Before Aqui touched down in Charlottesville, Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar was just another boho teahouse, half-full of aloof Gen Y-ers who’d come for the opening band. After Aqui, it was a teahouse full of sweaty T-shirts and shit-eating grins. During, it was what hell would be like if directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez—sinister, violent, and hyper stylized, with forked tongue perpetually in cheek.
28 Mar 2005: Twisted Tea Branch Bazaar Charlottesville, VA
Aqui is an art-metal band from the future, or so they say, and their live show might be classified as avant-garde, if it wasn’t so much fun. Watching the quartet set up was, in a way, alarming—rotating red siren lights, a “BEGIN. YES” banner, some atmospheric noodling from the guitarist as front woman Stephonik X mumbled “hello” again and again into her mic. Was this to be more performance-art dreck?
But suddenly the noodling slammed into raging art-metal from the future; Stephonik X opened her throat and roared; teapots rattled; and several audience members struggled to close their gaping mouths. Having seen Aqui open for An Albatross, I’d known what I was in for. Still, I felt like a comic book character whose face had been flattened by Aqui’s might. It took a second to pop my nose out of my skull but when I did the band had my full attention.
Aqui’s home base is Brooklyn, where they’ve picked up what’s left of electroclash and brought it back to life using pounding metal as a defibrillator. The result is a sound both murky and exact, one that translates beautifully in performance. Live, Aqui was electrifying, charged by a hailstorm of drums (brought by Master Bob Stein) and a crackling bassist (Gbatokai Dakinah, originally from Denmark) who easily kept up with the thunder. On top was Gustavo Andrade, an occasional shredder with a frequently delay-saturated guitar; out front was one-woman hell raiser Stephonik X, about whom I will devote many paragraphs.
What Aqui has revived from electroclash, besides the electro, is its intense, eerie performance practice and DIY Gothpunk fashion sense. Decked in ripped-up black capris over a fishnet bodysuit, her boots spray-painted silver and her jacket’s back declaring “NO TRADITION”, Stephonik X was a novelty even before she fell into her epileptic full-body shuffle. She finished the look with heavy under-eye makeup that accentuated a bull-like glare. This glare is important, as it was what X used to lock eyes with everyone in the audience before she came up and shoved you (gently).
It was the end of the band’s second tour promoting its debut album, The First Trip Out, and Aqui stuck mostly to songs from that record. While the band’s debut is solid, it’s got nothing on experiencing Aqui live. Most songs were expanded significantly from their two-minute album length. “When the Blade Dips Down”, for example, was absolutely transformed, from a pulsing hard-rock jam to a menacing 6/8 headbanger driven by Andrade’s jackhammer riffs.
“What’s it gonna be?” X cried as the band launched into “Roll”.
“Pleasure? Or action!”
The quartet quite obviously draws the former from the latter. Writhing and thrashing every which way, X waded into the audience to nudge people into action while forcing low moans and shrieks from the depths of her demon-from-the-future soul. Behind her, her bandmates were just as active, pushing roiling, bubbling lines out of their ready instruments. The highlight? “Mission”: if only because it required X to kneel in front of a tiny xylophone and howl while dinking out scales at the same time—an impressive feat.
X is what a young PJ Harvey would have been if she weren’t so goddamned shy. Aqui’s “Please Send Love” is basically Harvey’s “Send His Love to Me” transported from the blinding desert to the cave-depths of hell, with the circling vultures replaced by he piercing, bat-like wails. But while Harvey’s music takes her into the minds of multiple personas, Stephonik X is a persona. She never broke character, not even in off moments. When Stein hopped off his throne to get a drink, X asked, “Where’d he go?” in the same drawn-out, delay-soaked voice that she used when singing. This brought a welcome self-consciousness to the show—thankfully, X does not take herself too seriously—that made the melodrama more palatable for the skeptics.
Even so, X is much more interested in making a political statement than in poking fun at herself. What was that statement? What I got was this: “Dance, idiots!” From the cotton fields of Mississippi to the streets of Havana (well, according to Dirty Dancing 2), music making and movement have historically been political acts, literally shaking up the status quo. X brought that philosophy to this narrow, unassuming teahouse, where she poked and prodded listeners into action until they gave in. Yeah, it took a while, but we got there. Eventually, the chairs got cleared, the inhibitions got tossed, and nearly everyone in the room started thrashing.