Two summers ago, in a ferocious storm, lightning knocked the main steeple of the Stone Church in Brattleboro right off. You could see the massive tower lying on the grass outside the church for weeks, blackened at the top where the bolt had struck. “That church hasn’t been a church for quite a while,” I heard someone murmur that summer as we all gawked at the wreckage, and what that person meant was that the Stone Church occasionally hosted music in its sanctuary—hardcore, punk, and metal music—and people should not, perhaps, be surprised at the occasional lightning strike.
I was reminded of all this when I slipped in the side door of the Stone Church on a cold Monday in February. Pews had been pushed to the walls and, in the front of the church, where the minister would stand, a space had been cleared for amps and pedals. There in front of floor-to-ceiling organ pipes, one man was thrashing away at a flying wedge guitar. Another, close-shaven, back turned to me, was flailing sideways at his bass. Dense, wailing, shattering sounds were washing over the bare room in waves. If another bolt had struck, at that moment, no one would have known.
The band on the stage was Shores of the Tundra, an experimental metal band based out of Iowa. They were traveling, for this tour, with the one-person outfit Aseethe (Brian Barr), who like them melds screaming sheets of guitar noise with electronic beats and transitory intervals of lyricism with grinding, chugging riffs.
Neither of the two Iowa bands had a live drummer. Like Genghis Tron, both spliced freeform organic aggression with the precision of programmed drums. The two bands have a split 12” together, out on Scenester Credentials / AROS records, and they were making the rounds of smaller, alternative venues up and down the east coast. It was not clear whether they were playing any other churches… but they should. There is nothing quite like the visual of a camouflage-dressed metal singer spewing rage and disaffection into a microphone in front of benches that have hymnals tucked into the pockets.
Shores of the Tundra’s set was clean and tight, monstrously loud but with an edge of control and occasional bouts of beauty. Space echoing guitar effects blurred into sludgy blues-based vamps, ragged-throated screams were broken by weird tongue-clicking accents. Guitar riffs toiled in the clamped, distorted lower registers then made improbably graceful, octave high leaps. Towards the end of the set, Aseethe’s Barr huddled over the mic with Shores of Tundra’s vocalist and the sound went dead. But you could hear, just barely, without amplification, and they seemed to be making rough harmonies. Power, aggression… and nods to melodic complexity.
Shores was a band without a drummer. Aseethe was a guy without a band. He stood up there all by himself, slashing occasional strokes at his guitar and manipulating lavish loops and samples. The problem, from a concertgoer’s perspective, was that his most interesting material came from the laptop. The guitar seemed like an afterthought, almost an accent to the beats and riffs he’s loaded onto the computer. Yet there were definitely moments. At one point, Barr was playing fast and high on his guitar, generating a silvery, overtone-laden haze of sustained notes, interleaved like the thinnest layers of metal. This dissolved into a monstrously heavy eighth-note chug and finally, a long series of strummed chords, backed with programmed drums. But here, the act began to look like heavy metal karaoke. Barr’s big swinging downstrum didn’t always coincide with the chords from the laptop, coming just before or just after, his arm movement not matching up with the sound at all. It was, intermittently, like a badly dubbed movie, where the mouth is moving but no sound is coming out.
The last band, the one I’ve come to see, was Amargosa, a heavy orchestral three-piece, along the lines of Red Sparowes, Pelican or Explosions in the Sky. The band has one self-recorded full-length, and they have recently collaborated on a theater project with some local actors. (The play was called This is the Place of Parting, and it was an exciting, though imperfect piece of experimental theater.) To perform in this play, the members of Amargosa had to learn to play really, really quietly. Carson Arnold, the drummer, was using mostly brushes. The amps were turned way down.
This turned out to be a very good thing for Amargosa, because they now have control of their sound at every part of the dynamic range. They can still be overwhelmingly loud, bassist Josh Steele and guitarist Luke Stafford swaying back and forth in nearly visible waves of sound. Yet they can also cut back to almost nothing, Stafford sawing at his guitar strings with a busted drumstick, the sound damaged, poetic and attenuated. Arnold, in particular, has become extremely flexible in his playing. During one song, which fluctuated from soft insinuation to explosive crescendo, you could hear him playing the same basic set of rhythms throughout, yet on different drums depending on volume. It was like a singer first whispering, then belting the same melody.
Amargosa has also lately begun to incorporate spoken word samples into its pieces, adding another level of drama into all-instrumental compositions. An early set piece was eerily lyrical, half-heard voices rising out of the mix then falling back, in a way that might remind you of Sonic Youth’s “Providence” or certain Mogwai songs.
The evening’s longest piece was a cut from their last record, which began with an extended guitar solo, played on strings with a drumstick. Lyrical, liquid, slow and serene, this interval went on for minutes, the guitarist behind his row of effects pedals, coaxing out his tranquil sounds. But then, unexpectedly, the guitar fizzed off into a squall of feedback, and drums and bass came back in with a double clap of thunder. From there, turbulence reigned, a seething, undulating tide of sound that filled every inch of the high ceilinged room and pounded physically up through the floor. It was not quite like being struck by lightning—more, in fact, like being pummeled by waves of surf—but it would do… at least until the next electrical storm.