Beyond the Pale : November 14-17, 2002 : DNA Lounge, San Francisco
Nobody can deny that given the current sad state of the independent music world, there’s a dire need for increased support systems. In the U.S., this primarily means musicians banding together for protection, to create a net – or a network. As someone once said, God helps those who help themselves. While removing God from the equation, I’d also amend that to include those who help others, because that’s what it should be all about.
What does this have to do with a weekend-long festival in San Francisco? Everything. Because while Beyond the Pale is intimately associated with a record label, the label in question is intimately associated with a band that believes wholeheartedly in support – supporting others, since they understand that the other old saying, United we stand, is for real. I’m talking of course about Neurosis and the Neurot Recordings label they founded. While conceived to nurture the band’s own projects (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot, and even planned non-musical endeavors like book publishing), the label has become a rallying point for friends, allies, and others with similar philosophies.
From that spirit of cooperation and support came the notion of a festival, and last fall the first Beyond the Pale was held at the Great American Music Hall. It included, in addition to Neurosis and their experimental alter-ego Tribes of Neurot, bands such as Shellac, Oxbow, and an ultra-rare appearance by Zoviet France. For 2002, the Neurosis/Neurot crew pulled together some more surprises, and expanded the festival to four nights, each loosely representing what one might call an “aesthetic” – an acoustic-dominated opening night, a punkish night, a heavy night, and then closing with an experimental/ambient evening.
Thursday night I arrived early, around 8pm, to find a fairly long line waiting to get in, so I hung around outside talking to friends until the line died down a bit. I hadn’t been to the DNA Lounge since it re-opened, but I was pleasantly surprised. Years ago it had been a cool place to see bands, but it had a dive atmosphere; now it’s almost too clean, with an extremely impressive sound system and computer terminals (running Linux, thanks very much) spotting the bar here and there. It’s also worth mentioning the tweaked ATM, which sported such anarchic sayings as “Smash the State” and “Don't Question” amongst its repertoire.
Opening night being the (primarily) acoustic evening, Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till kicked things off with accompaniment by electric guitarist Joe Goldring. After welcoming everyone to the festival, Von Till announced “I’m gonna play you some harvest songs…the Wild Hunt.” His acoustic playing was given a darker underbelly thanks to Goldring’s eerie ebow work as they played folk music for an audience that would claim to hate folk music. Von Till’s voice and compositional abilities have grown into this style of music very well, as his second solo album shows. Fellow Neurosis guitarist Scott Kelly, up second that night, reinforced his acoustic playing with a drummer and bass player, as well as Neurosis keyboardist Noah Landis on a couple of songs. Overall I felt as though the guitar could stand on its own, and the other instruments were almost more of a distraction, though Kelly didn’t come across with the same confidence as Von Till. I didn’t find the set compelling until the last song, “Deep Inside of You,” when everything suddenly came together strongly. The energy there was finally satisfying.
Jarboe was perhaps the artist for whom half of the audience had come that night (the other half were there for Low); her Swans-derived mythology may overshadow many of her solo works, but her incantatory style stood on its own. William Faith (of Faith and the Muse) accompanied her on effected acoustic guitar, but her spectre-like presence inevitably placed him in the shadows. Barefoot in a long dress, Jarboe sang like she was a preacher, channeling the words; at first I felt as though the songs were too monotonous – literally, with an even dynamic from start to finish. But by the end of the set she’d found a wider range, and the final song was a beautiful version of “Mama Loves Her Baby” a capella with two members of Low, Faith, and Von Till joining her on stage to vocalize on the chorus.
Low were thought by many as an odd choice to play, particularly after Jarboe’s dark intensity, but in fact the group found their place quite well. The opening song was quite droney, and I thought it sounded almost Pink Floydian when the vocals came in. I found my thought prescient when, later in the set, the band practically brought down the house with a picture-perfect cover of Floyd’s “Fearless”. The band’s gorgeous vocal harmonies resembled an opiated Mamas and the Papas. They played a strong set, and though I would have advised them to keep it a bit shorter, their encores made it worth staying for the whole thing: “You Are My Sunshine” followed by a fiery, stompin’ rendition of “Lord Has Saved My Soul.”
