. (In fact I’m probably the one referenced in the Baltimore Sun review, as my unassuming, trusty little 50/1.8 lens is exactly the kind of thing that would inspire the photographically unaware to say something like “get a better lens.”) I’ve never been at a show with so many other people taking photos; it was a little disconcerting. I’m happy to report that of the ones I’ve seen show up online, my own are my favorite. Which is not really all that important to anyone but me, but at least it makes me feel a little less redundant.

Om: WOW

Friday, November 16th, 2007

At first, I thought the pairing of post-rockers Grails with stoner-metal gurus Om was a weird concert double-bill, but as soon as I showed up at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday night and the former began their set, it became clear that this was in fact quite an inspired pairing. Both of these bands take a fundamentally rock style and add to it distinct Eastern influences — in Grails, it’s the acoustic guitar scales; in Om, the overwhelming Eastern mysticism that dominates their lyrics and overall approach.

I’ve never been blown away by Grails — with every one of their albums, including the new Burning Off Impurities, I feel like there are some really great moments, but they are separated by long stretches where nothing is really going on. Seeing them live only reinforced this impression, although the great moments were pretty freakin’ great. Unfortunately, the acoustic guitar parts kind of got drowned out in the louder sections, especially with their drummer pounding madly away (too loud). One of the band members was wearing an Ash Ra Tempel t-shirt, and I felt at their best this band evoked a kind of meditative mood that reminded me of classic Krautrocky ambience.

Om’s live performance also reinforced my impression of them based on their recordings. This band’s albums are meditative, heavily repetitive, stripped-down stoner metal, just bass, drums and vocals that are chanted more than they are sung. Somehow they manage to be mystical in a neo-hippie kind of way while simultaneously being heavy as fuck. Live, they pulled off this unlikely marriage of stylistic elements impeccably. Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros is one intense-looking dude, staring into space the entire show as if he was being chased by demons no one else could see; and drummer Chris Hakius was all over the place, the driving force of the duo much of the time, weaving and bobbing his entire body even during the passages where his playing was mostly minimal.

They played four songs, I think, which lasted for over an hour. The clear highlight was an absolutely transcendent rendition of “At Giza,” my favorite piece of theirs, from Conference of the Birds (a brief excerpt of this song is on their Myspace page). The majority of this song is quiet and meditative, although in concert Cisneros’ bass was crushingly loud even in the softer sections. When the climax hits, Cisneros kicks in the distortion and Hakius starts bashing, the effect is unbelievable. The closing to this rendition of the song was just as awesome: the volume dwindled gradually, and Hakius ended the song by slowly reducing the volume of his drumming, tapping his cymbals delicately long after Cisneros had stopped playing, as the entire crowd listened in total, enraptured silence. When it ended I felt compelling to jump up and down screaming my brains out. That doesn’t happen very often.

They ended with “Bhima’s Theme” off the new Pilgrimage, but sadly this was ruined by excessive volume levels. On record, the middle section of this song is incredibly slow and quiet, just Cisneros’ bass playing quietly as he chants his mystic lyrics without accompaniment. Live, the bass was way too loud, killing the near-stillness that the quiet section evokes on record. Still, when the loud section kicked back in — distortion cranked and Hakius beating out a killer rhythm — the effect was awesome. I can only imagine how powerful this would have been if the quiet section had been properly quiet.

I was pleasantly surprised at how many folks showed up for this show. The crowd was pretty thin for Grails, but it seemed like the club, which fits 400 people in a pinch, was almost full for Om. Who knew that stoner metal had such an audience in DC?

Dälek @ Rock & Roll Hotel

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

I saw Dälek last night at Rock & Roll Hotel, a nice venue in an old DC neighborhood that one guy is singlehandedly trying to revitalize (he has acquired no less than eight liquor licenses — including Rock & Roll Hotel — in a three-block radius!). As I found out when I saw them last year with Isis and Zombi, this noisy hip-hop duo has an angry stage presence and a punishingly loud live sound. I came prepared with my trusty Etymotic earplugs, and boy am I glad I didn’t leave them at home. I can’t imagine how the folks without earplugs survived without their brains being completely pulped. Even though Dälek’s new album Abandoned Language is far less aggressively noisy than their last masterpiece, Absence, in a live setting the dynamics are so much wider and the group really exploits maximum volume to the fullest. They’ve added a guitarist of all things since I last saw them, although mostly he was just strumming his strings as hard as he could in order to generate a lot of white noise.

This was a pretty good show, all in all. Dälek the MC’s vocals are still a little recessed in the mix, which is intentional but means he’s a bit hard to understand underneath all the howling noise. But witnessing the way that the group played with dynamics, going from contemplative soundscapes to teeth-rattling beats and back again, was a pretty powerful experience. The only thing that disappointed me was that they played a short set, I think just playing Abandoned Language straight through (the closer “Subversive Script” was a serious highlight) and nothing else. I really wanted to hear some stuff from Absence, but no such luck.