Concert Reviews

Wolf Eyes Brimmed With the Spirit of Detroit Rock and Roll

The Audio Social Dissent tour, which touched down at the Larimer Lounge last night, was essentially a traveling label showcase, since all three bands on the bill released their latest full-lengths with Third Man Records. But headliner Wolf Eyes couldn't be more different from the rock bands Timmy's Organism and Video. Local opening acts Echo Beds, an experimental industrial act, and Civilized, a modern version of a hardcore-punk band, also differ significantly from one another. Despite all these sonic differences, the bands were connected — perhaps accidentally — by visual aesthetics, performance style and musical roots.

In the ’60s and ’70s, three Detroit bands embodied a blend of rock theater and a confrontational musical style: Alice Cooper, the Stooges and the MC5. Alice Cooper was an inspired creation that blurred the line between identity and art. The Stooges wove together disorienting sounds and a nearly unbound passion, channeled into the kind of rock and roll that can stir both the body and the imagination. The MC5 used rock and roll as a vehicle for revolutionary rhetoric and explosive social critique. All of that music influenced punk and hardcore, with its sharp focus and distinct aesthetic. Hardcore emerged in Michigan in the early ’80s with bands like Negative Approach, a group possessed of a uniquely stark vision and an uncompromising musical and performance style that was the perfect vehicle for reflecting the bleak social and economic environment of the time.
All of the bands on the Larimer bill displayed a clear lineage of Detroit-style rock. Echo Beds isn't even technically a rock band, but its particular brand of stark industrial/noise/ambient music is rooted in the spirit of wanting to challenge the audience — which comes right out of hardcore and early punk-era acts like Suicide.

Civilized might be misconstrued as a straight-ahead hardcore band, and in some ways it is. But singer Zach Reini has a background in fine arts and makes his living as an artist, which some punks might see as antithetical. Reini's role as frontman, while a performance, contains an impassioned honesty that, coupled with the band's exhilarating music, transcends genres by making the group's musical and cultural identity a work of art.

Video calls its music “hate wave,” a term akin to Wolf Eyes's own “trip metal” in that it suggests no specific sound but speaks to a conceptual aspect. The singer's bravado about the band being the "best in the world," and the rhetoric about those of us living in lesser cities compared to the paradise of Austin, Texas, seemed like such an over-the-top pretense that you had to admire the chutzpah.

Timmy's Organism displayed its own version of rock-and-roll theater of the absurd. Its music hit with a force that took what might have been frayed-edged rock and roll informed by psychedelia and made it into its own kind of glam rock, reflected in its desire for both artifice and authenticity.

John Olson of Wolf Eyes has often expressed his admiration for hardcore punk of the '80s — including an impressive awareness of Denver's own hardcore era (neglected by that scene's national historians). When he was last in town, Olson wore a jean jacket that bore the patches of bands he was into, and bandmate Nate Young dressed like he could have been an extra in The River's Edge. Fashion sense aside, the presentation of Wolf Eyes' music is one of confrontation and mysteriousness, a quality that must have been part of the appeal of Black Flag once upon a time. Musically, electronic bass flooded the room in pulses under music that sounded like the nexus of Can, Throbbing Gristle and free jazz — creating a kind of dance music that had never really existed before Wolf Eyes.
Maybe it was not Third Man Records founder Jack White's intention to have an entire night of performers who owe some debt to the spirit of Detroit rock and roll. But even White's own impulse to create a persona with his bands comes right out of that seemingly paradoxical Motor City tradition of using persona as an artistic means of greater sincerity.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.