Thursday, March 6, 2014

Live Show Review: St. Vincent - 3/1/14

St. Vincent
Date:  March 1, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

Last year St. Vincent, real name Annie Clark, was presented with a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Performing Arts.  The fact that a high brow institution primarily known for housing and showing priceless art and artifacts took a shine to St. Vincent is telling.  There's a sense that St. Vincent is to be observed and admired from behind glass - regarded from afar as a kind of beautiful curiosity.  Her live show last Saturday at the sold out 9:30 Club did little to dispel that impression.

St. Vincent isn't the sort of artist I typically follow (unapologetically, aggressively "arty"), but I heard she put on a good show and played a mean guitar.  Frankly, I was really digging her new self-titled album St. Vincent, released last Tuesday, and figured this show would be a great detour from the usual.  It certainly was.  Rocking her new blown-out Einstein hairdo, St. Vincent took the stage in high heels and a poofy-sleeved baby doll dress adorned on the front with bright red floral "bunches" that looked, from afar, like a giant bloody wound with guts spilling out.  Get it?

Boasting complex choreography by Annie-B Parson and creative direction by Willo Perron (known for working with Kanye West and Lady Gaga) the roughly ninety-minute show had St. Vincent giving bizarre non-sequitur monologues between songs, dancing like a marionette, running, tumbling, crawling, spilling down a big powder-pink pyramid, and finally collapsing to the ground violently, presumably "dead," after a manic strobe-light enhanced freakout for final song "Krokodil."  Cut the lights!  Minutes later St. Vincent returned to the stage for a three song encore dressed entirely in black.  Get it now?

I find the notion of "art rock" a little strange, and the very term superfluous.  Isn't the "art" inherent no matter how "dumb" the music might seem?  "Art rock," of which St. Vincent has been classified, seems to specialize in a certain forced intellectualism and clever subtext that divorces "rock" from it's primal roots.  Watching St. Vincent and her band perform their stilted robo-jig to a mostly inert crowd made me think I had time-traveled to a bizarro future where attentive concert-goers forgot just what the hell "rock" was - but heard somewhere that you should definitely whoop and clap politely immediately following a guitar solo.  This was a "rock as art piece" kind of thing - but what did it all mean?

I applaud St. Vincent for dreaming up and executing such an eye-popping show.  Her vocal performance and guitar technique were also top notch.  St. Vincent's anthemic downstroke power-chord rocker "Cheerleader" and a twinkly solo take on "Strange Mercy," from her last album, were fantastic and drew the best crowd reaction.  My favorite performance was "Prince Johnny" - a sublime trip-hop ballad featuring a killer blues guitar solo at the end, from her new LP.  Despite the intimate and arresting nature of St. Vincent's lyrics and music, I still couldn't shake the feeling of contrived detachment between performer and audience.  Like a meticulously staged Smithsonian museum exhibit, maybe the separation was unavoidable - perhaps intentional.  I just hope St. Vincent can tear down that velvet rope barrier next time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Live Show Review: Russian Circles, KEN mode, Inter Arma - 2/18/14

Russian Circles, KEN mode, Inter Arma
Date:  February 18, 2014
Venue:  Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington, DC

Following January's blackened-thrash and viking metal onslaught at the 2,000 capacity Fillmore, a couple weeks back I hit another must-see package tour at the more intimate 350 capacity Rock & Roll Hotel -  Russian Circles with KEN mode and Inter Arma.  The evening served as a reminder of the wide spectrum of style and philosophy that exists in the metal scene.  Whereas populist showmen like Amon Amarth and Skeletonwitch relish in the fabricated drama and spectacle of viking lore and the occult, not shy to remind everyone that it's all in good fun, Russian Circles and their tour-mates are dead serious about this shit - it's about the art, man.

Russian Circles - Brian Cook and Dave Turncrantz (left to right)

Despite all the blog debate, "hipster metal" really is a thing.  Drawing heavily from non-metal genres like post-punk, post-rock, shoe gaze, noise, and indie, while eschewing most of the lyrical and visual ridiculousness of popular metal, these bands rate highly on Pitchfork and attract urbane fans in dapper pea-coats and tortoise shell glasses.  Not one Maiden back-patch in sight.  Don't even try to mosh.  You'll get a stern side eye from that glowering couple who honestly thought a metal show would make a good date night.

Chicago's Russian Circles made my 2013 year-end "honorable mention" list with their fifth album Memorial - an impressive collection of epic Wagnerian instrumentals.  As on the album, their most distinctive live feature is drummer Dave Turncrantz.  Like Buddy Rich soundtracking a horror film, Truncrantz was all over the kit going for broke while his bandmates Brian Cook (on bass) and Mike Sullivan (on guitar) manipulated clusters of electronics and effects pedals, coaxing roaring waves of sound from their instruments.  I wondered how this three-piece would recreate those monolithic album anthems live, and this is how - by bringing the studio to the stage, even if it meant taking lengthy and somewhat deflating breaks to twiddle knobs between songs.

Russian Circles - Dave Turncrantz and Mike Sullivan (left to right)

Openers Inter Arma and KEN mode where far more visceral and engaging by comparison.  Richmond, Virginia's experimental blackened pysch-doom five piece Inter Arma kicked off the evening with a short but furious set with frontman Mike Paparo pacing the stage screaming bloody murder - eyes bulging out, at one point locking gaze with me for a whole verse.  Freaky.

KEN mode - Jesse Matthewson

Not to be outdone, KEN mode, from Winnipeg, Canada, were the highlight of the night - as they were when I caught them last summer opening for Miami doom-pop heroes Torche.  This scuzzy three piece, five critically acclaimed albums deep into their career, do not fuck around.  Their sound is tough as nails and tougher to pin down - leaning boldly into hardcore, post-punk, industrial, noise and progressive rock.  Think Fugazi, Black Flag, Helmet, Prong, or a really pissed off At The Drive-In.

KEN mode - Jesse and Shane Matthewson

Like Russian Circles, KEN mode's secret weapon is their rhythm section.  For the duration of their set drummer Shane Matthewson locked into a serpentine groove with bass player Andrew LaCour - who has a daring tendency to toss his guitar around mid-song like a roadside sign-spinner.  Frontman, and Shane's brother, Jesse Matthewson played six-string (sometimes doubling up on bass with LaCour to deepen the rumble) and barked into his mic while in a perpetual gorilla stance, rocking back and forth, glaring at the front row like a psychopath about to pounce.

Suffice it to say, KEN mode are beyond solid and easily the most thrilling band on this tour.  With a brutal energy and youthful fire that belies their veteran status as decade-plus road warriors, it's a crime these guys aren't headlining more tours.  Maybe their unique combo of angular art-rock and ferocious metal is just too weird, if not too frightening, for most - but it was certainly fun seeing KEN mode stir up the small crowd, provoking some appropriate moshing by some to the displeasure of the chin strokers.