in order of appearance:
So, here we are, somewhere down at the arse end of Manhattan, in a street as yet ungilded by New York's relentless yuppification (although it's getting closer every year). It's time for the Drop Dead Festival, the event that tempts post-punkers, deathrockers, psychobillies and goths out of the woodwork, and hurls them, hollering and flailing, into the multi-level club known as the Knitting Factory, thence to be blasted by an assortment of strange and cacophonous bands. All of which sounds like my idea of a party, so let's take up the listening position and prepare for blasting.
The show opens with a melee (it would be inacurate to use a prosaic expression like 'a set') by Din Glorious. The stage is festooned with found objects, some of them animate. A riot breaks out, thinly disguised as a musical performance. Din Glorious have sometimes been compared to trashbasher industrialists such as Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept, and while that's true up to a point, I think you'd have to lock Einsturzende Neubauten in a branch of Toys R Us overnight to get the full Din Glorious effect.
The, erm, din served up for us here is certainly full of clattering beats and pounding rhythms. But it's presented in a far more colourful and lighthearted manner than those old school junk wallopers, or even present-day practitioners of the pounding scrapyard sound, like our very own maestros of the junk pile, the mighty Leechwoman.
It's as if, somewhere amid the ramshackle racket, Din Glorious have a certain pop sensibility buried deep in their collective psyche which ensures they always maintain a light touch, while their chromatic costumes add to the jollity. It's a bit like witnessing an anarchist brawl in Santa's workshop. Go, elves, go!
Loto Ball Show have a name that looks like a spelling mistake (shouldn't it be Lotto?) and a singer in a costume that makes him look like an escaped convict. The band plays a kind of no-wave art-rock, all squawks and angles.
The frontman (who, apparently, is Mr Loto Ball) gives the audience a hard stare and honks a trumpet. It's uncompromising music, with no concessions made to rock 'n' roll accessibility, but, contrary little bugger that I am, that's exactly the reason I like it. Oh, and the guitarist has great hair. That always helps.
Meanwhile, downstairs, on the Knitting Factory's second stage, Psychocharger are swaggering through their surrealist rock 'n' roll, pausing between songs to assure us that they believe in 'maximum entertainment'.
They're painted in icing sugar (or it could be nuclear waste), and they look marginally more insane than usual - no mean feat for a band who aren't exactly paragons of restrained rationality at the best of times. Their riffs, however, are relentless, and not for the first time I'm struck by the thought that underneath all the tomfoolery Psychocharger are actually a pretty good stripped-to-the-bone rock outfit. They just have an interesting take on stagewear.
Back upstairs now, for The Opposite Sex. They're punchy and punky, powering through a set of short sharp shocks disguised as songs, pitched somewhere between the rolling assault of Joy Division and the stripped-down rush of Wire. The vocalist's face is smeared with make-up as if he's got in the way of a paintball gun.
It's all very 1979, but it works. I suppose the band's style and sound dovetails with that post punkish, new wavey strand of music that's coming to the fore right now, certainly in the UK. If The Opposite Sex represent the rise of this particular musical area in the USA too, then I'd say things are definitely looking up. Right now, new wave is cool, and while there may be an element of shifting fashion in this state of affairs, I'm not too worried. If it means some good new bands have a chance to break through, that's fine by me.
But I wonder how many of those new bands will get a chance. In the UK, the resurgence of new wave sensibility is almost exclusively based around current bands, but in the USA it's more of a retro thing. It's got to the point where practically every band that emerged from the alternative scene of the 80s is feted with almost fetishistic devotion - particularly bands from the British alternative scene of the 80s. Being British seems to instantly win extra cool points.
Now, I can't help but feel a little cynical about this tendency to come over all bedazzled by any band that can lay claim to the requisite 80s history (and, preferably, a bit of old-country geography, too). While everyone's looking over their shoulders at the stars (or even the minor asteroids) of the past, how much good current stuff is being ignored?
Take a British post-punk band of today like The Violets: if they had been around in 1986 and were now making a comeback as a bunch of fortysomethings, I suspect the entire US deathrock scene would instantly and enthusiastically beat a path to their door, uulating in devotion. Unfortunately, The Violets are defiantly twenty-first century, and just because of that I suspect many people who would love what the band do won't even bother to check 'em out. When old is automatically cool, the biggest problem current bands face is simply that they're new.
As if to illustrate all this, here comes one of those aforementioned 80s vintage bands from the British alternative scene. Such is the fascination with that supposedly golden era that the recently reformed Siiiii, who were never exactly megastars first time round, have found themselves able to grab a high-profile New York festival slot faster than you can say 'Sorry, what was the name of the band again?' That's a bizarre situation when you think about it, and I'm sure nobody was more astonished by this turn of events than the members of Siiiii themselves.
And yet, here they are, strolling out on stage in front of a US fanbase the band probably never knew they had. But you know what? Siiiii are going to have to work hard to impress me. I'm not a wide-eyed twentysomething American deathrocker, pre-programmed to slurp up anything old and British. I am old and British! In fact, aside from Lene Lovich and certain members of Ausgang, I'm probably the only person in the Knitting Factory tonight who can claim to be in Siiiii's peer group - and my dial is tuned to 'healthy cynicism'.
