Words by Jeb Gavin, photos by Farrah Skeiky
There is a perfect albeit boring metaphor to be drawn between constructing a solid lineup and planning an outing with a group of friends. I take it back. It’s a shitty metaphor, the kind of claptrap bad writers (*ahem*) employ when they’re struggling to find a common thread to describe a show; good, bad, or otherwise. Thursday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead played most if not all of their seminal 2002 record Source Tags & Codes. The band and the album is typically described as post-hardcore, or for folks bereft of hope that our musical knowledge might one day result in sex, math rock. So forgive me for trying to make hay out of their tour openers Midnight Masses and La Femme. The only unifying factor between the three being they each make interesting and unique music, though almost entirely different forms and genres.
Opener Midnight Masses plays this sort of droning, haunting no wave, while wearing largely unnecessary masks. They lock into grooves easily enough, and the heavy echo effects on the vocals makes for a curious contrast. They end up having this cavernous space between the vocals and every instrument banging along at their own clip. I’m not saying this to dissuade anyone from giving them a listen- on the contrary. Since I saw them I’ve tracked down their KEXP performance on YouTube and listened to it about a dozen times. If this is what happens when you lock yourself in a room with a copy of Turn on the Bright Lights and a deck of Oblique Strategies cards, then I say go further.
Next up was La Femme (stylized on the board out in front of the club as Le Femme, which to someone struggling to learn French will haunt me forever.) La Femme plays what you don’t want to believe is a singular form of Parisian psych rock. Rather, I didn’t want to believe it, based on the sheer number of stereotypes per square foot of stage space. It had to be a put on I kept telling myself, the Gallic version of Peelander-Z. No sir, very real, very serious. This expanse of keyboards, three of them end to end to end on stage, flanked by guitarist and bassist swapping back and forth and occasionally jumping on the drum pads or one of the keyboards to play a collection of sounds meant to drive me further insane in the most pleasant way possible.
Most of their tracks revolve around a synthesized harpsichord or possibly calliope melody, made all the creepier with the odd theremin screech or Doppler effect pass. At this point, I’d write them off as some sort of novelty, except this is overlaid with surf guitar riffs which should in no way fit but do, along with a Casio-perfect drum beat running throughout. Add to this vaguely nonsensical lyrics by both a male and female singers and you start to feel as though you’ve wandered into some sort of haunted tropical carnival populated by multi-instrumental Frenchmen and women. It’s massively confusing, and you will dance listening to it in spite of yourself.
And if you haven’t already gotten genre whiplash, here comes Trail of Dead playing what to the confused layperson might sound like meticulously patterned sludge metal, with abnormal poly-rhythms and constructive dissonance. About three songs into their wonderful set, I all but checked out. Too much to process, too much to try and take in. I’ve never shied away from math or math rock, but the menagerie of bands on the bill exhausted me. Each good, confoundedly good, each so very different. I suppose in the sense the opener is to prepare you for the headliner, perhaps they failed Thursday, as I was too bewildered to take in the sonic think pieces that are Trail of Dead songs. Or did the openers succeed, as I was much more likely to listen without trying to analyze every note and nuance? I’m grasping at straws again, completely over thinking this. Three great bands, three great sets, nothing in common but their tour. I’d want to see each one again, but probably not on the same night.