Thursday, April 15, 2010

Demo Sweat #13

This is the first edition of Demo Sweat that I've been able to put together without taking the lazy man's path and just slapping an ad up on Craigslist. A few items I was sent in the mail, one disc was handed to me at a show, and a couple bands sent me download links through my site e-mail address. This is a big step, I feel. When I first got to Austin I tracked down a long-lost friend from high school, Marshall, to pick his brain about what it's like to be a musician in these parts. "For the love of God, stay away from Craigslist," was his immediate response, or words to that effect. "Play with your friends."

He had a point. It's helpful when you don't know anybody in town to get your butt into gear, get going to some auditions, and maybe start to play a few shows so you can figure out where you want to be (and where you absolutely don't). But if you've been living in Austin for a few years now getting nowhere in bands and you still need online classifieds to find people with whom to start further unsuccessful projects, best to reassess your priorities. Maybe spend less time on your own music and more time going out to see other local bands, because generally the musicians who are hardworking, goal-driven, and self-motivated are already playing out. Go buy them beers. Then, when their lead singers flake out, OD, or convert to Christianity (whichever), you can poach them.

Zorch, as mentioned in this space previously, have extended the unique blend of process and chaos that defines their music to one of the most meaningful (and beautiful) demo delivery systems I have yet to encounter. It's ridiculously simple -- just two pieces of cardstock and some invisible tape -- but it has an idea behind it that I could write about (in my capacity as an art history-minor dropout) for days. Every copy is completely unique, and the band brings all their art supplies to shows so that fans can construct their own custom masterpieces. I want to take a moment to recognize how great of an idea this is. Digital music downloads are a real conundrum for DIY artists, since a major part of forging a connection between artist and listener is that tangible piece of evidence of the bond.

Why do people still buy CD's? Why are vinyl records making such a surging comeback? Psychologically, having a little tiny piece of the band to call your own matters. I vividly remember riding my bike five miles to the nearest cool record store straight from school the day Wowee Zowee came out. It seemed like the most important thing in the world to me -- no wonder I promptly rechristened myself after one of the album's songs. Zorch are extending this vital physical link one step further. Their CD's aren't ready to be taken home until the listener puts their own personal stamp on their packaging. Rather than passively receiving the music, the listener takes part in its completion. The purpose of art, broadly speaking, is to act creatively and in doing so inspire others to adjust their way of seeing the world. Yoko Ono would approve.

I suppose it's ridiculous to say so much about the sleeve the CD comes in before addressing the music... but these things matter. What's more, the way Zorch writes songs and the overall effect of the four tracks on this demo quite elegantly complement the high-concept wrapping. Everybody who makes themselves a Zorch sleeve is given the same basic art tools... but everyone uses them differently. The band's restless energy allows them to sound like many different bands all in the course of a single song. The tools stay the same -- keyboard and drums -- but there's no rules for how they use them. Sometimes they jam, sometimes they sample themselves, here they sound like a straightahead rock band, here they sound like Suicide-goes-to-Africa.

Whatever guise they're wearing at any given time, it's all tied together with madly swinging drums and wicked humor. The songs are multi-layered and polyrhythmic like progressive rock, but structured with the quick movement and burnished hooks of radio singles. "Zut Alore!" even has an irresistible gang vocal melody comfortably sharing space with irradiated synth noises and ball-crushing Trans Am-style drums. Having knocked that one out of the park, they don't repeat themselves even once for the rest of the course of the EP. They stretch the definition about as far as it can go, but they're a rock and roll band at heart and head-banging, fist-pumping grooves are always around the corner. You can download this record for free, but as I've argued at some length, Zorch have gone out of their way to make a physical copy a desirable and unique thing and if you like what you hear at all you're going to want one. Suitable for framing!

Let's see, what else do we have? Snowclones, a five-song EP from Austin's Flush, is a bit of a puzzle. The piano and guitar playing is technically wonderful, and the three-part harmonies are exquisitely constructed. But how can musicians this skilled not listen to their own work and blanch at the deathly boring, see-saw vocal melodies and agonizingly repetitive two-chord sludges? "One Idea" is six minutes long and it has... guess how many ideas. The bass and drums are mushy and uninvolved and the band only has two dynamic settings -- when somebody's taking a solo and when somebody isn't. "Hold," a definite bright spot, manages stronger rhythmic changes and restrains itself from repeating the chorus 12 times at the end, mercifully. Keep writing songs... and then EDIT them. A lot. Also explore the concept of the "bridge" if you're going to insist on pushing everything to the five-minute mark and beyond.

Descendants of Erdrick are a video game-music band spearheaded by talented guitarist and arranger Amanda Lepre. The classic game soundtracks of the 80's are a huge, underreported influence on practically every musician who ever plugged in a NES (not least those guys in Zorch), and bands who pay tribute to the style proliferate on the West Coast, so much so that there can even be said to be competing styles, revisionist vs. purist. The Descendants edge towards the latter category, transposing instantly recognizable themes from The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior into impressively interwoven, nimble lines on flute and guitar. Only for a few choice moments on their CD do the drums really rock out and the guitars crunch. More clever is the way they form suites out of different pieces from the same games, and perform some abrupt stylistic shifts in real time to bridge them together. The avant-garde intro to their Metroid number, "Secret of Planet Zebes," is a very creative interpretation of a scrap of game soundtrack that's more sound effect than music. I hope to hear more of that kind of weirdness from them in the future. Bottom line -- if you're already singing the overworld music from Zelda in your head as you read this, you will enjoy this band. They play tonight, Thursday the 15th, at Elysium as luck would have it.

CANNONS are a band from Philly who stab at their guitars and shout -- every time a high school kid gets turned on by his college cousin to how great Rites of Spring are, an angel gets its wings. Their record Friendly Muscles doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor vary all that much from track to track, but it has several points in its favor. First of all, they don't waste any time whatsoever. It's 11 songs in less than 25 minutes, and their grooves sound so much fresher for not being overindulged. They have three vocalists, too, which might be more effective if they didn't all sound more or less the same, but at least the competition keeps the lyrics interesting and the song titles ("Only You Can Prevent What I'm Talking About") clever. You know how Braid, Jawbox, and At the Drive-In all had two contrasting singers, one melodic, one abrasive? This band sounds like Chris Broach, Bill Barbot, and Jim Ward said to hell with the guys who can carry a tune, let's start a band where we all scream into oblivion together.

One more... the Loyal Divide's Labrador EP was passed wordlessly into my hands by an attractive young lady at one of my own band's shows. I suppose I look exactly like the sort of person who would actually listen to and write about some random CD given me in this way. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, really. I don't know anything about the band; their MySpace says they're from Chicago. Their music sounds like extended atmospheric introductions waiting for songs that never quite arrive, the programmed beats are loud but static and the vocals are perversely recorded in such a way that they never sound like they're supposed to be there. Rather than developing naturally, "Young Blades" and the other songs have one part... then another unrelated part... and then another part. Pointless tedium. But thanks for the CD anyway.

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