Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Real Clash of the Titans
Thursday, November 15th 2012
St. Petersburg College Music Center, FL

In some rock scenes, the concept of 'Battle of the Bands' has taken a nosedive in acceptability over the years.  This is due to a general belief that musicians should not be competing.  Hip hop, on the other hand, has always had an internal dynamic of competition built in from it's earliest days.  But could that now also be on the wane?  This evening showcase for St. Petersburg College's Real Clash of The Titans was intended to include a rap battle.  Despite decent efforts to find "golden tongued" MCs, after a few warm up performances, the night turns into a regular gig.
This is not such a bad thing however, as the Hip Hop Ensemble's first show is fantastic.  Jay Acolyte begins by saying what conscious rappers have been saying for decades now: that their intention is to show the intelligent commentary hip hop can provide.  Decked out in glasses and a Mario t-shirt, Jay looks the part of the conscious rapper (though veering close to the conscious nerdcore stylings of MC Frontalot), and for the first song of many he is joined by fellow lyricist Rashad "Shadcore" Harrell. It's a strong opener, and by the time of second song 'Stupid,' 2 more people have joined the microphone wall of sound.  A bit of inverse nu-metal (growling over a beat) takes place before, briefly, a fifth lyricist joins them! (Special guest Doug Leto.)
Real Clash of the Titans are taking it back to the concrete streets with not just real live MCs but original beats.  This showcase features all kinds of musicians, and their combining does not feel forced. Each instrument and vocal style is given a chance to shine: 2 drums, bongos, turntables, piano, keyboard, bass, guitar, singing, cowbell, beatboxing, flamingos. Their well-mixed mash-up and also sheer numbers are reminiscent of The Polyphonic Spree or Asian Dub Foundation.  And if you don't think Asian Dub Foundation comparisons are something to get worked up about, you're missing out (the similarities are even closer than that: ADF began as a youth music project at a community center, while RCOTT are from a music department at a community college).
There's yet more artistic breadth on display here.  Most of the event has taken place under darkness with deft use of spotlights.  During an instrumental moment, a total lack of light allows for a theater-like moving of scenery, and when the lights come up we're treated to a trash can performance in the vein of Stomp.  French surrealism makes an appearance in the track 'Tribute to Marcel Duchamp,'  and a slower number called 'Chalkboard' acknowledges where the ensemble is rooted in the here and now.  Just when you think no more variety can be crammed in, Dawn Pufahl joins everyone else, playing viola on the Titans anthem, 'Effigy.'  We even get to hear it almost twice as DJay Acolyte kindly stops the piece halfway through so that the viola can be adjusted and properly heard.
I am glad these friendly and talented people are The Real Clash of the Titans, as the recent films starring Liam Neeson have been crap.  When the next installment of the franchise comes out, go and see this lot instead. 
You can see and hear The Real Clash of the Titans performing at the Tarpon Springs campus, on December 1st, here

James Lamont is host of Transatlantic Tunnel on the MYRA Radio Network.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

OFF!/Negative Approach/Double Negative
Tuesday, September 25th 2012
State Theatre, St. Petersburg, Florida

The tired impression that punk is nothing but nihilism gets a breath of life with a line-up of bands named like this.  It’s time for some mathcore: a Double Negative equals a (presumably) single positive, plus another Negative (Approach) brings us back to zero in which case the music stays Off!.  Goddamn Christ, imagine if Negative FX (hardcore band that NOFX took their name from) or any other number of miserable bastard-sounding bands had managed to show up, we’d be here all night.

And between a door time of 7pm and North Carolina’s Double Negative not coming on until 9:20, for a while it’s starting to look like we will be. Playing with Off! does not mean that you never come on stage.  Double Negative may not have been to blame of course, and they have the decency to be pretty good, if not exactly amazing.  Singer Scott Williams (aka, ‘Epic Warfare’) provides crisp vocals to music that while not mere noise, does reject the oxymoron of ‘melodic’ hardcore in favour of wandering experimentation that doesn’t find anywhere that interesting.  (Having now listened to their recordings a few times without feeling impatient or knackered, I have a better impression. Nice stuff.)

