Posts Tagged ‘Velvet Lounge’

Vialka: French avant-folk-prog in DC

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Vialka 9

Vialka, a French husband-and-wife duo of drums and baritone guitar, played at the Velvet Lounge on Tuesday night. I previewed the show at Black Plastic Bag, complete with plenty of hype and one wildly inaccurate comparison (no, these guys do not sound anything like Ruins).

The show definitely lived up to my expectations. As I wrote in my preview, the band describe themselves, glibly, as a “turbo folk micro-orchestra,” whatever the hell that means. But what they really are is prog, albeit prog in the Etron Fou sense more than anything else, minus a bit of the dadaism. They played a number of lengthy compositions that flitted whimsically through two to three seemingly unrelated themes, most of them involving tricky but somehow bouncy rhythms, gratuitously sung/screamed/declaimed vocals (all in French), and a hell of a lot of fancy guitar fretwork.

Vialka 6

Vialka combine the manic, stop-start spasticity characteristic of so much proggy avant-rock with a melodic sense that draws straight from Eastern European folk and what I ignorantly categorize in my head as “French music.” There’s a sense of whimsy that’s very un-American going on in their writing, which probably makes them sound ridiculous to some of the more jaded types out there, but gives them a certain irrepressible charm for me.

In concert, all the quirkiness embedded in the compositions came out in the open. I got a chance to chat with both band members - Eric Boros, the guitarist, and Marylise Frecheville, the drummer - before and after the show, and my very enjoyable conversations with them gave no hint of their stage personalities. When the show began, Eric donned a shiny metallic shirt and Marylise a sequined spaghetti strap top and the quirkiness just kept going from there. They danced around a lot - Marylise leapt up from behind her kit to dance in the middle of the crowd on two occasions, and Eric was bouncing around with a huge grin on his face the whole time - but more than that, their personalities just seemed to shine through in the vocals and the sometimes hilariously disjointed rhythms.

The reception was quite good, and they sold a few CDs, always nice to see with a band likely so far outside the experience of your average American concertgoer (even one who frequents the Velvet Lounge). Good times.

Vialka 1

There are a few more photos in the full Flickr set - mostly of Marylise as the lighting was almost nonexistent on Eric.

In which Zs make my brain hurt

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Zs 2

On Tuesday night, I went to the Velvet Lounge to see a pretty great quadruple bill of avant/experimental-minded groups: New York-based Zs, who have been one of my favorite avant-rock groups for a couple years now; DC’s Caution Curves, El Paso’s zeuhl-heads Corima; and DC’s FFFFs.

FFFFs 1

FFFFs opened things up, at a typically (for Velvet Lounge) late hour of around 10pm. This is a solo act of a dude named Sean Peoples (pictured above); when I saw him last year opening for Zs, he played very calm, pretty ambient stuff - which is also what’s found on the one recording I have of his, Tree Epic. This time around, though, things were very different; Sean crouched behind his laptop for his brief set and bombarded the audience with some thumping beats and a much more aggressive brand of electronic music. The ambient stuff is more up my alley, I have to say, but perhaps this more bombastic material was more in line with the bands to come.

Corima 6

Corima were one of the reasons I was excited about the show; any band that lists Magma and Koenjihyakkei as prime influences has my attention. Additionally, I was forwarded an email about them from one of the bands that they had played with earlier on their tour, in which the words “fucking amazing” appeared prominently. And, to be sure, these guys were all fucking amazing musicians. They are a very young trio - drums, keys, and bass - whose music is almost a straight-up homage to the aforementioned zeuhl bands. Seriously, it was like if Ruins or Koenjihyakkei wrote 20-minute-long songs. It was the most bombastic, over-the-top performance I’ve seen since… well, Dream Theater, but let’s not go there.

If that description sounds exhausting, well, that’s what it was. Corima definitely had some awesome, jaw-dropping moments - the lightning-fast, dissonant keyboard solos in particular tickled my aural pleasure centers, and drummer Sergio Sanchez did a pretty credible Yoshida/Vander act - but the compositions were so long and disjointed that they lost me within minutes. They played three pieces and by the end I was fried. Really, really enjoyed parts of the set, and I hope they tighten up their writing - this is a group with pretty huge potential. Did I mention the musicianship was pretty jaw-dropping?

Caution Curves 2

Now, if Corima were wild and exhausting, at least I had all the right reference points to understand what they were trying to do. When The Caution Curves came on, it was immediately clear to me that this wasn’t the case for this band. They are a duo, one member on drums and percussion, the other on laptop and reeds, and both are vocalists. But not vocalists in any traditional sense; rather, their voices were used in a kind of babbling, speaking-in-tongues style, or just to make random noises. The overall feeling was one of total discombobulation. There isn’t much out there these days that makes me think, am I really listening to music or just noise? But this did, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure I enjoyed the set, but it was provocative to say the least.

