Thursday, February 23, 2006

Talks for Hours and Still Tomorrow

Greetings and salutations.

Technically, there should be no Phantom this week. I had to head out of town at the last possible minute to handle those “personal affairs” people always babble about, and so I ended up having NO time to check anything out. Worse still, I got to spend the majority of the time riding in my car, researching the theory that the bad spots in my cellular network line up perfectly with crappy radio coverage. Fear not, though. I'll be back next week with an all-new review. Many of you have emailed me with some interesting questions, so I'll be getting to those also. Thanks for reading, and keep those messages coming. Until next we meet...

- The Phantom

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Keep You Warm In Your Kingdoms

Greetings and salutations.

Whatever kind of weekend you had, I assure you: mine was worse. Not because anything bad happened, but because nothing good happened. Not one freakin’ thing. No highlights. No small miracles. No tiny pieces of joy. I sat in my house for two days watching it snow, with nothing but Pop Tarts to eat and basic cable’s handy rotation of Keanu Reeves movies to watch. And let me tell you, it was every bit as fun as it sounds.

It wasn’t like I didn’t try to make the best of it. I rather enjoy toasted pastries, and at least it wasn’t “Point Break.” I thought about shoveling my sidewalk, but I live in Roanoke, where the DMV has a special street tag for riding lawn mowers with snowplows. By 8am Saturday morning, every joker with a John Deere on my block had pushed and re-pushed the snow down the street until my neighbor thought it would be funny to clear his driveway by moving the 4ft drift into mine.

Fortunately, I did manage to get out prior to the snowfall to check out the Discordian Society and Madrone at the Coffee Pot on Thursday night. It’s worth noting that Fire at Will actually headlined the show, but I called it a night before then.

Having never seen or heard either band live, I was at first turned off by the Discordian Society’s sound. Not for lack of musicianship, but just my natural dislike of jam bands. Believing that musicians have no idea where they’re going always gets to me, sort of like watching a movie where you know something humiliating is going to happen and you tense up in embarrassment for the character. I wait for a painfully wrong note, sloppy passage, or missed time cue, and after a time of listening to someone fiddle around without going anywhere, my nerves overtake me and I lose all interest. Within the first few minutes of the band’s opening song, I could already tell I wasn’t going to like it.

In fact, anyone who wouldn’t like their music probably dislikes it in the first five minutes for similar reasons. Some folks just don’t enjoy the randomness. But as I listened, it started to click. Things weren’t nearly as accidental as they first appeared. Instead, I began to find a method in the madness and as soon as it dawned on me that all this chaos was totally intentional, I realized the scope of the band’s musical prowess. What seemed like an acid-tripped mix of funk, ska, rock, and punk, was punctuated by the smooth rhythm changes, precise starts and stops, and tight harmonies that some bands couldn’t do with all the practice in the world.

Led by a bass-playing cross between Les Claypool and Frank Zappa, the sound was groove-heavy and remained danceable even as the guitarist and pianist strung together a woodshed’s worth of crazy licks and seemingly unrelated note patterns. They seemed aware of the fact that their vocal work was fairly forgettable, at one point observing that “if this song had words, they’d go right here.” Indeed, words seemed fairly pointless to the overall thing, but were there anyway in an occasion or two where the band channeled a barbershop quartet, just to prove that they could.

For all the conventions the Discordian Society endeavored to avoid, Madrone seemed to revel in them, frantically switching gears between late 80’s thrash and modern power chord strums. While the bass and drums play up the formulaic sound of on-again/off-again “machine gun” rhythms, it is the singer’s guitar that paints the picture. In a layout that is otherwise very by-the-book, the melodies are catchy and fairly unique, helping make the other guitarists’ senseless speed picking bearable and letting the band find their signature, which resides in a most unusual place – the softer side.

Whereas 90% of the harder bands around town get lost when the pace slows, Madrone shines – brightly. As they drop the noise level, the beats become more intricate and the bass begins to sway hypnotically. For most acts, playing the decelerated part in a song means strumming the same 4 chords they’ve been playing, just without all the distortion. The guitars I heard went in a different direction, abruptly taking the shape of early Zeppelin with the airy quality of U2. The vocals, which previously sounded like strained emo whining, are given real emotion through clarity and calmer delivery. This is the strength of Madrone, drawing on the rock/alt metal energy of bands like Tool or the Deftones, but happily avoiding the forgetability that comes with the straight-ahead hardcore that their heavier sections might imply.

Both bands stand on the strength of their originality, giving the Roanoke audience some clever alternatives to the typical weekend entertainment. The casual listener will gravitate toward Madrone’s more identifiable radio-rock packaging, while the Discordian Society is a must for any passionate music enthusiast. Madrone shows the most potential for growth, especially if they embrace and enhance the strength they’ve shown in their subtlety. Discordian Society are more complete in terms of their overall sound, but I’m certain things are only going to get progressively more intense as they strive towards their goal of complete musical insanity.