It is not so much a Negative Approach as a slow-and-steady approach for the Detroit band who perform next.  Not their music, which is a mixture of short fast hardcore and dirty rock n roll; this is their very first visit to St. Pete since they originally formed in 1981.  John Brannon live sounds a bit like Dennis Lyxzén (Refused/T(I)NC) screaming over metal-tinged rock with fat and beefy riffs.  Fittingly for a band with a great song like ‘Dead Stop,’ Negative Approach have the satisfying sudden ending down to a T.  When, on a couple of occasions, the band needs to fix something or get in tune, there is either pleasant banter or calm intermissions.  The guitarist might need to come back to St. Pete at a future date though if he saw the city the way he saw the crowd: his back was facing us the entire time.

Like in those intermissions, it is strangely quiet in the venue between the sets of Negative Approach and Off!.  I decided before this gig that the back-to-basics nature of Off!’s music meant I should also try to embrace simple fun by getting the crap kicked out of myself.  After an initially slow reaction from the crowd, a few songs in a circle pit in the shape of the bands opening letter viciously forms and puts to bed any thoughts I had about getting in there.  Keith Morris is manic and wide-eyed as usual, blasting through songs so short and intense that his extended stage rants are needed to make the set long enough.  Telling people to vote: not normally considered all that punk of an activity. But the way Morris stares at you when he says it (“they don’t WANT you to vote”), as if he’s stabbing daggers of self-evident truth into your brain, is very compelling.

Before ‘Borrow and Bomb’ he complains about the flaccid argument that the US is broke as well as its drone strikes, in a refreshingly straightforward (or simplistic) way that most of Off!’s 65-second songs mirror.  The song ‘Jeffrey Lee Pierce’ is a eulogy for the blues-punk pioneer, in which we are all invited to insert the name of somebody we have lost.  Some arsehole who has never lost anyone shouts “nobody cares.”  From the look on Morris’s face, it’s hard to tell if he is being truthful when he pauses then says that he can’t hear very well on stage.  Another cock decides that ‘Peace in Hermosa’ (“this one’s about peace”) is the perfect time to shoulder launch into unsuspecting people.  There is no time to worry about such shit though — Off! hammer through something close to their entire output of music before leaving without an encore.  Their set was a lot like their recordings both in sound and vibe, and for that we should be happy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

All or Nothing (whole album stream here)

Epitaph, 2012

The Black Pacific
The Black Pacific
(sample tracks here)
SideOneDummy, 2010

This week I got the latest album by Pennywise (All or Nothing), and The Black Pacific’s self-titled debut, for a combined total of $7.  One was used, one was a promo copy; talk about pennywise.  Treating them like competing records would be stupid, and The Black Pacific album has been out for 2 years, but I thought it would be interesting to review them together.  How do the former bandmates stack up under the daunting pressure of performing separately?

Jim Lindberg was Pennywise’s singer for 20 years, so the expectations upon him to go in a different direction with The Black Pacific were considerable.  On opening track ‘The System’ you can hear Jim straining both his vocal chords and desire to do just that, and this heavier tint comes back intermittently throughout the album.  Perhaps predictably, however, it’s for the most part not a huge break, either lyrically or musically.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: at their best, Pennywise delivered albums with small, practically indescribable steps of evolution over previous recordings.

The new blood have provided Jim with a deeper, chunkier, larger backing sound, worthy of a band with ‘Pacific’ in their name.  ‘Kill Your Idols,’ for example, is not a dedication to that earlier SideOneDummy act, but an indie band at its most punk and exciting.  ‘Put Down Your Weapons’ and ‘No Purpose,’ at the end of the album, both show original territory and vocal techniques if not themes.  Most importantly, The Black Pacific aren’t running out of energy by the time they get to these songs, a trait that plagued recent Pennywise records.  Lindberg genuinely sounds like he is enjoying his return to music after spending time writing a book (Punk Rock Dad) and taking the leading role in a documentary inspired by that book (The Other F-Word).  Right now things appear quiet in the BP camp (yeah, Black Pacific could indeed be a spoof name for the deepwater-drilling oil company), but new material has supposedly been in the works for a while, so keep an ear out.