Day 169: Zs 3

And then it was finally time for the headliners. Zs lost a member recently and are down to a trio of guitar, sax and drums, with the drummer also triggering some electronics that are new since I last saw them. Ben, the guitarist, responded in the affirmative when I asked him if their material had changed substantially as a result, saying, “I think you’ll like it.”

The band ended up playing a single lengthy piece. Zs have always made some of the most bracingly ugly music I’ve ever heard, and that certainly hadn’t changed. The saxophonist spent most of the composition blowing long, extremely high notes, and if there was melody there it was stretched out over such a long period of time that it was imperceptible to me. The piece was fairly slow-moving and deliberate, with thematic and rhythmic changes coming at unpredictable intervals, using generous amounts of repetition as a compositional element. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to digest without having a recording of it and settling in with it for some time - it lacked the visceral thrill of some of the older, fast-paced, Discipline-era-King-Crimson-on-steroids (sorry, that’s overly glib) stuff.

Photographically, it was a nightmare. The Velvet Lounge, while my favorite local venue in terms of the acts that they book, is one of my least favorite places to photograph. The lights are always static and generally dim (and most problematically, the front spotlights are blocked by big speakers mounted from the ceiling). Tonight was worse than it’s ever been, with the lights turned lower than I’ve ever seen them. I probably should have gone back and asked the guy controlling the lights to turn them up a little, but, er, I didn’t. In any case, my resulting settings looked like this: ISO HI 1.0 (6400), f/1.8, 1/40 to 1/80 second. Ouch. Definitely pushing the limits of my D300 there.

Needless to say, these are not my best photos ever, and the noise is distracting in some of them. That’s what I get for liking all this obscure music, I suppose; it’s not like I’m ever likely to get the chance to shoot Zs with a huge light show or anything. These are the challenges that come with the territory.

Full set at Flickr, of course.

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.

Richard Pinhas doesn’t rock, but he rocks

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Last Thursday, I saw Richard Pinhas at the Velvet Lounge here in DC, a tiny venue into which 40-50 people packed in to see this semi-legend of electronic music. This concert was promoted pretty well, and got coverage in a ton of places around here, from the weekly Washington City Paper to the daily metro paper Washington Post Express to the hipster DCist blog, and the turnout was pretty impressive.

DC’s Insect Factory opened — I saw them opening for Zs a few months back and wasn’t especially impressed, but I really enjoyed the very short set that they played this time around. This is an ambient project involving a guitarist and drummer, whose style is very soothing and mostly consonant. I’ve started coming around to really enjoying ambient music in a live setting (something I never really thought would happen, as when I listen to ambient music on record I almost always listen while doing something else), and Insect Factory was generally pushing the right buttons for me.

After a short break, Pinhas and his laptop sidekick, Jerome Schmidt, took the stage and wordlessly began their set. Their concert would consist of one very long (40+ minute) piece as a duo, and then a much shorter (less than 15 minutes, I’d imagine) piece with Scott Verrastro, the drummer from Insect Factory and the guy for whom we all had to thank for the show happening in the first place. I found this a fascinating show to watch: the nature of this sort of electronic music is it’s often very difficult to match sounds with the musicians’ actions, thanks to all kinds of looping, processing and delaying techniques, to say nothing of Schmidt’s laptop work (I never did figure out exactly what sounds he was contributing, except when there was something obvious like a programmed drum beat or a spoken word voiceover). Occasionally Pinhas would let loose with a blistering “solo,” but more often than not it would be buried intentionally in the mix, with his squalls of electric guitar work merely adding a certain edge to the louder, more amorphous wall of ambient electronic sound. This reminded me a lot of some of his solos on Fossil Culture, the collaboration with Peter Frohmader that, curiously, Pinhas doesn’t seem to think too much of these days (on the contrary, it’s one of my favorite pieces of his work).

The YouTube clip in the previous post is much more indicative of what this show sounded like than anything I could possibly write (especially since I think I lack the vocabulary to describe this sort of music adequately), but the layers and layers of seemingly formless sound, punctuated by the occasional burst of melody, were pretty enticing. I was sitting on the floor in front of the stage for the whole show, and I was surprised at how these two guys held my attention for 40 minutes straight during their first improv. I actually think I like the music in the YouTube clip better than what I saw in person, but it was fun to watch Schmidt and Pinhas interact — most of the time it actually seemed like Pinhas was taking his cues from Schmidt and not the other way around. I had a hard time telling how much of the show was improvised, but I’d guess a fair bit.

Another bonus of the show was that I picked up the 3CD Heldon live set recently put out by the Japanese label Captain Trip. This set consists of two concerts, one from 1975 and one from 1979; I have a bootleg of the 1979 show and it’s just blistering. Haven’t had too much of a chance to listen to this, but I couldn’t resist picking it up, as they were selling it for $30, far less than the $40-$70 (!) I’ve seen it going for online.