Free Salamander Exhibit
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Bottom of the Hill
Better than: Lamenting the demise of progressive guitar rock in the twenty-teens.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum was the last of a venerated avant-rock movement that put the Bay Area on the map. When the band called it quits in 2011, it seemed like a whole avenue in contemporary music was being closed with them. That kind of sprawling, cinematic, heavy rock band with high production values was, as you might imagine, a challenging endeavor to sustain given the number of ears it reached. Couple that with times so lean, even "mainstream" artists who can sell their songs to car commercials are griping about dough, and, well, it's just an untenable way to operate these days.
But if tonight's show at Bottom of the Hill was anything to be believed, art rock isn't dead, it's just under construction. Members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum graced us with their new endeavor, Free Salamander Exhibit, and though it's decidedly paired down next to their previous project, what matters -- the crunchy, skewed sonic aspects -- remain intact. Meanwhile, a younger generation is donning costumes and re-animating the corpse of the creative fool's errand.
Opening with beautiful tuba drones, Nevada City's Lasher Keen was weird and great and wholly promising. The members took the stage dressed like elves and fairies, and played music appropriate to thir look. There was a big yawning gap where a bass guitar belonged in their rather classic-sounding songs, however, and their mystic visions seemed a bit third-hand. Overall, the idea-to-execution ratio was a bit off, but they're young, and the enthusiasm behind their mystic forest punk-folk was plenty endearing. So: a dirt-caked diamond in the rough; color me intrigued to see what these kids do next.
It's a veritable genre of music at this point: Melvins with all the fun stripped out. The frictionless yet functional trio rock as practiced by Black Map was not without its merits, it's just the factors at which it excels have zero relevance without interesting material. The band members were tight as fuck, and their riffs hit loud and crisp. They didn't necessarily need costumes to assert themselves tonight, but some pulse -- a mistake, even! -- would have redeemed the performance beyond the humorless note delivery service it offered.
So, on to Free Salamander Exhibit, which is basically a punkier, less cabaret iteration of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, featuring most of that band's lineup (rounded out by original drummer David Shamrock and guitarist Drew Wheeler). Guitarist Nils Frykdahl, bassist Dan Rathbun, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Mellender emerge onstage adorned in faux fur and war paint, massive wicker baskets affixed to their heads, with antlers and ears protruding from those. Together, they're a tripartite frontman beast, growling, hollering, and occasionally singing their way through these ragged prog epics that feel like dips into the implied spaces between the songs of King Crimson's Red. "Angular" doesn't begin to describe it: the whole thing is positively feral, Frykdahl coming off like a man-beast subsisting on raw flesh. The songs are alternately political, philosophical, and inscrutable as hell. FSE have no release to their name, so this is all still a bit on the drawing board, but the music was heavy, evocative, loud, weird, and LOUD. At their worst, they were a B+ rough draft. At their best, they represent the perfect meeting between their openers: crushing sonic totality commingled with weird, far-reaching vision.
Thank god art rock's not dead. If Free Salamander didn't exist, Kilgore Trout would've had to make them up.
Overheard: "I'm not losing my hearing for this."
The look on that mom's face when she smelled the pot in the air: Hard to tell if it was sincere disapproval, or disapproval adopted for the sake of her daughter's presence.