That’s enough out of me for one week. I’ve got wrap this up and still have enough time to grab the garden hose and ice my neighbor’s driveway before he and his wife get back. See you next time, where maybe I’ll actually review the band who’s show it is.


Thanks for reading, and keep those emails coming. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

And Whosoever Diggeth A Pit

Greetings and salutations.

Some weeks make me glad I don’t set goals for myself. There is a certain tranquility in my own natural laziness; when the slacker in me finds enough energy to tell the taskmaster in me to take a hike. If I thought about it long enough, I’m sure I’d conclude that such behavior is actually a sign of mental illness. Lucky for me, that’s the kind of dangerous thinking my laziness helps me avoid. And with my aimless attitude, came the wandering spirit of adventure that kept me out practically every night last week.

Heading into things, I had some idea of what I wanted to do these past 7 days, but I refused to lock myself in to anything. I’m glad I listened to myself.

Or didn’t listen to myself. Whichever. Mental illness can be confusing.

High on ginseng and life, I found the highlight of my week in the last place I’d have expected: The Club at Fiji Island.

Or under Fiji Island. Whichever.

Let me be perfectly honest about something. The only reason I went out to the Club’s Tuesday Open Mic Night was because I wanted to be alone. I wanted to drink, relax, and not be crowded. By most recent accounts, I expected a sparsely populated bar, maybe a few folks shooting pool, minimal noisy chatter, and a few acoustic numbers of varying quality that I could tune out if I wanted to. While it’s atmosphere is one of mellow sophistication, the Club is hardly the happenin’ place, especially when it comes to live music. A DJ rules the roost on Fridays, usually spinning plates straight off the Q99 playlist. Saturday nights do feature live regional acts of assorted jazz/blues stylings, but it’s rarely something you haven’t heard before.

So imagine my surprise when I got a listen to The Seed. A trio of talented local players, they hit me from out of nowhere. And I liked it. A chewy chunk of jazz bass funk and reggae riddim, they held the pocket behind an original mix of fusion guitar and bluesy, breathy vocals. Their delivery was low-key; no outrageous physicality or crowd-pumping Top 40 renditions. Instead, their performance oozed cool, and clicked with the Club’s own retro vibe, elevating the value of the space between the notes and filling a quiet room with the whispers of forgotten soul. Not bad for some younger cats.

But this isn’t yesterday’s music we’re talking about. The Seed set themselves apart through the infusion of the reggae influence, which plays a major role in the diverse nature of their sound. While the improvisational spirit of jazz exists in the bass, he opts to play more consistent up-tempo lines over the drummer’s island rhythms. Bringing out the funk by accentuating the one drop (reggae’s characteristic hit on the 3rd beat of each measure) and using a more contemporary choice of notes, they create a middle ground between the unpredictability of Monk and universal groove of Marley. It’d almost be blasphemy if it wasn’t so entertaining.

The guitar is soaked in reggae’s up-beat choppiness, but moves the melody along with a choice selection of jazz chord voicings, blues bends, and disco-era wah sounds. It was also less dominant in the overall mix, standing as a contrast against the bass, and focusing most of the listener’s attention towards the beat. The same could be said of the vocals, which spiced up the sound with it’s soul, but existed mostly because people around town can’t sit still long enough to listen to an entirely instrumental band.

The Seed break through the popularity barriers typically associated with their style, and still manage to sacrifice very little in the way of musical integrity. A traditional jazz enthusiast might raise an eyebrow at employing the heavy-handed generality of reggae’s beats, but would also be the first to admit the importance of exploration in new, and ultimately unexpected musical directions. While they’re hardly pioneers in the fusion, The Seed are a welcome alternative for anyone who’s desire for mellower sounds has been soured by the stereotype of annoying hipsters and an overly cerebral approach. You don’t have to be a thumb-snapping coffee house denizen to enjoy what they do, but expect to tap your feet every now and again.

It’ll be interesting to see where The Seed go, especially if their position as the Club’s “house band” pushes them creatively. The frequency with which they play will expose inevitable flaws in their consistency, and it’ll be up to them to stay fresh or risk becoming as stale as the room they’re playing. For now, though, the Club and The Seed appear perfect for each other, once again making it cool…to be cool. I predict there’s an audience hungry for such a thing; for those who know what it means to chill. This means good things for The Seed, good things for the Club, and means I’m probably going to have to find a new place to be alone.

All-new diet music reviews next week; twice the hate, half the fat. Thanks for reading, and keep those emails coming. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Got a Mouth Like an Alligator

Greetings and salutations.

