Johnny Brenda’s, one of the newer venues for indie/hip music in Philly, is sold out. Clinic is headlining, and a rep is handing out faux-surgical face masks at the entrance. I don’t take one. I am a critical thinker. I have no interest in Clinic, and I’ve arrived early to stake out the balcony in hopes that I will find myself a nice solid bird’s-eye view of opener Holy Fuck’s fresh! new! one-of-a-kind! 35-mm film synchronizer.
While fiercely guarding my spot, I get a view of the sparse crowd and start to do some intense people watching, or rather people-scrutinizing, before realizing that, because of the way the balcony bends around the stage, they can see me, too. Alarm! I avert my gaze and examine the lighting scaffolds and projectors used to emit eerie-quirky psychoscopes during first opener Mahogony’s set.
7 Mar 2007: Johnny Brenda's Philadelphia, PA
Dream-pop darlings. Pitchfork faves. Zzzz. Mahogony over. More people-scrutiny. People, stop looking at me back!
Something like twenty toy keyboards, a slew of guitar pedals and mixers, and a kajillion wires and plugs later—all laid out on two tabletops precariously balanced on keyboard stands—Holy Fuck are ready to roll. Just so you know and are prepared, I’m not going to make a joke about the band’s name, so let’s just add drums and a bass to that list, and we’re off.
I wasn’t, like, expecting the band’s most celebrated collaborator, and sometime MC, Beans to show up impromptu, but it would’ve been rad. Not that the quartet needed him to blaze the way; just saying. In any case, I’m stoked to finally see the 35-mm film thing I’ve been hearing about, and to fulfill my jones to see this band live ever since catching the last few seconds of their set opening for Wolf Parade last year (“Who was that?”).
What I’ve learned since then is that Holy Fuck is a four-piece Toronto faux-faux-electronic band who attempt to create modern electronic music without the ubiquitous laptop and preprogrammed beats. For example, they get around the preprogrammed beats by layering the built-in rhythms of their varied keyboards. And that notorious 35 mm film synchronizer (which is threaded with film reel and adorned with pick-ups) subs for a turntable, with lead keyboardist Brian Borcherdt pulling long strips of cellophane back and forth to mimic the scratch. The no-computer stance is more a Dogme-esque constraint than a political agenda; as the multitudinous plugs and gadgets can attest, this band isn’t anti-tech in the least.
What they are is an accomplished fancy-dance band that survives by improv and can slide into any number of different tonal/emotional registers. In this set, they casually open with what quickly becomes a block-rockin’ beat party; then the melody veers into a lurching tone poem before the rhythm section propels it back into an upper. All the while, gadget-meisters Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh are pressing lots of keys and buttons, the effects of which are generally impossible to place within such an immense and polyphonic sound.
And the people are loosening up. And the people are starting to bop.
The next piece uses a guitar pedal for an effect that makes the keyboard sound like it is swallowing itself. I don’t know, but it’s cool. Another song in, and Borcherdt adds vox drenched in echo; the lyrics are unintelligible, but I’m guessing that’s the point. Following that, we’ve got a drum-driven piece with cascading fills every other beat virtuoso-style—sounds like faster, more melodic machine gun fire, or, perhaps, just an immensely skilled drummer.
The sound ranges from Nintendo-ish blips and beeps to space-age-y static and more typical electronic fare: huge freakout breakbeats anchored by swiveling bass guitar. What’s surprising about Holy Fuck is the band’s range of registers. Though most of the set is upbeat, faux-trad indie-dance music, a few pieces thrown in at the end hit melancholy notes, with Walsh’s yearning melodica sliding in and out of a sober five-note backriff. The set ends with a reverb-heavy, sun-is-rising/new-day-is-born meditation on life. It’s something that could have been copped from Sigur Ros—it’s that earnest and genuine (please note: compliment, not criticism).
I’m not sure how closely Holy Fuck’s project is tied to mimicry, and I’m no expert on the various lineages of electronic music. But it seems as though they are actively trying to parrot the development of (dare I say it?) electronica (blech! just blech!), from the block-rocking-out of the Chemical Brothers all the way down to more emotionally engaged fare like M83 (my goddess, I’m behind).
Of course, I’m too new to their music to stand by that thesis, and, in any case, whatever references they’re making stand on their own in nuanced, complex, and ultimately listenable pop compositions. Of course, it’s the live show which makes the sound visible, and the visuals here (Borcherdt manipulating a filmmaking artifact to produce turntable scratches, Walsh flicking knobs and keys with a method only he knows) intensify the sound so much that the recorded music can’t live up. A live band if ever there was one, Holy Fuck brings improv to a new level: Toy keyboards are the future.