Friday night fed the audience’s punk spirit, first with the Phantom Limbs and then with Pleasure Forever. I wasn’t too familiar with either one, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Phantom Limbs, who reminded me immediately of the Stranglers circa ’78 – keyboard-driven punk rock with a singer wearing suspenders, no shirt, and white facial makeup. Energetic and a lot of fun, they’d be even better in a smaller club. Given the generally excellent sound that weekend, their set seemed a bit murky, and it was sometimes hard to pick out the details amidst their sound. But they carried the audience along quite well with their theatrical high-energy set. Pleasure Forever, alas, didn’t really do it for me. Once again keyboard-driven, their heavy rock was perhaps a bit like Nick Cave if his songs were backed by heavier music. Unfortunately, the songs blurred together without a strong individual personality, and my attention wavered.
Next up were one of the most highly anticipated groups of the weekend, Savage Republic. Their announced appearance was a surprise to everyone, since the influential L.A. band had broken up over a decade earlier after several albums of tribal, experimental rock. Spurred by an invitation made during last year’s Beyond the Pale, the group decided to reunite for a handful of shows capped off by this Friday night performance. Considering the reputedly ill terms of their original breakup, the audience counted themselves lucky, and offered up a strong reception for the band as they took the stage. That is, aside from the few grumblers I heard partway through hoping for SR to finish so Neurosis could start. I suppose it’s doubly difficult to satisfy both the smart and the stupid.
Pulling most of the songs, as I recall, from Customs and Tragic Figures, the six members (including guest drumming from Joel Connel of Man Is The Bastard) really tore through the place, with as many as three guitars and dual basses. Not to mention the nifty metal percussion clanking and pounding, which they practically invented in the rock context. Some of the guitar sounds were fantastic, including Ethan’s 12-string droneadelicism. As with the band’s albums, my only minor complaints were with some of the rather bombastic lyrics, but the music and the energy were top-notch. The worries that accompany any so-called “reunion” show were for nothing, as Savage Republic showed that the times have not been unkind to them – and the two encores showed that the audience recognized it.
Neurosis closed Friday evening with their first of two shows, and while Saturday’s was universally acknowledged as the stronger of the two, they nonetheless managed to easily impress the crowd both nights. Of course, this was their festival, so perhaps they were guaranteed a gathering of more willing victims than usual, but either way their dark aural vision, complete with gorgeous projections, was impressive as always. During recent years the band’s heaviness has remained constant, but the speed of delivery has slowed noticeably. Perhaps experience has shown them that it’s not necessary to play at full-bore to be intense. The drama and power is always there, and at their best, the band can fairly be described as epic without stretching things. I have to admit that sometimes I’d like a little more of their earlier higher-speed rockin’, but they remain masters of their craft at all times. It’s a continual brainfuck to me that crap like System of a Down are plastered across magazine covers while a band like Neurosis isn’t, but it may well be that they prefer it that way.
Saturday night’s lineup changed suddenly due to a cancellation by Lotus Eaters, but thankfully a fill-in was found in time. Thus House of Low Culture opened, featuring group leader (and usually sole member) Aaron Turner joined by fellow Isis member Jeff Caxide. With little time to prepare, the two filled a tabletop with effects and produced a noisy, droney set matched by slow-moving, vague images on video. Overall, I have to say that the dynamics were generally too monotonous, as if they were a bit afraid to let things spread out. Instead they filled the air with such a cluttered atmosphere of sounds that it was difficult to pick anything out. The few moments when they let the sound open up were the best, and then towards the end they finally came together, with a wider variety of noises leading them to a strong finish.
Tarantula Hawk were next, moved from the opening slot to No. 2 due to the lineup change. While waiting for them to set up, I went outside, where I found that a lot of other people agreed with my pet peeve for the weekend – the music between bands was practically louder than the bands themselves. Sorry Mr. DJ, but I’d kind of like to let me ears relax a bit during a weekend with 16 bands playing; not to mention maybe talking with friends between bands?
The three members of Tarantula Hawk kept things a bit heavier than they sometimes do, since they knew the audience would be most appreciative of that side of their sound, but they still shared a fair amount of their psychedelic drone atmospherics. Bassist Braden Diotte, as always, stood facing away from the audience, facing both the drummer and his huge stack of obscure gear. Their prog-doom-ambient-metal was a big hit, especially towards the finish when they pulled out some extra-heavy, tight riffing. I liked the use of an oscilloscope image projected behind them, reacting in time with the music. The abstract yet tightly connected imagery seemed an ideal visualization of their sounds.
