Less the Band performs Astroland

by Brian Bartels

15 January 2009

When Less the Band uncoiled a humble ballad between the gaps of their experimental catalogue, the performance had evolved from a solo pianist, to a sound effects wizard, to a mermaid-inspired trapeze artist known as Una, who climbed a ceiling-high rope, angling and dipping in various poses as the Less orchestra swooned through melodious rapture.

Space. If we took every available square inch of our surroundings and entertained inversion, that embodies my idea of musical collaboration. People go to a room. Or an area. Inside that place, there are objects. People touch these objects for reasons better known to them; their carnal urges impolitely trigger something inside, as the outside world simply asphyxiates their continuity. Thus, a reaction is imminent and, often, necessary.

Astroland is (or was, depending on whom you ask) a three-acre amusement park on the Coney Island Boardwalk, a long-standing getaway for families and friends and freaks with great hopes and small means. It closed summer 2008 and appears will never reopen.
Music can be such an interaction with ourselves. Which is how we, the musicians and the audience, collaborate. There is no way the musician could maintain without us, right? This is how Less the Band, a New York outfit, introduced their expression—through a limited performance multi-media rock opera surrounding Astroland. These anthems were displayed in the Kitchen, a space reminiscent of Austin’s City Limits recording studio. The stage rested flush against audience seating, inviting intimacy, while three projection screens provided the backdrop. It was an ideal sound gallery of experimental tastes, devices, and temperatures.
Space. Where do we find music? Since sound bounces off objects, each space where music is performed is arguably integral and varying, even if the instruments are situated a few degrees.

Less the Band performs Astroland

12 Dec 2008: The Kitchen — New York, NY

Space. Last December. A band. A movement. In frenetic space with untrained fluorescents and salt-water fringe. Not far from edges and reverb floorboards, which hide the map, which holds the answer, which sounds like (everyone’s favorite noun). An adventure. Not over their spoken past. Not wondering how long life continues, but acting on urge; seeking the night flight backgammon game played by sunglassed jackalopes allowed to leave their taxidermy torment and skitter over a silent, flickering torch at the end of a bottomless cave, a sluggish hearse that’ll give you a life if you’re hitching a ride; a bent spoon; a harried motorcycle; the plastic Ice Capades. We were about to experience Less the Band, a veritable Rorschach of tangential maneuvering.
Space. Rockets go there. Why?
My angle on Less the Band is an alternative interpretation of what Less has become and still becomes. This is a band that clearly wants to play and play often, yet their other talents take precedent in other facets of their lives. Each member has a rich background in theater and performing arts, from sound engineering and production to acting, writing, and directing. Over time, those talents have weaved quite the web of talented colleagues who collaborate and assist the Less engine.
Before the show began, attendees walked into a welcome wagon of accordion and violin tunes, accompanied by still images of graphic artist Danica Novgorodoff, paintings and drawings depicting animals and robots traveling the Earth amidst a post-Apocalyptic snowfall. Bears were caught in traps. Frogs engaged robots. Ravens controlled automobiles. Animals dreamt.
Less The Band quietly took the stage by intro of a Speak & Spell voice, repeating the words, “How can the human race survive the next hundred years? I don’t know the answer.” The robotic inquisition sustained over images of dirty galaxies and blue leaves, that token sight of riding in a truck bed as it rolls underneath a thick succession of maple trees.
With Less, there’s no showmanship. All the swagger goes into the well-crafted songs. There’s less external pizzazz and more internal voodoo. It’s evident they perform a search. Whether that be through meaning, wisdom, or reflection seems irrelevant. Perhaps Less seek a better understanding of what the world ignores. Just like superheroes. Drop your Blackberry, friend. There’s a man dyin’ round the corner.

