Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Keel overhaul, etc.

[UDATE: From the Dept. of Pretzel Logic Linkage, here's a link to the Brooklyn Vegan photo post on Sunday's Keelhaul show, which itself links here.]

On Sunday, STATS had the pleasure of sharing a bill at Public Assembly with a band from Cleveland called Keelhaul (above). (You might recall the name from a post I wrote here last December.) It was a hell of a show all around, and I want to thank Brandon Stosuy (Show No Mercy) and Black Bubblegum (Brooklyn Vegan) for putting it together. These gentlemen had no way of knowing this in advance, but for a few reasons, it was really special for me to be able to play alongside Keelhaul.

First, the band's drummer, Will Scharf--an outstandingly fluid and powerful player--used to be a member of a band called Craw. I've blabbed at length on here about Craw, but suffice it to say that I adore them more than any other musical entity I've ever been exposed to. It has been this way since I was approximately 17. That was a very formative time for me: It's when I started playing drums; it's when I started writing about music; and it's when I witnessed many of the performances that have affected me the most. A good number of those performances were by Craw, and all but one of those featured Mr. Scharf behind the kit.

Craw being a thoroughly independent band, I had all the personal access to the members that I could ever want, and my friends and I spent hours before and after those gigs grilling the members about this and that. I've kept in touch with them over the years to varying degrees, and though Will was never very much of a talker, he's always been kind enough to check out music I've sent him and to let me pick his brain re: drumming, influences, technique, gear, etc.

STATS shared a bill with one of Scharf's other projects, Pincer, when we played in Cleveland in late '07, but Sunday was the first time we'd ever gotten the opportunity to perform on a bill with Keelhaul, his primary musical concern. It was an extreme trip to be able to open for someone who's been an artistic hero of mine for more than a decade and to interact with him as a peer as well as a fan.

And I am a huge fan. Keelhaul is a very esoteric band, and an only sporadically active one at that. But still, more people should know them. This is because they are simply outstanding at playing rock & roll. The show of theirs I caught last December--a warm-up for the recording of their latest album, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity (two tracks stream here), which comes out August 18 on Hydra Head--was solid, but this was much better. They'd been on the road for a few days, and their performance had that bullish energy that can only come from consecutive gigs.

Keelhaul is probably best categorized as a math-metal band. Their music is largely instrumental and extremely complex. But the great thing about it is that however technical it gets, it never feels cold. The band embraces groove and boogie even as it rages through some of the most outrageously asymmetrical riffing you've ever heard. I know of few other bands that imbue the genre with so much soul. (Incidentally, said feat is like a mission statement for STATS.)

And it's such a pleasure to watch these musicians perform. You'll rarely see a group of more scruffy, unself-conscious guys onstage. Each one puts forth his own kind of sweaty intensity. Guitarist Dana Embrose is an amazingly animated presence: He has a penchant for mouthing nearly every note he plays and shimmying uncontrollably. Bassist-vocalist Aaron Dallison acts the wild brute, headbanging vigorously and spitting to punctuate major accents. Guitarist-vocalist Chris Smith is the most subdued, squinting at his fingers through huge, clear-rimmed spectacles. And Scharf, ever-shirtless, contorts his face into all sorts of rubbery grimaces as he plays. Sometimes he's mugging for the crowd; other times he's just rolling his eyes at a flubbed fill.

The band works like a churning, chugging machine. There's something so human about the way they operate onstage. They are the epitome of unfashion--I remarked to Joe during the set that they should have their own line of cargo shorts. But the music itself has such style and swing and passion and fun. It's just pure exaltation of ballsy riffs and post-hardcore pathos and extreme dynamics. (Keelhaul is known for its dynamite quiet parts.) There's none of that coldness you feel from a band like Fucking Champs, that notion of metal as calisthenics, or even worse, as some kind of punchline. Math metal simply feels like a subset of soul music when Keelhaul plays it. You'd have a hard time finding another band that honors the progressive aspects of making rock & roll as much as the meat-and-potatoes ones.

Here's some video of a recent Keelhaul show in Rochester:

And here's the promo spot for their amazing 2003 jam "Cruel Shoes," which was rocked in high style at Sunday's show:


Other quick nods:

*Stephen O'Connor "Ziggurat"
An amazing piece of classico-postmodern mythology published in The New Yorker this past June. A weird retelling of the Minotaur tale, one which teases out all the most sad, fucked-up psychological implications. I sat stunned at the end of this, about to cry.

*The Flying Luttenbachers Cataclysm and more
Been surveying this band's prime brutal-prog period, i.e., the albums from The Void through Incarceration by Abstraction, and I've been re-floored by what a grand and coherent body of work this is. It's more obvious to me than ever that Weasel Walter could easily be regard as a "serious" composer if he gave two shits about such things. Instead he's one of the great outsider musical geniuses of our time. For these records he wrote a lot of fantastically great, aggressive, loopy contrapuntal prog and got two of the most uniquely virtuosic guitarists of our time, Ed Rodriguez (Deerhoof, Gorge Trio, Colossamite, Sicbay, etc.) and Mick Barr (Orthrelm, Ocrilim, Octis, etc.) to help him interpret it. (Both players appear together only on Cataclysm and Spectral Warrior Mythos, Volume 1. I'm wondering what happened to the long-promised Cataclysm-era live DVD.) All these records are still available direct from Weasel. Go with Cataclysm first. Brilliant, brilliant album. Love the group's creepy take on a Messiaen piece I can't pronounce.

*The Modern Lovers
Laal has been turning me on to their self-titled debut album, which I don't think I'd ever heard before. More outsider genius, the polar opposite of Weasel's, courtesy of Jonathan Richman. Wondrous combinations of sad and wry abound in songs like "Hospital" and "Dignified and Old."

*KGW Mrs. Equitone
Growing on me slowly, imperceptibly. I thought Yes Boss was an untouchable monolith, and I still think it will be hard for Graham Smith to ever top it, but this new one is killer too. A slightly different emotional cast. Not so battered and laid-bare. But catchy and transcendent and full of cracked joy and sweet sorrow.

*Paul Auster Invisible
His new one, due in November. Sped through Leviathan and now I'm on to this, in galley version. Don't want to spoil plot, but this one is way, way heavy. Maybe the most emotionally gripping of the Auster novels I've read.

*Queens of the Stone Age Era Vulgaris and more
Fantastic rock music of the future. I don't like all the Queens stuff I've heard, but I'm never bored by them. Somehow this band combines muscle and melody in ways that feel new. Turbopop for the now. Got freaked on them after interviewing Josh Homme last week for my Ween book.

*Michael Showalter vs. Michael Cera
There's nothing I love more than a heaping helping of Michael Showalter's "asshole" character. Cera plays along exceedingly well.


Anonymous said...

thx for putting me on keelhaul. awesome band indeed.

cataclysm is one of the gems of the past decade. luttenbachers where at the prime of their powers and nobody cared. also the recording is top notch, muscular, defined and scrapey enough to drive most ppl nuts. awesome!

bring on the dvd weasel!

are you on last.fm?

Brian Roessler said...

Excited to check out the new Paul Auster this fall - sounds like you're giving a big thumbs up...

Brian Roessler