A sparse crowd assembled at U St Music Hall Thursday evening to catch Light Asylum, a duo consisting of vocalist/percussionist Shannon Funchess and keyboardist Raphael Radna (I don’t know what has become of original synth-man Bruno Coviello, but methinks he’s sitting this tour out). This is the second time Light Asylum has graced the U St’s sonic bunker in the past year, and while BYT photographers were once again unable to capture Funchess’ bald Grace Jonesiness, the few in attendance saw the two tear through an abbreviated set of their dark electropop from their eponymous debut album.
Funchess’ fierce vocals howled on “Pope Will Roll” as she sang, “Charge me like a credit card / charge me” as she drummed away on an electronic percussion pad. “IPC” was a the set’s highlight as Funchess led the two dozen of us in cheers of “You get 25 to life, waiting for a train in my city / 25 to life, smoking marijuana in my city” before a repeated cry of “Fight girls, get tough, fight cops, who try to rape us” over a pulsating beat courtesy of Radna. Funchess informed the crowd that their half-hour set was shorter than normal because a curfew was enforced to clear everyone out for the late Araabmuzik show. This show was hurried and muted compared to their May headlining show, but it was still a decent appetizer for Matthew Dear’s illuminating set.
It is somewhat surprising that Dear, a co-founder of influential Michigan-based electronic label Ghostly International, has turned into such a dashing frontman. Dear’s fashion sense is well-known. He was wearing his usual three-piece suit this evening, but sans bolo tie, and his signature faux pompadour was clipped. Additionally, his four piece backing band was also sartorially-minded, with only the drummer refusing to wear a blazer due to its kinesiological restrictions. Throughout the night, Dear thanked “all you beautiful people in attendence” whenever he finished a song. In hindsight, he may have been talking about his band.
A producer by trade, Dear has focused more attention on his live show in recent years. The group was touring for Beams, Dear’s fifth album under his name. As such, the album itself is livelier, more immediate than his previous release, the claustrophobic Black City. In addition to the typical drums/bass/guitar/keys setup, this was the first show of the Beams tour to feature a trumpeter. It is odd to imagine a trumpeter bleating over rock-via-electronic music with as a slick-haired 33-year-old studio prodigy deadpans lyrics like “Throw your rocks in the air/ Let’s go have fun tonight,” but it not only works, it’s a triumph.
Some of the highlights from the hour-long set include the post-punk, hypnotizing bassline of “Earthworms” and the bubbling, choppy drumming of lead single “Headcage.” A lot of motherfuckers were getting down in the quickly-filling up club, and Dear noticed the increasing attendance, hopping off from USMH’s tiny perch several times to slap a tambourine and sing among the crowd.
While Dear is a talented producer and a respectable showman, his greatest drawback remains his limited voice. While this can be wrangled and manipulated in the studio, his flat, Midwestern vocals were noticeable in the flesh. It can be argued that his weak voice contributes to the atmosphere of his dark electro, but it was wise of Dear to lean on his band, especially the scintillating trumpeter, whenever his voice falters.
The second half of the set focused on Dear’s more complex, darker songs. Dear’s dreary “Temptation” may share a name with the kaleidoscopic New Order classic, but their attitudes are far different: the Mancunians’ song is an unabashed love song whereas Dear’s is a somber affair: “I can unwrite this lonely feeling / On to the right let’s fall to pieces.” Dear also brought back Black City’s Nine Inch Nails- esque “You Put A Smell On Me” to finish the main set, a brooding, buzzing number that centers around Dear’s request to “Take a ride with me in my big black car.”
The five-piece returned in the encore to perform “Her Fantasy,” the opening track from Beams. As his band raged on, Dear sang, “Fighting is futile but I can’t concede to interior beliefs that control and deplete you.” Many of Dear’s lyrics focus on the negative aspects of life, but this performance was a rousing celebration of the electronic converging with the organic.