Steve and Molly, a couple of young shoegazers, embarked on a trip toward Coney Island. Still images of the couple flooded the projections as Less became active. Lyrics surrounded tornado reveries, fragmented ideals and post-apocalyptic reckoning. Words amalgamated to form cautionary appendages to the young couples harrowing journey. “Our land is the mouth to a river of sound / We are swimmers to the mouth of sound.” Less preached impending gloom, infused with the dire subject matter that’s affected Coney Island the past few years: The dreams of yesteryear as they slowly melted into the sea. Nostalgia dwindled as the bees swarmed. As their electric guitars summoned a new vocabulary. As reverb became an anomaly. As the drums began cascading into the drummer’s voice slowly washing the memory away.
As Less began the ramble, five crowd members stood up for a chorus break, joining in the interactive floorplan, assembling stage rear for the show’s remainder, evoking each song’s sentiment by way of improvisational/emotional dance reflexes. Steve and Molly’s simple hello had quickly become the union of strangers, expanding into the subway as their journey continued, hurdled toward the impending specter that has become Astroland.
Since there is no frontman in Less, I’ll refrain from dropping names to fill space. An excavation from pattern into sub-level dimensions, Less are at their best when they toy with architecture, which is to say the music itself amalgamates with the space it surrounds. Such properties are integral for growth as musicians. Their lack of saturated lyrics compels one to reveal truths, perhaps about our own misgivings, or alternative energies applied in daily grinds. They inhabit playfulness, shock value, dormancy, cowhide branding, anti-elevator salutations and the shriek, negating the trust and adopting the whisper. In short, scientific behavior or theological resistance. Meaning behind truth. A music version of the X-Files, Less puppeteer the daily struggles of our human state: Reflection, paranoia, despair, yearning, regained hope, and restlessness. They straddle melancholy and elation, which some argue mold the Gen X contours of a 21st Century playground.

A flashing image of “DON’T MISS / CONEY ISLAND” repeated itself over a crescendo of guitar and drums and vocals, all crashing into one another. Less was conveying how the trip—the build-up of these two young people and the build-up of our outside world—would affect the core adventure as we spiraled toward finale.

A Subway Voice washed over reverb and various synthetic instruments, namely third party voices on and off-stage, sound clips deftly nuanced between the chord progressions by Moose Lamp, a sound team rooted in transformative layers. Less toyed with suspense as the young couple finally arrived to the end of the F train, which has one last stop: Coney Island.

The second part of this adventure was about to begin.

A piano was pulled out during intermission, followed by a one-song solo from Lia Ices, an off-book performance the band incorporated each night they played, with a different artist taking the reins each performance. Ms. Ices, an elfin singer-songwriter, arrived like a slow dream, her dark angelic presence complementing one’s notion of spotting a Coney Island survivor, still lingering after the closure, crestfallen and struggling against hope somewhere close, reaching out to the other survivors through maritime musical SOS.

Then came the continuation of a journey, rising from the floorboards with primal, guttural echoes, as the main event rekindled its fire, with Less providing more soundscapes explored and conjoined by the Kitchen space. The rollercoaster ride re-engaged its ascent, the way each snaking ride begins; the old Cyclone word parade of scales and elliptical measurements.

The elements then expanded from a solo piano performer to Zero Boy, an insanely talented sound effects performer who previously quipped one-liners as the band rocked on. This time, Zero Boy became a man, and the band halted progression to offer the audience a glimpse of Coney Island through Zero Boy’s character cavalcade, his voice a radio dial of action-packed alternatives, at times playful and nostalgic, at other instances cynical and foreboding, but always highly entertaining. The show-stopper exhausted an entire day of Coney Island activity through a swell of terse Boardwalk excursions: The basketball games, the icy cones, shoot the red star, Dante’s Inferno, swimming, fizzy, noise parachuting, Wonder Wheel, Skee-ball, the clicking Cyclone tracks as the car flirted with ascension, the riding horses in a steeple chase, the bumper cars, seagulls, and five tries for ten bucks games, the three-for-a-dollar voices, and, as he holds the audience in his palm, the projection screen becomes a looped video of a young child crying, becomes guitar, becomes saxophone, becomes a stick drawing shapes in the sand, becomes Steve and Molly revisited, becomes a song of ships, more dancing, ten-inch men and gypsies, slowly baking in the summer sun as the light’s permitted Less’ re-instatement.
Less showcased ambition, existing between the chord progressions and inside the sonic accompaniments, the cocooned inspirations morphing into original transmogrifications.