Despite the comfort of still being together, the remaining members of Pennywise also had considerable pressure going into this release. Not only were they showcasing a new vocalist (Zoli Téglás of Ignite), but the growing impression that they had nothing left to offer must have been evident to them.  You can see it in the album cover claim that All or Nothing is a “return to their roots,” as well as the fact that it bears a close resemblance to the design of their self-titled 1991 classic.  They also make a thankful return to Epitaph, after 2008’s close to un-listenable Reason to Believe came out (in the U.S.) on Myspace Records.  And as for the title…

The first impression is a good one.  The title track and particularly its opening line, “What’s the fucking problem with this world today?,” are so blastingly well delivered that you’re forced to give the revised line-up a chance.  By the third and forth track the band sound like they are desperately using speed to avoid running out of steam — and succeeding pretty well.  What exactly has led Pennywise back to this encouraging place?  The addition of Téglás must have something to do with it, as they largely avoid sounding like just another EpiFat band without Lindberg’s distinctive voice.  Stopping the cycle of rushing albums out every 2 years must also have helped.  Just as listeners sometimes need to take time off from their CDs to refresh how they sound, the band really needed to take stock. 

All the problems haven’t been fixed though.  The cliché expressions we’ve come to expect are still around despite coming from a different mouth, like “hypocrisy” (‘Tomorrow’ and ‘United’), “all along” (‘X Generation’ and uh, ‘All Along’) and my god, the bloody “woah-oh” filler.  It even gets to the point where you don’t know if lines are clever homages and references or lazily written.  The aforementioned opening track features “We’ll never know until we try,” which is strikingly close to “How will we know until we try?” from Pennywise‘s amazing blast-off, ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’.  ‘Seeing Red’ might be a Minor Threat reference, and Fletcher Dragge’s only stand-out line on the album, “Fuck off and die,” might well be a nod to Lindberg’s same stand-out shout on Unknown Road‘s ‘Nothing’.  Who the hell knows?  Despite a succinct 12 tracks, the last third still lags.

It might seem sad to acknowledge that both camps, as of now, seem to be doing better work apart.  Fans of old Pennywise will find these albums easily enjoyable, even if they don’t exactly reinvent the skateboard wheel.  It’s because a little change makes for a vast improvement: Pennywise were never that different, on paper, between making great and rubbish music.  So while they may not have quite come full circle, as the Pennywise logo shows, a jagged attempt at a rough circle can be cool as well.

Edit: In October 2012, Jim rejoined Pennwise, rendering some of the thoughts in this review really dumb. For the time being anyway. The Black Pacific isn’t over, but looks like it will be on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Comeback Kid/Foundation/Living With Lions/Such Gold/Close Your Eyes
Wednesday, March 21st 2012
Local 662, St. Petersburg, FL

Looking at the line-up, it seemed like it was going to be a crowded evening.  Not so -- several unfortunate events transpired, and while the remaining bands were still extremely good, more quantity of their quality would have been welcome.  So what happened?  Christian hardcore band Close Your Eyes either pulled out or were mistakenly included on the poster.  New York's heavy pop-punkers Such Gold apparently broke down on their way to St. Pete.  And Living With Lions, from Vancouver, did make it, but sadly I only caught a few songs.  They sounded cool, so having given them a closer listen online, I decided they come across like an international smörgåsbord of Millencolin, Taking Back Sunday and fellow Canadians Belvedere.  Further national solidarity was noted through one members wearing of a Propagandhi shirt.  Since that's all I have to say, I'll just end by paraphrasing The Damned: linklinklink!,,

It's the first time in Tampa Bay for Foundation, but you would never know from the love that the crowd showers upon them.  Apparently not disappointed by the lack of 'Build Me Up Buttercup' [er, that's The Foundations], the audience goes for it with this Atlanta straight-edge hardcore band, who communicate with them perfectly.  Or at least they would have, if they had let their music do the talking for them.  Vocalist Tomas Pearson fronts everything with fantastic passion, but falls prey to doing a hardcore sermon from the punk pulpit.  It's not offputting or terrible compared to some straight edge ensembles, but rather cliché.  If nothing else though, his enthusiasm at the age of 28 does perhaps show that being in a band is the best way to keep ones cynicism about music and punk pushed evermore into the future.  A solid foundation for the headliners built, and two welcome false-endings later ("this is that same song but part 2!"), they exit.  

