Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Benefits of Extremity

On Thursday, I went to a show in Williamsburg to see the band of the regular Tuesday night bartender at Botanica (where I occasionally work as a DJ). The band is called Dead Stars, and the music was thoroughly enjoyable, 90's-style indie rock (check out "Break the Tide" on their myspace page). The tunes had strong hooks and surprisingly compelling extended jams in the vein of Dinosaur Jr. After their set, I was pretty psyched to be out hearing good music and relaxed with a G&T buzz.

But that did not prepare me for the next band, the Marionettes of Satan.

The music started out well with (what I thought was) a trio that played an avant noise variation of 60s psychedelic rock. The drummer in particular was very good. He obviously had some training and maintained a deep pocket that reminded me of Mitch Mitchell. He was bookended onstage by a headband-wearing guitar player and a lanky mini-organist. The guitarist had the most trebly tone I've ever heard. It was uncomfortably piercing, but rightly reminiscent of the thin-fuzz tone of the psych-rock era. He played a combination of feedback, atonal melody and riffage while the organist made a Ray Manzerack-like ruckus of surf/blues vamps.

Then the singers came out, and the music abruptly shifted into an aggressively abstract southern revival meeting, with primeval urge as the object of worship. The first singer was a theatrical, gay(ish) fellow in jean cutoffs, a white t-shirt with artfully placed holes, face paint and a minor's light on his forehead. The other was a fetching young woman with long black hair and a blank stare who looked a bit like Chan Marshall. They both sat cross-legged on the stage and screamed/wailed in soulful long tones, staring at each other with vague sexual intensity. This strange cacophony continued uninterrupted for about 15 minutes. The crowd stood in complete astonishment, including me. Stylistically, the band made no sense. But the music was tirelessly listenable. My recollection of their set is a series of 7-10 minute songs that eventually climaxed into a mashup of "Billy Jean" and "Light My Fire".

Seeing this band reminded me that I need more opportunities to chance upon transgressive musical encounters. I use the word transgressive, because these encounters are not meditative exercises in "losing oneself", like a deep listening experience with Satie or Coltrane. It's more like sublime confusion through an intentional aural dislocation of time and place. I've been keeping a short mental list of concerts that fall under this category, where my predominate feeling has been "What the fuck is happening?" (usually in a good way).

The list includes (with it's most recent addition):

Peter and the Wolf (Symphony Hall, Boston, 1983)
Ornette Coleman and Prime Time (Berklee Performance Center, Boston, 1994)
Sonic Youth (Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC, 1996)
Arab on Radar/Wolf Eyes (Knitting Factory, NYC, 2000)
Rhumba in Havana Vieja (Havana, Cuba, 2003)
Marionettes of Satan (Public Assembly, Brooklyn, 2009)

Interestingly, this sense of dislocation was reproduced in a different context on Saturday night while watching the film "Bruno".

Now haters have been reviewing "Bruno" as "Borat-Lite". I had similar concerns that the film would simply be a variation of the previews and promo appearances, i.e. Sasha Baron-Cohen provoking hicks, minor celebrities and right wing politicos with gay fear-mongering. In essence, Baron-Cohen would be substituting xenophobia with homophobia. Which he does end up doing. But the methods by which he does so are still both ruthlessly explicit and deeply psychological. Every stunt both provokes and reflects upon the theoretical benchmarks of our society - safety, comfort, truth, etc. Through extreme comedy, Baron Cohen dislocates the viewer from the comfort of familiarity. His actions are so aggressively removed from the cultural norm that they rupture our own established boundaries of belief and behavior, thereby thrusting us (via laughter) into an alternate reality of ironic absurdity and extreme prejudice. It was a cinematic analogue to the "what the fuck is happening?" musical experience and I was happy to be there (again).

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