That said, I often wish I had a better scientific understanding of music, though I am glad there have been many books recently published on the correlations. If music proves evocative enough, our minds inevitably search for the meaning behind the curtain of sound. Less, amongst other bands trained in multi-tasking artistic endeavors, do a respectable job of conveying those humble undertakings. 
Experiment. More precisely, the ideology of experiments one might never rebound from. When we hear music, the mind subverts. The cells in our brain attempt to slow down if music registers enough, thereby releasing sensory neurons back through our body, this gambler’s exchange of information that may or may not pay off.
The band was one appendage of the spectacle. They appealed to the core sound behavior, while the graphic artist moved another limb, the filmmaker captured a story through ocular narrative, the sound team were playmakers of their own devices, tempting fate with ability, and the audience watching the experiment, a faithful expression in which we aspired to locate nostalgia, or new awakenings, perhaps the mistakes that made us human—the fragile tweaks we should all be so lucky to notice—to search for revelry while locating a new way to see and hear the world, in a new space, with new ideas and memories. I’m speaking of live entertainment, I guess, unless I mean something way beyond that.
It’s worth noting their physical register during performance. No one ever confronted the audience, which is common Less stage presence. Exchanges were made face down, an insular expression unfolding. Some people need confrontation, or leadership, or a helping guide. We can all agree on how charismatic certain frontmen can be, but it’s obvious Less are not interested in following that route. They’re a better band for it. The audience is allowed to witness the collaboration spread out, and it offered the imagination a more personal glimpse of the rehearsal process through their stage presence. No hierarchy. No monarchial offset to the process. We were allowed to experience a humble collective with unselfish hyperboles.

When Less uncoiled a humble ballad between the gaps of their experimental catalogue, the performance had evolved from a solo pianist, to a sound effects wizard, to a mermaid-inspired trapeze artist known as Una, who climbed a ceiling-high rope, angling and dipping in various poses as the Less orchestra swooned through melodious rapture.
Fires raged. Steve and Molly, now awash in various artistic forms of the apocalypse, experienced a foretelling of perilous outcomes. Many new characters arrived in the story, some helpful, others paralyzed by Astroland’s deterioration. The Plastic King, the working-class deity. The Nowhere Man, the rootless subject. The F train sax player Kimber Fuller (who does in fact play sax on the F train to Coney Island). Metallic drones gravitated to pop-fueled Astroland arrival, the visuals capturing thousands of attendees dissolving into the lights. Less were singing about what Steve and Molly were looking for, but the young couple maintained aimlessness, their search for meaning upended by Astroland’s absence.   

Though an extended paragraph of Less’ songs harbored moroseness, what’s especially sad about Coney Island’s Astroland is how it was an amusement park on the edge of the ocean and the edge of solid land, built long ago by people that (hopefully) viewed it as an opportunity to entertain innocence, and now that innocence has been permanently closed.

Ben Stanton, on lighting design, was especially noteworthy, as red floods ballooned the hazardous waves, cool blues offered reassurance during foggy internal struggles, and the oranges caught the spark that ignited momentum.

Filmmaker Graham Waterston applied terse, affecting companions to each song, along with repetitive video clips depicting human activities we experience daily—but should never take for granted: A sunrise, the boy crying and rubbing his eyes, a wedding couple dancing as their outlined bodies appeared to melt under the pressure of union in an un-unified world. Dancing. Stopping. Dancing. Stopping. Living. Fading.

Still photographs taken by Annie Parisse captured eerie images of dolls and figurines; monkeys come alive the closer we investigate their features; a clown/hobo mask has hollowed-out eyes and won’t rest until he finds his trusty cigar. Oddly enough, they provided animation while remaining inanimate.

By the end, it was evident how many performers were involved, particularly off-stage, as the creative collective, numbering twenty strong, took a bow to sustained applause. The band re-submerged, their cool black plastic forms letting go of malleability, surrendered to exhaustive exploration. As the expansive group of talented performers exited the stage, I was reminded of the way they arrived, with the Speak & Spell repeating, “How can the human race survive the next hundred years?” Less had contributed to the notion of human condition by way of experimental sounds; gongs, horns, keys, delays, samples, harmonica, heart and soul. And as I left the Kitchen building, on the edge of Manhattan Island, the bright yellow moon overhead, I started looking everywhere. Each step became more and more ravenous. I was looking for music, for photography and film, for art. We get so built up on our idealistic franchises, the familiar guidelines of yesteryear and tomorrow, when everyone needs a little circus freak inside to keep things interesting.

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