These days, increasingly disinterested in the standard dudes-with-guitars-and-girl-problems music model, it’s shows like last Saturday’s at Death By Audio that really stand out for me. Not because everything there was amazing, but because everything there was at least unique in some way, offering something new. The sets (all kept short, and with little wait between) varied from noise to free jazz, to a semi-rock that pulled heavily from both. And, in a key selection that I’d like to see attempted more often, there was even a theater piece.
I’ve been seeing this sort of thing more often lately, from the likes of Skint, who opened for No Age the week before at Market Hotel, and the longer-running performance pieces of the Lexie Mountain Boys, to the Deerhoof tour opened by the Leg and Pants Dance Theater a few years back. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that these sorts of selections can be absurd and self-indulgent art-school exercises, and yet, considering the static nature of all too many rock shows, I’m inclined to accept the occasional theater selection purely on the basis of its being something different. People seem more likely to disregard artificial genre boundaries these days, so why not go further and start shedding the larger boundaries between artistic fields while we’re at it? And so we got Dome Theater, presenting unique, one-time piece about the end of the world (and cabbage). It was a pretty basic production, and seemed to take a certain amount of glee in its more overwrought aspects (fog machine, doomy intonations), but it was entertaining and different, and how can anyone really complain about this stuff? These guys turn up at Williamsburg jazz bar Zebulon a lot, and seem worth another look.
But Dome was actually the second act. The first was electronics tinkerer MV Carbon (unrelated, incidentally to MV and EE), who created rich drones and static hisses from a bank of dials, some kind of stringed instrument I’m not familiar with (like a hollowed-out cello, almost) and her own voice, manipulated through some kind of large reel-to-reel-tape-like device. By deftly brushing her fingers along the turning wheels of the machine to slow or stop their motion, MV was able to skip, stutter, and warp her sounds, and by a uniquely mechanical means. A conversation with one of the other attendees summed it up: “Noise is the easiest music to make badly, but very tricky to do well.” How true.
Swords and Sandals is a project of John Dwyer of the Coachwhips and the Oh Sees, who it turns out, has solid jazz credentials besides those of punk and lo-fi folk. Dwyer played drums and flute, while three saxophonists, include Sam Hillmer of Zs, blurted and skronked along, two at a time. The set was very short, the shortest besides the Dome Theatre bit, but then, it was also a free jazz set, and in the context of a “rock” show, perhaps the brevity was wise. There was clear talent on display, and they managed got out without overstaying their welcome, perhaps leaving audience members with a desire to seek more of this sort of thing out in the future.
Dan Friel, co-founder of anthemic noise-punks Parts & Labor and Cardboard Records, was headlining the show, his first solo performance in quite some time. His style is heavily reflected in the signature Parts & Labor sound: many of his solo works go on to be full-band tracks, and as the keyboardist, many of the overt jolts of electronic melodic glitch are his. Predictably then, his solo performance was bright and vivid and noisy, melodies chaotically careening but hard to shake from your head after they go by. Uniquely from the usual P&L sounds, however, Friel was joined for the entire performance by very talented Karen Waltuch on viola. A veteran of assorted New York jazz ensembles and the last Wilco album, Waltuch’s notes fit surprisingly well into Friel’s sound, sometimes doubling his lead melodies, and sometimes offering counterpoint or noisy texture. Through the use of a modest but effective set of pedals, Waltuch was able to distort and muddy her sound a bit, which went a long way towards her seeming a natural extension of Friel’s usual arrangements. This all bodes well for the future, as the pair had apparently only practiced together once the night before (the advantage, I suppose, of working with such trained musicians) and certainly they’ll only get better at this by next time. Friel also commented that he’d like to expand on this new string section in the future.
The night ended with a “bonus” inclusion, Excepter’s John Fell Ryan, playing an unreasonably huge bank of machinery. It was an amazing example of technological overkill. For all the equipment he’d brought, he was basically just mumbling over repetitive drum machine noise. Whether that’s irritating or hilarious or impressive is all in the interpretation. For my part, I ducked out early.