The ticket distributor behind the will call window at Rock and Roll Hotel was conducting an informal poll of concertgoers who were attending this triple-bill. Which of the three acts brought you here? Noise-shoegaze newbies A Place to Bury Strangers, electronic jammers Holy Fuck, or Scottish punk revivalists Sons and Daughters? I could see from the hand-written tally, later confirmed by a slew of early audience exits, that the gig’s overwhelming draw was not its headliner Sons and Daughters, but the upstart opener A Place to Bury Strangers (APTBS). The band, which released its debut last year on Killer Pimp (an actual indie that probably still distributes from a car trunk), has been riding a blogwave to the heights of hypedom.
The poll results made sense to me (who asked the ticket matron, as an equal-opportunity music journalist, to check all of the band’s columns), even if they may have perplexed the show’s promoters. Sons and Daughters, despite releasing three mildly successful albums that spread themselves across many of the usual genre and generational divides, are not necessarily a band worth getting overexcited about, and certainly not a band many people would schlep out on a rainy night to catch. But APTBS, whom the district’s newspaper of record called “ear-shatteringly loud” and whose MySpace tag promises “total sonic annihilation”? “Now this,” you can imagine the bored bureaucrat, web surfing on government time, saying to himself, “this I gotta see.”
Pity the thirty-something who expected Sons and Daughters to bring opening acts as innocuous and middlebrow as themselves. (Incidentally, the lineup was unique to DC: Holy Fuck and APTBS are touring together, but the shared date with Sons and Daughters was a singular occasion.) Much has been made of Oliver Ackermann’s searing pedal wizardry, but it was as much Jono MOFO and Jay Space’s furious rhythm section that brought A Place to Bury Strangers’ set to the level of tinnitus-inducing performance art. Against an eerie backdrop, lit only by a projector and occasional strobes, the Brooklyn trio constructed a pounding wall of jangling, screeching sound, with Ackermann’s vocals buried deep and only the most subtle traces of structure evident in the compositions.
Although the band’s album often strains into monotony, hurt by too-cool vocals and a resistance to tempo-changes and melody, APTBS provide a terrifically intense live experience. Like monsters unleashed in the darkness, Ackermann and company wallop ears and chests in a musical experience that is felt as much as heard. As soon as the ear-splitting, guitar-throwing finale had faded to a loud buzz and the band had exited the stage, witnesses stumbled for the exit doors to smoke a cigarette and let their eardrums recover.
While Holy Fuck is hardly as intimidating, the quartet has a similar yearning for the experimental. Breathing room increased marginally for the Canadian group’s set but most of the near-deaf troglodytes who came out for ATPBS stuck around. Holy Fuck, which features the unusual configuration of two keyboardists/electricians backed by a drummer and bassist, claims the moniker “improvisational electronica,” which means they take samplers and effects machines and try to “play” them in the same way a jazzman might play a trumpet. The band’s leaders, Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh, situate themselves behind dueling decks of gadgetry, summon a beat from their organic rhythmic section, and then set off on a tour of dance and electronic soundscapes, incorporating fuzzed-out vocals, synthesizers, and a host of other obscure noise-makers.
Borcherdt and Walsh did their best to enliven the crowd, and although a few kids down front were freaking out into fist-pumping mania, in general the audience stood still and took it in without much excitement. I grabbed a spot to the side of the stage where I could watch Walsh work, but trying to understand the method to his knob-twisting, button-pushing machinations was akin to watching an uncle dabble under the hood of my Volvo: complete incomprehension. Holy Fuck make a marvelous racket, and the constant eye-contact between members as well as the imprecise stops and starts gave the impression that we had witnessed a unique performance.
After these two acts of imagination and verve, what a downer it was to hear the rote rockisms of Sons and Daughters. From the moment the foursome strode onto the stage, the mimicry on display was obvious. Lead guitarist Scott Paterson, with an Elvis-styled hairdo and sweet-faced snarl, seems convinced he is Ron Asheton or some other proto-punk wailer, gyrating and cringing during even the most formulaic riffing. Co-lead singer Adele Bethel alternates her femme fatale poses with an offensive lack of subtlety: during one song she leaves the microphone on the stand and attempts a cold-eyed Stevie Nicks impersonation, while on another she whips the cord and struts back and forth in the mode of Grace Slick. Ailidh Lennon perpetuates the stereotype of the aloof bassist, dedicated to the music but not in for all the theatrical bullshit, you know? An excellent study of Bill Wyman and D’arcy Wretzky, Lennon chewed gum for the duration and never once smiled. I couldn’t get a good view of drummer David Gow but I’m sure he plays a good wildman a la Keith Moon or John Bonham, or, who knows, maybe he’s a sophisticated jazz-guy like Charlie Watts.
However decent Sons and Daughters’ records may be (their EP Love the Cup with the irresistible “Johnny Cash” still finds its way onto my playlist every couple of months), playing in person the band comes across as a bunch of wannabes whose songs all sound the same: barreling rhythm, twangy guitars, frenetic female vocals, rest-stops every four minutes. Dipping into the famous guitar lines from “I Wanna Be Your Dog” during a scripted jam, the band’s performance begged the question. Which is worse: seeing a has-been or seeing a never-was?
Though I have been spared the pain of watching the varicose-veined Iggy and the latest Stooges incarnation, I can imagine that the senior spectacle inspires a similar dread to that felt while watching Sons and Daughters prance around as if what they were doing mattered. Punk rock has become an empty trope, as easily entered and understood as an action movie or a television crime drama. People are drawn to the familiar: thus the success of Sons and Daughters. Thankfully, the first half of the night’s bill proved that hope for rock’s revolutionary character springs eternal. A Place to Bury Strangers and Holy Fuck express elements of the bizarre, the incomprehensible, and the painfully original that will no doubt be aped by generations to come.