Comeback Kid scare the crap out of me with their sudden opening, devoid of clues such as warm-up noises or a hello.  Pit enthusiasts impersonate the kamikaze bugs from Starship Troopers, piling themselves all the way up to the head-height of stagebound and very tall frontman, Andrew Neufeld.  The drums are immense and command excitement.  Last time I saw Comeback Kid was in Manchester, England in 2006, and they were underwhelming.  Maybe at the time they were getting used to their new line-up or the venue had bad sound, but it doesn't matter now -- this band, so aptly named for a second chance, do a great job.  They play a mix of material, including huge tracks like 'All in a Year' and 'Die Tonight' from their equally appropriately named 'Turn It Around' debut.  The State Theatre across the street, where the band tell us they have always performed in the past, surely couldn't measure up to the intimacy here.  Not so intimate though, that giant dickheads can keep themselves from throwing trash cans across the room on multiple occasions, landing un-comically on peoples heads.  Getting hurt at these gigs might be par for the course, but for some reason this just seems a different situation to being clocked by a flying windmill arm (which I was).  Perhaps hoping to soothe our injuries (this is the Symptoms + Cures tour after all), Comeback Kid end with the somewhat tired 'Wake The Dead'.  But, with some assistance from another Propagandhi shirt, they leave having overall reminded us that Canada often just does things right.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

set and setting/Windhand/Flying Snakes/Old Soul
Fubar, St. Petersburg, FL
Thursday March 8th, 2012
In the land of the rising sun, shows sometimes end by 9pm or so, to allow time for other activities afterwards.  So it is perhaps fitting that this evening of dark, distinctly non-rising-sun music should start as late as 9:30.  Openers Old Soul (who are up past their bedtime if they think that name really describes them) are on tour from Michigan.  They play black metal-tinged screamo complete with loud and quiet parts, across a selection of songs with one word titles like Forest.  I only caught a couple of them, so either they started early to help move things along or the time allotment was just the price they had to pay for being added to the bill last minute.  They recently released a record, Who are Willing to Draw Close, the second part of a concept album.
Before the next act, a man comes up to me talking with a Grateful Dead attititude and what he calls an Oliver Twist accent.  This proved to be coincidental.  When Flying Snakes begin performing, it’s obvious that These Arms Are Not Snakes but canvases for tattoos, and one display appears to be of Big Ben or some similar clock.  Their arms are also used to play brilliant rhythmic heaviness, a mixture of sludge and punk.  The band only come to a full stop at one point in the set, and the only thing close to a gimmick is when a sound almost like a siren is heard.  But it was probably just more guitar. 
Screenshots from the upcoming Doom 4 game were leaked online a few weeks ago, showing scenes of a post-hell nightmare on Earth.  The sight of Virginia doom metal band Windhand is thankfully a lot more pleasant.  First, vocalist Dorthia is single-handedly representing female musicianship here on this International Women’s Day.  Second, bassist Nathan is wearing a white Mr Bungle t-shirt, and looking refreshingly un-the-part.  Their driving sound is really cool and a welcome change of pace, until two apparently amusing fuck-ups (equipment?), the second of which leads to their early exit.
As if to make up for gained time, set and setting spend a long period setting up.  Aha.  Anyway, during this lull a huge crowd builds, and by the time the set (groan) is going Fubar is basically wall-to-wall with people.  I say going, because their particular style of Mogwai, Day For Airstrikes, et al instrumental ambience is so politely woven into the evening that I barely noticed they had started before being entranced (a loud cheer from the audience was the tip-off).  The subtle build-up of intensity always makes bands such as this one seem intelligent, so it’s only right that set and setting have taken the misunderstood poster-child for stupid musicians — the drummer — and given him a twin. (The group does feature literal siblings, but only one is a drummer).  Actually, they so believe in the potential of the stick-bearer that there are two and a half of them.  A guy is sitting on the stage by the wall, occasionally hitting a cymbol, though whether the sitting or the hitting is incidental isn’t all that clear.  There comes a point where the connection to the other acts on the bill is more obvious, as some in the crowd are overtaken with headbanging desires and dual guitars.  The influence of pairs next leads set and setting to perform two encores, which also reach heavy heights.  At 1am perhaps it’s a bridge too far, but as tonight is the start of a 36 day tour, going big is understandable.  The sun may set, but it will rise again tomorrow!