Monday, September 14, 2009

Live: Gowns, Pterodactyl at "The Maze"

When: 9/10
Where: The Maze @ Death By Audio

Death By Audio has recently filled its small two-room space with a wall-to-wall maze. If you're having trouble imagining how such an installation would work in a small music venue like this, there's a simple explanation - it doesn't work. It's a neat idea, and I haven't minded so far seeing shows there, but there's no bizarre trick you're failing to think of, the reality is simply that unless you find a spot good and early and hold your ground, you won't be able to see the bands.

The first band I found in the maze, after making my way to the back room, was Pterodactyl, down one member, tucked in an opening center of the passageways. I thought perhaps Ptero's two-man line-up was to accommodate the utter lack of space in maze's center, but rumor has it, guitarist Jesse Hodges missed the show at the last minute, due to an emergency, which probably explained why the remaining duo sounded underrehearsed.

The band wisely chose to build their music on anticipation rather than attempt watered-down versions of their usual outbursts. It wasn't nearly as satisfying as their normal set, especially only half a drum set (snares off, too, for no apparent reason) and barely an inch to move round. I was glad I'd seen the band before and knew their songs well enough to appreciate the adaptations - this certainly wouldn't have made so strong a first impression as the first time I did see them. But you've gotta give them some credit for pulling it out at all - once again, the band shows their capacity for doing a lot with a little. [MySpace]

The highlight of the night was Gowns, a West Coast band that only passes through down every year or so. I hadn't seen them before, but I'd heard good things from trusted sources, so I had high expectations. But apparently, not high enough. I was simply not prepared for a band so relentlessly creative, measured and intense.

Of those adjectives, intense is probably the most important. This band could rank just after Slint and Joy Division in a contest of most horrific portrayals of the inside of psychological deterioration. If Gowns' three members are not deeply disturbed individuals, then they may have missed out on lucrative acting careers - but I think their performance was indeed sincere, especially principal singer and guitarist Erika Anderson, who seems to pour the darkest corners of her psyche out into the mic in each song.

The lyrics, so far as I could catch them, seemed a little over-the-top in their melodrama, touching on cliches a little too often for comfort. In contrast, their music never approaches cliche and shows outstanding restraint. Anderson's singing is strong enough and she bold enough to let it loose with only the faintest instrumental backing, faint synth chords and guitar hum shifting towards increasing dissonance as the true psychological trauma of the songs unfolds. When the band does pick it up and rock hard, they rock hard well, with crunchy guitar, powerful drums and concise melodies.

Despite some disappointing lyrics, seeing a band this courageous, this willing to turn themselves inside-out on stage, and to eschew musical conventions in favor of new ideas - all this is a rare experience. The sonic minimalism leaves the band nothing to hide behind. The best art comes from admitting vulnerability, and in this regard, Gowns are far closer to an artistic ideal that most musicians will ever be. [MySpace]

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