all words: Andy Johnson, all photos: Eric Uhlir
Part of being a music critic isn’t just listening to most obscure and obtuse music possible. It’s important to stay aware of the current trends in popular music. Every once in a while, I shut off my iPod and listen to mainstream radio on my daily commute, eager to hear what the masses are listening to.
I don’t need to tell you that a lot of it is hot garbage. You’re not dumb. You know Bruno Mars sucks. But even for all my indulgences – I love Drake’s new album, can’t get enough Taylor, I think the cheerleader Madonna song is real catchy, and ignoring the horrendous “Niggas In Paris” cover, Katy Perry ain’t too shabby – a fact that has not gone unnoticed is how little rock music the radio plays.
I have no doubt that you are familiar with the song “We Are Young” by Fun. I bet you didn’t know that Fun. became the first rock band since 2002 to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with their first charting single. Oh and that previous song? Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.” Ugh.
Facts like that make me cringe. But rock music isn’t dying. It’s just in hiding, away from the lazy production and formulaic lyrics focusing on either youthful, optimistic nights of excess (see: “We Are Young”, “Good Feeling”, every Black Eyed Peas song) or overdramatic heartbreak (see: “Take Care”, “Somebody I Used To Know”, every Adele song). And whoever said rock is dead was not at the 9:30 Club Monday night to witness a showcase of three upcoming bands that could wipe Fun. off the face of the planet.
I missed out on a majority of Exitmusic’s set, so it would be unfair of me to give them an appropriate review. They are, however, playing at the Black Cat in a few weeks opening for School of Seven Bells. I note that if they were anything like A Place To Bury Strangers, you should go ahead and add that date to your Google Calendar right now.
A Place to Bury Strangers (APTBS) are loud. Really, really fucking loud. I saw them at Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel a few years ago, and it remains the only time I had to leave the venue because I forgot to bring earplugs and the loudness was physically overwhelming.
Like their “painful-loud” antecedents – My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth – APTBS coat their music in a wash of noise. The term “shoegazing” is thrown around pretty loosely nowadays for any band that drenches the crowd with feedback, but for a majority of their set, guitarist/singer Oliver Ackermann was indeed peering downward at his massive pedal collection, devising new ways to make the audience wince. Considering that Ackermann’s day job is creating hand-wired guitar-effects pedals via his company Death By Audio (clients: noise rockers Lightning Bolt, Trent Reznor, U2’s The Edge), I’d say he knows a thing or two about shoegazing.
Chances are you will not be hearing APTBS on the FM radio dial anytime soon. They covered the 9:30 Club in fog and ran a light show that featured images of bombs exploding and black widows crawling on the ceiling. The group played a mix of songs off their recent EP Onwards To The Wall and 2009’s Exploding Head. At first I was a bit underwhelmed, not by Ackermann’s guitar theatrics (and I mean that literally, as he kept twirling his guitar into the air and doing whatever he could to generate crazy noise from it), but his backing rhythm section seemed lost in the mix. However, this suspicion was quickly corrected as bassist Dion Lunadon crushed into a hypnotic rhythm during “Lost Feeling”, Ackermann put down his guitar, went to the back of the stage and moved two giant amps front and center to discharge sound directly into the face of the poor photographers and fools who chose to line up against the rail. This show was less torturous than the first time I saw them – I was able to stand near the front of the 9:30 Club comfortably – but they are known as New York’s Loudest Band for a reason.
Whereas APTBS deluged the audience in the aural equivalent of a supernova, the London-via-North Wales trio The Joy Formidable’s set was far easier to digest, and quite frankly, I don’t know why they haven’t become more popular. How was this show not a sell-out? This was the band’s third DC show in a year. They killed it at the Black Cat last Spring. Their opening set for the Foo Fighters at the Verizon Center on Veteran’s Day upstaged Social Distortion. They’ve played Lollapalooza and David Letterman. Their singles “Cradle” and “Whirring” are all over college and satellite radio, and rightfully so. Oh, and lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan ain’t that hard on the eyes, a crucial component of any female-fronted rock band trying to break through.
Bryan admitted that playing the 9:30 Club was a bit of a “surreal” experience because unlike most UK-rockers, she had visited the club several times when she was a temporary resident of the District for 18 months, serving as an au pair for a pair of rich tots. It was a result of her loneliness here that she returned to her homeland, joined her childhood friend (and now boyfriend) Rhydian Dafydd’s new band, eventually writing the songs that would eventually appear on 2011’s The Big Roar.
I was surprised how much emphasis was placed into the band’s nautical set design. Most bands just throw up a curtain and some swirly images. In addition to dressing their amps, microphones and gong (!) in a fishing nets, they also installed a working lighthouse that was a replica of an actual one found in Maine. During the encore, they even brought out the “biggest, loudest, giganticest, motherfuckingist” fog horn as a joke that was anything but. While such accessories are not needed to have a kickass show, it certainly helps.
It would be cliché if not downright sexist to assume that because a band has a female/guitarist singer that seems to have her shit together (i.e. not Hole) they wouldn’t be as “intense” as male-fronted bands. Sorry to disappoint, but the Joy Formidable put on a whale of a show. Dafydd was a reliable bassist and backup vocalist, but drummer Matt Thomas was the band’s secret weapon, going gorillas throughout the set, breaking several drumsticks and yet not losing a beat.
Nevertheless, Bryan demanded the audience’s attention throughout the night, stalked the stage with a masculine energy that make her seem more like Mulan despite her Tinkerbellish appearance as she tore through hits like “A Heavy Abacus” and “Cradle”, as well deeper cuts off The Big Roar like the swelling “The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie.” When Bryan sings “I could be happy for you” over and over again on the set-closing “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade”, her words are coated with an emotional maturity that her other female contemporaries lack – yes, I’m calling you out Best Coast.
After the encore break, Bryan and Dafydd came out and performed “Silent Treatment,” an acoustic number off their forthcoming sophomore album. While it lacked the sonic zeal of the rest of their tunes, the group’s edge was still noticeable, a good sign of things to come. The band closed with the epic “Whirring”, featuring a harp intro and what must have been an ten-minute breakdown as the band went nuts: Thomas dismantling his double bass drum, Dafydd trying to keep up with his bandmates, and Bryan shredding a’la Eddie Van Halen himself.
At the end of the show, Bryan collapsed on stage to her knees, ripped the strings from her guitars, and whipped her guitar into a gong in a manic fury, the “bong” emanating throughout the club like crack of a tidal wave upon the stern of a condemned ship. I would be more upset that radio stations across the US aren’t playing the Joy Formidable in heavy rotation, but their performance proves you don’t have to be extremely popular to be extremely awesome.