Jan. 13, 2011
Fivepoints Art House
Better than: The talk-show coverage of NFL playoffs mysteriously broadcasting through The Smell's solid state guitar amplifier.
Rank/Xerox and the Shoppers' full length albums last year boasted uniquely dark aesthetics and vividly demonstrated innovation in punk through different approaches. Both albums elicited overwhelming praise from the punk community and beyond, so the bands' co-headlining performance at the Fivepoints Art House on Friday was an ideal opportunity to assess whether their live prowess matched the sheer impact of their recorded material. Each group was able to replicate the bleak outlook and agitated barrage from their albums, while the intimate setting and intense gloom of band members elevated the songs' impact and heightened the tension that underpins their albums.
The unique venue created an interesting duality between the groups and their surroundings. Bleached white walls and creaky wood floors starkly contrasted with the overwhelmingly black outfits of band members. There was no proper stage, and all the traditional nuisances of music venues isolating the crowd from the performers were eliminated. Each group set up on a rug beneath minimal white paper cutouts adorning the rafters above. Naturally, the lack of a stage contributed to the intimacy of the performance, but during Rank/Xerox's set the crowd toppled a speaker, microphone stands, and performers.
However, the chaos was only a temporary respite from the otherwise moody and dynamic performance. Rank/Xerox's set largely drew from its self-titled debut last year, and seemed most effective during the album's more jittery and haunting tracks. The songs generally alternated between speedy screeds with chanted vocals and more technical, herky-jerky passages with agitated, nimble rhythms. Live, the trio's stage presence was democratic between members. The bassist and guitarist shared vocal duties and the lanky drummer commanded attention with his skittish rhythms and stoic demeanor. Each vocalist took turns uttering monotonous but penetrating lines and joined together to issue droning choruses. The tension created by such a dynamic performance had the crowd switching between stirring frantically and brooding intently.
With a guitar tone that attacks like a hale storm and sustains like broken glass trampled underfoot with the hiss of railcars around the corner, The Shoppers absolutely laid waste to the audience. Their debut album, Silver Year, creates a sonic barrage that would seemingly be difficult to replicate live, but the Syracuse trio produced the frenetic noise of an armory combusting in the distance textured over straight-ahead punk.
Their impressive tone aside, the group was visually ravishing as well. The female vocalist stared at the ceiling intently as the set begun. The bulging whites of her eye seemed to simultaneously absorb cosmic energy to invigorate her performance and psychic preparation to divulge the personal sentiments in her lyrics. With rampant feedback prefacing the performance, punctuating each song and closing the show, The Shoppers delivered a fierce and concise set. They epitomized the enduringly effective aesthetic choice to obscure beauty and poignancy in a song with heinous noise, forcing listeners to reconcile their aversion to abrasiveness in order to appreciate the sublime.
Openers: The Smell had feedback issues, hair issues, pedal issues, and microphone issues, but it only seemed to contribute to the off-kilter mania of the band's performance. With a saxophone-slaying female vocalist, dreadlocked keyboardist, and a suit-and-tie sporting bassist, it only seemed natural that the band's solid-state amplifiers would unintentionally pick up talk radio and broadcast it between songs. The zealous pitter-patter tempos with unusual instrumentation begged for catastrophe, but the self-aware charm of every member transformed an impending disaster into a glorious one.
Personal bias: The Shoppers' Silver Year and Rank/Xerox's self-titled album were two of my very favorite albums from last year.
By the way: Both headliners appear devoted to vinyl and cassettes, and their album art utilizes the format gloriously. Of course, their releases are in limited quantities, so act quickly if you wan to acquire a beautifully packaged LP of your own.