There is a strange smell in the air. It’s not the usual hint of hedonistic depravity that floats into Philadelphia’s Old City section with the influx of scantily clad women and greasey-haired gentlemen on weekends. No, the smell is cheap incense, and to me it’s just as annoying as those whiffs of wantonness that descend upon the city’s historical section when the workweek is over. The flowery odor is emanating from the Khyber’s small stage area, where Gravity, the first band of the night, is playing. “We have CDs for sale at the back,” exclaims the drummer, who refers to himself throughout as MC Fuckface. He doesn’t say where in the back, but judging by their stoned, hippy grooves, dreadlocks, and ponytails, one need only follow his nose to find out.
The incense hangs around all evening, mixing, over time, with stale beer, body odor, and, I’m pretty sure, flatulence coming from somewhere in the crowd. It’s off-putting, but not as much as the scene outside, where throngs of Lotharios line up to enter neon-tinged martini bars and Latin-themed restaurants where salsa dancing is not a pastime, but a pre-requisite. Old City — on a Friday night, no less — isn’t the perfect place for a band like Black Moth Super Rainbow, whose relative anonymity and gurgling, off-kilter pyschedelia is more in tune with rural seclusion than urban nightlife. Sure, their ‘sounds like’ list contains a few ‘dance’ acts — Air, Boards of Canada, even a dash of Daft Punk — but the music they make, while electronic in execution, isn’t exactly made for the club.
Since forming in Pittsburgh five years ago, the five-piece has put out three albums (four if you count last year’s joint venture with Austin’s the Octopus Project), culminating in 2007’s impressively absorbing Dandelion Gum. A concept album about wood-dwelling witches cooking up candy for wandering strangers, Dandelion Gum is the sound of Air getting stoned in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania, or Daft Punk riffing on the organ sound from “Strawberry Fields Forever”. At other times, their analog keys sound like the saxophone from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” dropped in a blender, or the sort of sexual explosion you might find emanating from the robot in Short Circuit if he were to find a Mrs.
Yet, despite all the swathes of electronica, the music the band makes is humane, born of the countryside, birthed in a secluded cabin with analog instruments by people with pseudonyms such as Tobacco, Father Hummingbird, and The Seven Fields of Aphelion. Black Moth Super Rainbow doesn’t just fly under the radar; they know what the radar sounds like, and they spit it back at us through an oscillator.
On record, they hide behind pseudonyms and psychedelic artwork, but tonight the mystique and anonymity they’ve created is called into question. Official photographs show the group hooded and hidden. Reports of prior live shows (including a much-praised performance at this year’s SXSW showcase) told of masks and hats, but at the Khyber (deprived of any accessories) they look like grad students — bearded and bucolic. As the rest of the band sets up their archaic looking equipment, vocalist Tobacco sits cross-legged, amiably chatting with fans in the front row. During a break between songs, the band’s two female members high five while the bass player bounces around, extolling the virtues of his propulsive playing. There are no masks, no costumes — unless you count the bass player’s Richie Tenenbaum tennis outfit — and, due to Tobacco’s cross-legged approach to performing (he stays seated throughout), seemingly no vocalist. While the lack of sight lines for the singer adds to the electronic detachment of his vocodered vocals, background projections — dated exercise routines, cartoons, and instructional videos — add a welcome focal point for the small crowd.
The lack of anonymity aside, there’s none of the usual clichéd band/crowd interaction — no between-song chitchat or posed inter-play. The band’s members are self-contained and methodical, allowing the songs to do all the work. Despite their psychedelic tendencies (weird trippy oscillating sounds, robotic vocals), there’s a melancholic hue to Black Moth Super Rainbow that proposes them as corduroy rather than tie-dye. Sounding like they were conceived in spring, their songs speak of summer yet evoke hues of fall. It’s the same kind of ‘melantronica’ proposed by bands like Hot Chip — electronic music masked with a forlorn, introspective edge. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect HAL, the crazed computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to listen to as his consciousness slowly shuts down. “We miss you summertime,” sings Tobacco during “Sun Lips” as if he believes the next Ice Age is around the corner. “I want to be with you and the sun will rise,” he intones in the same song with a pensive cadence that suggests the sun won’t materialize unless the person in question does.
But it’s not all downbeat: “Melt Me” is a dance-floor stomp, personified by swooshing, soaring snyths and pounding drums. A perfect pop song, it encapsulates the staples of such endeavors — nonsensical lyrics (“La da de, La da de”) and a perfect running time (two minutes and 22 seconds) — and sounds like famous ’50s and ’60s song factory the Brill Building collapsing in on itself. If there’s any complaint to be made, it’s the noise level, which could be described — with no exaggeration — as ear-splitting. It fits in, though, with the heavy, suffocating sound that their music musters, like a dense fog coming down to engulf you with analog arms.
Unfortunately, much like the Khyber and its nightclub neighbors, Black Moth Super Rainbow are out of step with the current music scene. Despite the fact that the band scored rave reviews for Dandelion Gum, tonight’s crowd is slender (especially for a Friday night). The incense has subsided, but, judging by the turnout, the sweet smell of success won’t be replacing it. It’s everyone else’s loss.
The band works its way through “Lost, Picking Flowers in the Woods” as the streets outside dissolve into a pool of piss and beer and half-eaten pizza — an urban jungle at odds with Black Moth Super Rainbow’s rural aesthetic. Back inside, the hum subsides as several people call for an encore. As the sound grows louder, in a room where your personal space can be counted by arm’s lengths, it feels good, as Thomas Hardy might have put it, to be far from the madding crowd.