Next up was the second reunion of the weekend, locals Steel Pole Bath Tub. Earlier in the evening I overheard two guys as one of them said how cool he thought it was that Neurosis talked to people and got them to reunite for the festival. I agreed then, and after watching SPBT I felt even more strongly in agreement. I used to see them play fairly often back in the day, and thought they were one of the more enjoyable bands around San Francisco. But either my memory’s let things fade a bit or the band got back together for this show with a shitload of strong amphetamines, because they kicked ass (excuse the language). They were not only powerful with the usual cool tape trickery, but they also were clearly up there to have fun, damn it, and it was infectious. I wondered if their style of rock would really work, sandwiched between Tarantula Hawk and Neurosis, but the audience was immediately won over. The bass was spine-tingling, the others were in the pocket, as they say, and then there were the Cars covers, especially the acoustic break for “Best Friend’s Girl.” Give them an Oscar.
I staggered home after the weekend’s second Neurosis set and somehow made it back for the fourth and last night, the sadly underattended ambient-experimental Sunday. I suppose there’s always going to be a slightly smaller audience for this sort of thing, and with four nights people might well decide to rest up on Sunday evening, but I was still disappointed to see a drastically smaller crowd that night.
And they missed out on an intriguing evening that began with one of the best shows I’ve seen by Tribes of Neurot (and I’ve seen a few). Over the years of experimentation and recording, the members of this Neurosis alter-ego have learned the art of layering. The dynamics of their set were excellent, with enough sounds being contributed without getting in each other’s way. With five members it would be easy for them to let things spiral out of control into a muddy aural mess, but I could always pick out individual sounds during their set. The highlight combined delicately picked guitar notes with steady, but not overbearing, drums as bizarre sounds swooped in and out; beautiful and dramatic. Naturally the video complemented the sounds very nicely.
Stars of the Lid’s appearance was one that folks were talking about beforehand, since they seem to rarely play shows. I was curious how their extreme minimalism might come off live. They threw me off-guard initially, with a weird comedic introduction thanking their crew and friends. They then dimmed the lights and commenced cycling drones with moments of silence – thankfully the crowd was surprisingly quiet and respectful during those. It was also the first show of the weekend for which the audience sat down. The sound very slowly grew denser, and in conjunction with the abstract video it seemed as though it should all set the mind adrift, but I found it simply too static and simple to pull my mind anywhere. They eventually reached a density that was more effecting, but by the end, when they returned to the slow cycling of drone and silence, I was quite ready for it to end.
Sonic Boom’s Experimental Audio Research, the evening’s next set, consisted of Sonic alone on stage, primarily with his back to the audience, wandering before a table of electronics. Beginning with overlapping electronic tones with occasional bells and chimes, his set was accompanied by very strange bits and pieces of video awkwardly edited together with blank blue-screen between them. Starting with an odd computerized “X-Mix” video piece followed by bits of pixelvision footage, the weird video selection occasioned more discussion afterwards than did the music. While it was primarily like being trapped inside a 60’s sci-fi soundtrack, the set included some very nice moments of alien attack sounds, marching electronic giant ants, and more.
The weekend’s finale was appropriately-sized, as synthesist/guitarist Robert Rich had brought a modular synthesizer setup about the same height as himself. With that behind him, and another rack to his side, Rich triggered some sequences, sat down with a guitar on his lap, and proceeded to play a thick distorted lead over the alienesque rumblings, chirpings, and filtered chatterings emitted by the synths. It was rather like a mad scientist in his lab with a guitar and a fuzzbox, I suppose. After a little while he set aside the guitar and put his mind to the electronics, which responded with bubbling submerged sounds, electronic shudders and blips, and more. Much of it was sequence-driven, but in the old style – think Cluster, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk, though sharper and perhaps heavier-sounding.
And thus came the end. I welcomed the opportunity to once again sleep normally, but I’d gotten a bit accustomed to heading out to the DNA Lounge every night. Perhaps the kind folks at Neurot should consider buying a club and making this more than an annual event, though they’d probably kill me for even asking. So I’ll wait another year and see who they pull out of their hats next time. And until then I can also hope that other people will take their example and work harder at supporting those whose work they admire. Offering encouragement and support is the only way we can all wade through the eternal morass of mediocrity that’s around us.
By Mason Jones