Saturday, August 22, 2015

Always has been: Krallice at the Stone and a decade in NYC

I do not like to mythologize, but there is something to this time that I have lived through, in this place. 

Last night, I went to see Krallice at the Stone, performing their head-spinning new album, Ygg huur, in its entirety. (If you're reading this on August 22 or 23, 2015, the Mick Barr residency is still in full swing.) A vanguard underground metal band, playing in a tiny black box. A seated show, polite clapping in between songs. It all made a certain amount of sense, if you had access to the proper context.

Before the show, I was talking to Torsten Meyer, the indefatigable videographer—and generally funny, friendly, down-to-earth dude—whose archive of heavy, extreme and otherwise underground shows in NYC during the past nine years or so stands as a definitive document of the aforementioned time and place. Torsten moved to NYC in 2006, which we both agreed was a sort of golden age for NYC music. The dates are fuzzy, but I do in fact remember a kind of heyday being in full swing at that time. For the listener engaged with not just, as Torsten pointed out, a certain kind of lawless DIY environment (shout-out to Todd P) that encouraged wildness, fun, creativity, but also the fuzzy but unmistakable idea of progress, a petri-dish environment where you felt like you were actually witnessing the birth of something unprecedented, this time, and the years before and after it, felt electric. 

I will never forget what it was like to witness Orthrelm performing their avant-metal-minimalist masterpiece, OV, in full while seated several feet away from Josh Blair's kick drum at a repurposed Tribeca firehouse in 2003, or Lightning Bolt turning a roomful of buzzed, rowdy showgoers into a maelstrom of sweaty, ecstatic chaos at a foul-smelling loft in a part of Brooklyn that then seemed like an industrial frontier town, or Coptic Light erupting, billowing out waves of exuberant and cathartic free rock at the Lucky Cat on Grand St. (later Bruar Falls and the Grand Victory), or the sextet lineup of Zs setting up in a circle at Tonic, poised in front of music stands, redefining "new music" as a kind of punk-minded aggression mixed with ruthless, scholarly precision, or a fledgling Behold… the Arctopus plying righteously maximalist tech metal in front of a tiny audience on an even tinier stage at Williamsburg's late-lamented Rock Star Bar (a.k.a. the Local), or Peter Evans gurgling and sputtering demented, virtuosic madness through his pocket trumpet in the back room of a Chelsea café, or Vaz ripping through their haunting noise-punk blasts-that-felt-like dirges in a series of deep-Greenpoint dive bars.

I was also a participant, was there on drums when Aa would play at packed lofts on Johnson Ave or S. 5th St., setting rooms off, rooms that didn't need much of a push because they were already filled with the buzzed and deliriously happy. Or with Stay Fucked in the basement of Micheline's in Bushwick, the living room of 248BS, the back of Coco 66, the checkerboard room at Death by Audio. Uncle Paulie's, Dead Herring, Cake Shop, the Charleston, rooms whose names I can't recall but whose layouts and sensations I remember intensely well. That feeling that I got then and still get now when my drums are stacked up in the corner and I'm watching the opening band and gearing up, setting my mental dials to "Destroy."

There was something happening during these years. I worked at Time Out New York, doing my best to document and publicize it all at the same time as I was participating in it. I remember interviewing Mick Barr (of Orthrelm and later of Krallice) in 2005 and feeling like I was speaking to a mythic figure, not because he had any airs of being in any way superior, but because everyone who saw Mick play during that time, witnessed the fire and endurance and invention flying off him, that turbocharged picking hand, that unassuming commitment to going all the way, to the heart of the sun, or somewhere further, more alien, knew they were privy to something historic. Getting to know musicians like Colin Marston, Kevin Shea, Mary Halvorson, Kevin Hufnagel. Extremely nice, genuine people who, underneath, were absolutely driven to greatness and newness. Progress, virtuosity, grabbing their creative moment by the throat. 

Last night, I felt a palpable sense that even though this community, this current has in some ways dispersed, as these artists and others have continued down their paths or shot off into other ones, the mythic not-that-long-ago New York, the signal community of my life as a person engaged with and active in the arts—aside from the Kansas City post-hardcore scene in which I came of age as a music lover but not yet a player—is still very much intact. There were Mick and Colin, together on "stage." There were Hufnagel and Mike Pride and Marc Edwards in the audience. There were friendly faces newer to me, luminaries of a slightly later wave: Mario Diaz De Leon, Nick McMaster, Andrew Hock, Chris Pitsiokos. The ones that, when the history of all this is written, when Tonic circa 2006 or the Stone circa 2015 is remembered by those who had their minds blown at these places—just as jazz musicians and their fans did at Minton's in the ’40s—will be known as the Cats. 

Seeing Krallice play, the currents that have made up this disparate, ever-changing scene all converged. Conservatory-level complexity coupled with the gritty DIY spirit. This band, constructors of labyrinths, many-tentacled octopi of sound, filled with strange lurches, epic vistas, harsh and sour notes, ear-bending chords, tectonic tempo displacement—pummeling, doomy bliss. Krallice have always concerned themselves with a certain kind of sci-fi sprawl, way beyond language and genre—"years past matter," to quote one of their album titles. The currents of Colin Marston and Mick Barr's countless former and current projects—a short list would have to include Behold… the Arctopus, Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, Orthrelm, Crom-Tech, Ocrilim and the Flying Luttenbachers—converging into these heaving, hurtling planets of sound. To reduce their art to something like "black metal" would be silly. Krallice is cosmic, a mother brain alive with ideas, afire with a certain kind of harnessed madness. It's brutal and balletic (qualities embodied in the playing of Lev Weinstein, one of the most genuinely powerful, precise and exciting extreme-metal drummers I've ever seen, a player who restores the centrality of actual full-body engagement to an art form that can sometimes seem like mere spasm-ing of the extremities), visceral and composerly, so finely wrought, so clearly avant-garde and, whatever you happen to think of it, so obviously accomplished.

Again, if you've been paying attention, Krallice at the Stone—these musicians, with these backgrounds, in this place, with these influences and aspirations and track records of greatness, performing a metal album named after a Scelsi piece at a seated show in an LES black box owned by a giant of disparate experimental musics—made a certain kind of perfect sense. New music is metal is jazz is avant-rock is progress is challenge is virtuosity is newness is New York; always has been. 

This hybridization, this blurring and mingling, is straightforward, and, except in the minds of those who put the classification before the idea and the intent, fairly obvious and really not that big a deal. This is not a trend; it's not even an organized movement, though you could draw a sort of family tree, charting the countless interactions among those named (and not named) above. You could call it a scene if you wanted to. It's a collection of committed people, really. Those who were there last night and those who have been there on countless nights like it (shout-outs to my friends Joe and Tony, John and Aron and Julian and Mike and Josh and Nick L. and Nadav and Judd and Sean, and Nick P.). There were, and are, all kinds of New Yorks. I'm proud to say that this has been, and still is, mine.

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