Yellow Elephants, Adventure, Future Islands, Ssion and Pictureplane Sunday, September 14, 2008 Rhinoceropolis Better Than: Just another dance party.
Of all the dance parties disguised as a show at Rhinoceropolis, this one may have been the best. Things got started off with the experimental act Yellow Elephants from Denver. The four members of the band layered sounds together in the beginning for a sonic effect like watching clouds flow intermittently backwards in reverse on a TV channel where the transmission is acting like a skipping record. This while a seemingly disembodied female voice intones over all. Haunted synths and expertly executed electronic drums (as well as acoustic drums later in the set) created a texture at once warm and desolate. The singer often sounded sounded like a girl in an ’80s, sci-fi fairy tale trance wandering in the depths of endless catacombs deep within an abandoned city. It was like getting to see a live version of the early Cranes gone electro.
Adventure from Baltimore was just a guy named Ben with a computer and an odd synth, who treated the crowd to what sounded like an fantasy adventure game soundtrack -- muscular beats and rhythms with a classic 8-bit video game sound over the top -- pumped through ’90s house music technology. Sounds of menace, travel, excitement and triumph helped to convey a narrative storyline without words, so much so that you could almost hear in the music what part of the plot of the adventure game you might occupy at that given time.
For a three piece, Future Islands sure did create a wonderfully moving racket. Frontman Samuel Herring was like a great punk rock soul singer fronting a synth-heavy post-punk band. The band’s energetic and passionate performance made me think of what it would have been like to have seen Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on its Dazzle Ships tour if that act’s vocalist possessed the intensity and raw charisma of Herring. Throughout Future Islands’ set, only the most jaded were able to resist the band’s infectious rhythms and continuous blasts of uplifting energy. The group performed virtually all of its Wave Like Home album with an impressive degree of confidence. Even people who had never seen or heard of Future Islands before were taken in by a fun-loving set.
A lot of people probably aren’t aware that there’s a thriving art and music scene in Kansas City. The members of Ssion hail from that scene with their combination band and performance art piece. Aside from the expected synthesizer and drum set, the band had set up what looked like a temple to a forgotten Greek fire god (perhaps, and appropriately, Prometheus?) backed by a projection screen. For the first song, we heard but did not see in person, singer Cody Critcheloe, and then his face, in black and white, filled the projection screen and he performed the song as a virtual being. But after that bit of brilliantly theatrical performance legerdemain, which recalled Tracy and the Plastics, Critcheloe came on the tiny stage/temple and performed as a living being for the rest of the show. The music had elements of glam, strong doses of the disco that wasn’t inspired by Quaaludes, hard rock and cabaret. In many was it was not unlike what Frankie Goes to Hollywood did in the mid-1980s -- making dance music fun and relevant again by giving it a strong, visceral presence informed by smart, high-concept art. Much of the band’s Fools Gold material made it into the set before the act closed with “Street Jizz,” with its colorful, cartoonish background projections. I’ve rarely seen such a visually rich performance in a DIY space.
Pictureplane finished the night off with a brief set of older and newer material. What struck me about this set was how masterful Travis Egedy has become at working a crowd’s energy level up and then bringing it down to a place of peace. He really has taken the best, most artistically interesting aspects of 1990s house music and worked it in to a sonic palette grounded in a high refined collage sound art pop context. Opening with the magnificently bright and happy “Day Glowwed,” Egedy sent us all off with the slower paced but no less luminously beautiful and bumping “Solid Gold.”
-- Tom Murphy
Personal Bias: I love good synth pop and always have. Random Detail: Ran into music critic Alex Edgeworth and met a cool red-haired girl named Pippin, not Pippi. By the Way: Baltimore has one of the coolest music scenes in the country.