Fortunately, Siiiii deliver. Fronted by a manic, swivel-eyed, grown-up Dennis The Menace, the band throws down a taut, wired, set that crackles with righteous electricity and conjures a strange energy out of thin air. That robust, economical guitar sound - very eighties, as you'd expect, and yet also very contemporary - drives everything forward. It's very much the singer's show: he's the slightly scary focal point of the band, dipping and swaying and making bug-eyed faces up front, as if someone recruited the loony on the bus to handle the vocal chores.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band keep beavering away in the engine room, and here perhaps Siiiii reveal the rustiness of a long absence from the gig circuit. The head-down, don't-mind-us-we're-just-the-band stance of the musicians hints at a certain discomfort with the business of being on stage. In fact, at one point the bassist turns to the wall, and diligently plays to the Knitting Factory's none-more-black paintwork. She may, of course, be expressing the bleak alienation of her soul, or she may just be too nervous to face the crowd, but either way it pulls the show down slightly, and awkwardly points up the difference in approach between the downbeat musicians and the restlessly zonkers singer.
But the sound, and the non-stop manic presence of the frontman, make it all work. By way of a grand finale, Din Glorious mount a stage invasion, and Siiiii's set becomes a crazed mass of flailing and battering, a school playground at break time on the last day of term. Yes, Siiiii delivered. The 80s are hereby vindicated. But I still say that's no need to venerate the past at the expense of the here and now.
There are famous people on stage. One of those famous people is Lene Lovich, flanked by the slightly less famous (but entirely essential) figure of Les Chappell. But on the opposite side of the stage, behind a theremin that looks like an up-ended 1950s coffee table, stands Dorit Chrysler, doyenne of the antennae. This is not Lene's full band show, but it's certainly going to be something more than a sing 'n' strum workout.
Lene leads her minimalist ensemble into a set which mixes up a few the golden oldies with the golden newies from her recent album Shadows And Dust. 'The Insect Eater', of the new album's songs, makes an instant connection, while the old songs, radically reworked for guitar, voice, and theremin, strike a neat balance between familiarity and novelty. You find yourself singing along while at the same time thinking, oooh, it's good the way they did that.
sound is surprisingly full; the theremin adds detail, and Lene's own
personality, warm, engaging, and forever hinting at eccentricity only
slightly supressed, does the rest. The audience is swept along in raptures,
and by the time 'Home' wraps things up (Lene teasingly interpolating
the 'I-I-I...' refrain from 'Lucky Number' into the chorus) there's
a real feeling that we've been present at something special.
Ausgang go slamming into action, with the assault and battery rhythms they've made their trademark well to the fore. Old friends of the Drop Dead Festival, and thus greeted like returning heroes by the crowd, they're on a roll, roaring like they've been necking pure essence of Stooges with a Birthday Party chaser.
For many people - myself included - the first glimpse of the reformed Ausgang was on this very stage at the Drop Dead 2004, where they ripped it up just like they're doing tonight. If truth be told, while Ausgang still unquestionably rock like billy-o, they aren't doing anything vastly different now from that initial show of two years previously. Their live set is still heavily biased towards their vintage hits; the band have spent the last two years kicking their back catalogue around without doing much in the way of bringing in new stuff. Nobody's complaining about that tonight, of course, but I do wonder how long the band can maintain their momentum on the basis of some very good, but undeniably very old songs.
I say this: what we really need from Ausgang is a full-length new album, unleavened by covers, or old glories revisited - and that album needs to be a real killer. The band's boisterous confidence on stage, and the way they unceremoniously blatt their music out at us with an insouciant glee, hints that delivering such a killer album wouldn't be a problem. Good show, chaps, as ever. But if the band really intend to stick around and mix it with the contemporary scene, I reckon a new album needs to happen sooner, rather than later.
Talking of old friends of Drop Dead, here come Cinema Strange, perennial headliners and guaranteed crowd pullers. Still almost universally hailed as the top band on the contemporary deathrock scene even though their creative journey has now taken the band into some very different areas, tonight it appears that Cinema Strange have fished yet more entertaining outfits out of their costume box.
Lucas Lanthier delivers his vocals from behind a not entirely realistic white rabbit mask; on guitar, Michael Ribiat looms formidably in a cowl like a mad monk. Daniel Ribiat, on bass, looks like a holidaying Victorian maiden who can't find her bathing machine.
It says much for Cinema Strange's confidence in their own art that they can carry off such loony visuals with all the assurance of a besuited bunch of bank managers at a finance policy conference. Natural performers in their natural habitat, the band own the stage. As if to illustrate this, when some random bloke climbs up to take photos (like he's allowed) Lucas grabs his bottle of water and swigs it, and then hands it back with a polite 'Gracias, pequeño ' - and I'm sure the bloke doesn't even realise he's just been insulted. Duels have been fought in Mexico for less.
Naturally, the music is the sonic equivalent of a tightrope act on a high tension electricity cable: those, tight, overwound basslines, as disconcerting as pebbles at the bottom of a swimming pool, tumble everything along, while the songs themselves take us into surreal storyville. 'Unlovely Baby' and 'I Remember Tendon Water', shaggy dog stories delivered by a cardboard rabbit, transport the crowd to the land of Cinema Strange, where trees grow upside down and the bass is higher-pitched than the guitar. The inside of their heads must be a bizarre place. For the duration of their set, so is the Knitting Factory.
This way for Drop Dead Festival 2006: Day 2
For more photos from the Drop Dead Festival, find the bands by name here.