The bad times continue. Writing this article couldn’t be any harder if I was typing with screwdrivers under my fingernails, and yet here we are. Recovering from one of the longest and most difficult weeks of my life, I wanted to throw myself into my work…alas, the computer monitor may have broken a rib when I landed on it. Ever the overachiever, this week’s review of Roanoke’s TK421 (because I’m too lazy to write out the roman numerals) is shined up and ready for your enjoyment…

In what was an otherwise generic Awful Arthur’s Friday night, I watched these guys blow the roof off like it was second nature – and the only reason I’m taking the time out of my depression to tell you about it is because they did it on their own. Yes, they played some pretty good covers (an Awful Arthur’s prerequisite), but that’s not why I’m writing. After all, I’ve an oath to “the brilliant, the gifted, the undiscovered,” not the reasonably popular and financially secure. So why give them the advertising space? Because as a band building their success on originality, they are a benchmark in the scene.

The sound is unmistakably modern rock. Their debut album “Hollow” and their recent follow-up “Disengaged” are ear-friendly slices of the kind of guitar music you’ve heard swimming around on the radio in the last few years. Thick walls of rich distortion fill the void around simplistic stomping rhythms and guttural bass to create catchy textbook anthems. Delectably different about the TK sound is the direction of the vocal melodies, which reach back into the snarl of blues and the passion of soul instead of just occupying the same melodramatic “minor keys are cool” space as their peers. It lends a sense of reality to the lyrics, draws you into the music, and gives distinguishing character to what would otherwise be a reasonably good impression of a successful national act.

From a performance perspective, I was impressed by the energy, the crowd interaction, and the general camaraderie – the difference between playing an instrument and functioning as entertainment. Not afraid of their roots in 80’s metal, they condensed the spectacle of bombastic arena rock into that 3’x6’ stage Arthur’s gives you and reveled in their own absurdity, to the delight of the crowd. Barring a few intoxicated efforts, this wasn’t a dancing night. It was a celebration of the over-the-top glory that made this all so much fun back in ’89. I counted each and every one of the 5 Great Rock Cliché’s:

5.) Drinking Onstage

Most musicians are assumed to drink, but for rock bands, it is completely necessary to advertise that you’re drunk (or on your way to getting drunk) and to make sure you take your shots in full view of the crowd. TK took it a step further with scheduled toasts throughout the performance.

4.) Lead Singer + Makeup
Whether it’s black eyeliner, lipstick, nail polish, or some horrible combination of the three, no show is complete until the lead singer feels pretty. The bass player can probably do with a tad less rouge, though…

3.) Ridiculous guitar tricks
Guitar solos are a self-indulgent staple of the craft. But playing behind your head, playing behind your back, tapping with a shoe, sliding with a beer bottle, making animals noises with your effects pedals, and picking with your teeth…now that’s a lost art…

2.) Essential Posing

For rock musicians, the live show is a ritual that involves many key movements designed to invoke the power of their gods. Drummers must spin sticks, and bass players must hump the air as a means to keep time. Even the easiest song to sing requires painful “from the heart” facial expressions and reaching out to the crowd with one hand as though longing to touch them. Mics have to be swung like whips, and arms must be outstretched to windmill around when strumming a chord on the guitar. You must point to the girl in the front row to make sure she sees you start your solo, and as you do, you must rest your leg against the monitor on the floor. Bending a string requires the eyes to be closed, and high notes cannot be plucked without sucking your lips in like a fish. The gods hath spoken…

1.) The Promise of Bad Behavior
It’s not enough that you get the feeling musicians are up to no good. They must tell you. Not in detail, of course. That wouldn’t be nearly as cool. But teasing the crowd with thin innuendos, vulgar eye contact, and lurid declarations of what might happen at the hotel later are as necessary as the band itself. Musicians aren’t able to talk to regular people for long periods of time without bringing up their music. Talking about how hard you party when you play in between the minutes, hours, and days that you aren’t playing is all they have to fill up the space. TK did not disappoint, and promised enough reckless 18yr old behavior to make you think it was ’89 again. You may know better now, but who cares?

If there’s a dividing line over liking or disliking this band, it probably has less to do with the music and more to do with what kind of party you enjoy. Many bands in town build their act around the idea of freezing a particular era in their lives and in the lives of their audience, effectively defying age for a night. At 35 going on 20, their crowd is more than willing to take a few more shots to forget they have a mortgage. On the other hand, watching TK is about understanding the place that these four men have arrived at in their lives, and not really giving a damn. The music that they’ve created is a reflection of a lifetime’s worth of experience and they’re unapologetic about how they got here. You know that these are the guys who’ll proudly display their Ratt posters and carry wallet-sized photos of their senior picture just to brag about their mullets. If you heard “We're Not Gonna Take It” as a message to your generation, TK invites you to put one fist up and salute.

That’s all for this week. I’ll be all over the place in the next few days, so there’s no telling how long the next column may be, but at least the Band B**** won’t wonder if I’m stalking her. Again, thanks to everybody for the emails, and for everyone who’s keeping me up to date on what they’re doing. I’ll get there eventually. And if I don’t…well, just wait longer. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom