Tag Archives: King’s Barcade

How now is SOON? Why you need to see this Chapel Hill (folk?) metal band live

By Angela Perez
The music line-up at Slim’s that cold Saturday night promised me hours and hours of heavy metal.  And not just one style of metal – but a veritable smorgasbord of genres, from screaming and guttural howling to droning guitars to jackhammer drum beats to gentle ambient soundscapes.  The question looming large in my mind as the fancy Uber car pulled up and dropped me off in front of the bar was, “Can I veer all over the sonic map tonight without getting a headache? Might I possibly not like half of the bands?”  For, as you know, all metal heads are not into every kind of metal.

But, I decided for this particular night what’s most important is that I’m supporting a friend by attending the show.  The show was a benefit organized for local Raleigh hard-core musician Jason Brown to help him settle his little brother’s funeral expenses.  And, as benefit shows often are, the band roster was a motley hot mess of a line-up.  But, for my money, it was a glorious mess that titillated me down in my guts. Also, I knew there would be lots of hot and delicious metal boys skulking about downing PBR and whiskey shots.  Several of us ladies had already had short, breathy discussions earlier in the day about the presence of all those brooding, devil-may-care men.  Oh yes, we like it like that. Good God, we do.
As you have heard me say before, metal is about power and sex.  It’s inherent in the heavy primal scream of it all.  A deep-throated drive exists within – whether melodic and orchestral or DIY breakneck and morbid.  More than power and sex, however, my favorite types of metal are a sonic homage to the chaos that rules our lives.  Unlike pop music, it doesn’t try to resolve or order anything.  No, most genres of metal zero in on the dark side of the soul and the cold ambivalence of nature and the world around us.  The music revels in that which controls us and it illustrates that same context within which we lead our uncertain lives.  Sweet God, I’m generalizing.  But that’s how I make my peace with said chaos.
There’s an inherent sexiness about the bands that brood in this type of darkness.  This penchant is infinitely more interesting than the optimism of pop, even if that pop is born out of despair.  These days, most indie pop despair gets channeled into that folksy earthy celebratory jig claptrap churned out by bands like Mumford and Sons and that ilk.   All of this gets me to the band I came here to discuss with you.
That night, I got turned on to the Chapel Hill band SOON.  And they were my favorite band of the night.  Here’s why.
First up, I’ll introduce the guys – all well known in the Triangle music scene and most of them known for a gentler kind of music:
Mark Connor: guitars
Stuart McLamb: guitars, vocals
Thomas Simpson: Drums
Rob Walsh: bass, vocals
With SOON, these guys are creating within two growing trends of metal right now that really push the boundaries of the genre – atmospheric and folk metal.  SOON plays with those boundaries in their own unique and seductive way.
So what about SOON?  Their music is tight and sexy and glides across cold and mysterious landscapes dotted with ragged peaks and gently rolling valleys.  Most times, it feels more like progressive rock, often bordering on melodramatic despair inevitably tempered with either silky folk ballad reverie or 80s power ballad metal (which is too simple to be melodramatic).    There’s a self-reflectiveness to their stage output and, as is the nature of reverie, it doesn’t really climax so much as come to multiple epiphanies mostly in the form of painfully tight and heavy crescendos.  I do love it when a band gives me multiple epiphanies.  Ah!
There were fade-outs and rising and falling curtains of darkness – SOON put on a stage show by all accounts.  And yet the project felt so natural and organic.  The push and pull of theatrical artifice with raw interiors was tantalizing to say the least.
As I sipped my cold Cardinal gin and listened from the back of the bar, I felt ancient longing in the music, which is the nature of folk metal (it’s an earthy affair for all such bands creating in this genre. I keep thinking of Portland-based Agalloch who blew me away at King’s a few months back.  I kept annoying my girlfriend at that show by pulling her aside and musing, “What the fuck is this?  My God, it’s got all the trappings of metal but, buddy, it ain’t metal!”  It seemed to have hints of early U2.  But I digress. )
The beauty of that night with SOON is that they had no self-consciousness about what they were doing.  Given the fact that most of these fellas are not born and bred metal musicians, they pulled off a kind of metal authenticity that usually only guys who spent their teenage years jerking off to Pantera and weeping over Iron Maiden can manage.  But this line-up handled the whole show masterfully.  It was as though the music lit up a mythic landscape that had always existed and SOON guided us across it, letting us all feel what we felt.
 What I felt that night from SOON in that crowded bar was delicious.  And sad.  And sexy.  I felt a tight ache in my belly.  And I want more of it.
Note:  SOON released a track on February 9, 2015 and you should listen to it.  The tracks were mixed and engineered by Krif Bilbert at Legitimate Business in Greensboro, NC and only one has been released so far. But you need to see them live if you want to feel what I felt.
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Why the band Future Islands does not suck (even though hipsters like them).

You will be hard pressed to find a less style-conscious group of fellas.  Could be their eastern NC sensibilities.

You will be hard pressed to find a less style-conscious group of fellas. Could be their eastern NC sensibilities.

This week, thanks to a post from a Facebook friend, I discovered the three-man band, Future Islands.  The band is composed of Gerrit Welmers (keyboards and programming), William Cashion (bass, acoustic and electric guitars), and Samuel T. Herring (words and vocals). Based on that friend’s negative description and the heated and polarized thread that followed, I had to find out who these guys are.  The Facebook post read:

“Am I the ONLY one in the Raleigh/Triangle area that thinks Future Islands SUCK? IMHO, they are just plain fucking weird. The singer is goofy as shit and their music simply does not move me. Haters?”

A bevy of positive and negative exclamations ensued.  The descriptions of this band of native North Carolinians who relocated to Baltimore as being “hipsters” had me ready to write them off as probably yet another bunch of wannabe artists with no musical talent who just wanted to score with chicks and took the easy way out through a keyboard.

So I Googled the band and my first link was to their recent performance on David Letterman.  I was not prepared for my response.  I was immediately mesmerized by the band’s dynamic of 3 barely-moving, expressionless dudes – bass player, drummer, and keyboardist (not sure if this drummer is going to be regular or what the deal is with that addition) – all fronted by what appeared to be a marionette manipulated by a cracked-out chronically depressed puppet master. Sam, the marionette, has a voice rich, thick, dark, resonant, emotional, and just plain fun to listen to.  

I then linked to a live performance at King’s Barcade in Raleigh from 2013 – here I witnessed the full range of Sam’s exacting mad abandon in front of a writhing screaming crowd.   I realized then that the Letterman performance only alluded to the full extent of what this band is capable of.  A friend of the bass player’s pointed out to me that for him, where the band really shines is not the “uptempo bouncers” but in their ballads.  

Next up, I found a couple of articles about them.  One music critic, Christopher Hooten of the British daily The Independent, writes:

“[Sam Herring has been] described by friends I have passed this [Letterman performance video clip] on to as both ‘the voice of a soul singer coming out of the mouth of an accountant’ and ‘like a repressed P.E. teacher finally allowed to direct the school play’, Herring has passion and charisma in abundance.”

The writer is spot on. These guys are not typically good-looking, they dress like average dull mopes but not in a hipster way (though some might argue their plain, functional style ala Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza is normcore), and there actually does not appear to be any irony or parody in their performance.  This enterprise is what it fucking is.

Ah, but what is it?  Not so simple.

Upon first listen across their range (they’ve been around for about 10 years – previously named “Artlord & the Self-Portraits), I discovered that they perform electronic music.  And many will immediately write them off as non-musicians because of that fact.  Rock-and-rollers often see electronic music as the opposite of rock and as a genre to be reviled.   But electronic music is indeed music – music performed by digital means. Nay-sayers are often those from the punk tradition who proclaim all electronic music is inauthentic.  But I think these same folks are held back by their own adherence to the rules of what makes for music.   And there’s nothing punk or authentic about hanging on to strict dogma. Ever.

But Future Islands also incorporates “traditional” music –they have a bass player and drummer – it’s a hybrid.  So what genre is it?   Jazz, Dance, New Age, Rock…what?  I’ve heard some describe it as bouncy synthpop with dark undertones.  But that description doesn’t begin to describe what is happening overall.

Let’s look at their live act.

Sam, the front man, is not a rock star hero but he does embody everything a rock and roll front man is typically supposed to be – entertaining, charismatic, mesmerizing, a sexual beast, etc.  But he amplifies all of those parts of his job by 1,000. He experiments with, plays with, explores the limits of, and just generally has a damn good time with that role. But it’s not irony – it’s an expansion of the front-man role pushed just to the limits of irony.

A friend of mine, the delicious Richard Bacchus, who founded D Generation with Jesse Malin in NYC in 1991 and now fronts N.C.-based Richard Bacchus and the Luckiest Girls, told me this about seeing them,

“The very first time I saw Future Islands, about eight years ago, I ran up to Sam and gushed, ‘Oh my god, you’re like a cross between Darby Crash from The Germs and Jonathan Winters!’ He was confused, but gracious enough to take it as a compliment. We’ve been friends ever since.”   

In other words, he’s punk rock and a solid, self-aware, versatile, eccentric presence.  (I could go on and on about the Winters reference – but that’s another blog for another time.) Ricky later mentioned, “I like that he’s added some Tom Jones and Paul Bearer, from Sheer Terror, to his stage persona.”  

How many front men give such a nuanced and multi-faceted performance ranging across so many genres in music  and use that to create something utterly unique?  Not many.

In many ways this band is as much about the act of making music and being a band as it is about actually making music.  Thankfully, it doesn’t just end up being yet another boring art house experiment because these guys actually are good musicians creating very catchy, accessible tunes.  They have a song with lyrics I interpreted as “too many artists, not enough musicians.” With that song, they are telling us that they know exactly how you might write them off and they ARE NOT that kind of band.  They beat you to the punch by reviling exactly the kind of band you might accuse them of being (of course, if I heard the lyrics wrong, then that theory goes out the window).

I’ve read many arguments that Sam is great, he just needs a better band and a different type of music behind him.  I disagree.

The band that Sam works with expertly develops the tension of Sam’s “frontman-ness” – this straightforward synthpop is the setting in which he exists and from the very first chord, Sam is fighting and wallowing and punching out at the very music that surrounds him and allows him to be.  As I said before, his chosen music genre is electronic.  The British-Ghanian writer and critic Kodwo Eshun points out about electronic music in general:

“…as soon as you have electronic music, by definition, you’re operating to create new worlds of sound. These producers … don’t want to create love songs. They don’t want to sing about revolution. They don’t want to get angry. They want to be scientists of sound. They want to explore new universes of sound.”

But Sam, during his performance, lashes out at the very restrictions of the universe of sound his band has created.  It’s easy to be as emotive and theatrical as Sam when you’re singing in a hard rock or punk band – but how the FUCK do you do it in a synthpop outfit?  Sam shows you how and we are intrigued by the lesson.

Sam is going to sing about love, loss, the politics of music and art, inanity – or whatever the fuck he feels like – and no music genre is going to tell him what he can and cannot do. He beats up on the music backing him but at the same time he masterfully works within the context and its confines.  This battle and finesse plays out on stage.  This battle would NOT work if the musicians were no good – he’d have nothing to battle with.  But this crew gives him plenty to work with.  

The straightforward music creates order but Sam and his voice strain against that order – it’s powerful. And when his movements and performance can’t quite burst through the genre, he lets out a guttural “heavy metal” growl that utterly shatters the entire enterprise for just a moment –and then Sam, and the audience, are pulled back into battle as the band plays on.

Those guttural growls are actually very punk and very rock and roll – the very music he’s chosen creates a delicious tension that manifests (it)self into a brilliant spectacle. His split second movement into another genre of music – death metal – frees him and in that split second the band’s meta-performance is revealed – the entire activity is not just music, it is about what music IS.  It is about context and performance. 

On a less academic note, the Future Islands have nailed everything that made 80s synthpop bands so appealing – catchy music in that sad-but-will-get-over-it zone that bands like the Psychedelic Furs and New Order used to make us hurt so fucking good.

Also, Sam looks a lot like Steve Martin and has the same rubber face that allows Martin to be so expressive.  Sam, like Steve, was born to perform.  (Speaking of resemblances, I did see one quip in a friend’s Facebook thread proclaiming: “that lead singer looks like a Thunderbirds puppet of Stanley Kowalski”. That description lines right up with my puppet master theme – perhaps there’s something here worth exploring.)

For the fans of this band who have been there since the beginning (10 years or so), they might see me as a fair-weather fan and accuse me of glomming on to the fan base because they are becoming popular.  But I had truly never heard of them before three days ago. 

Some hate Future Islands because of the hipster crowd that has appropriated them.  But these guys are NOT hipsters in my mind.  I dislike douchebag hipsters more than anyone – Future Islands is way too complex to be a low-end hipster production (hipsters are the simplest creatures on the planet just after single-celled amoeba).

Folks, the world is awash in mediocre music and less-than-talented musicians.  No, Future Islands is not a traditional rock and roll band.  But they don’t have to be.  There’s plenty of that.  And there’s plenty of room in the universe for all of the genres of music.  Future Islands is a brilliant self-reflexive fusion of tight yet organically executed music, art, and intuition.   I’m only sad that they will soon be too big for me to see them in a small club where all of their talents are best seen and expressed.  Get to them up close while you can.

Editor’s note – if I am wrong about the facts about Future Islands or they change, send me a note and I’ll adjust said fact(s) – i.e., who is in the band, where they are based, etc.  The rest is purely subjective and will only change on my own whim.

Hey gang – I just added in a link to NPR’s slow-motion video from a SXSW performance – all in the name of capturing Sam’s fascinating body movements. 

Why the Raleigh band Maldora is my new favorite band

by Angela Perez

Last Friday night, in downtown Raleigh, NC, instead of going to see the Cover Up at King’s Barcade, I went to Slim’s to see the Americana band Maldora, a Raleigh band that’s a favorite among seasoned musicians.  Well, Americana is how the band is often labeled.  But that’s not really what’s happening there.  In fact, there’s a punk dissonance hammering away in every chord that threatens the music’s very being.  That punk irreverence seethes throughout the set and actively prevents this music from being true Americana or Southern roots rock.  And yet, initially, when the band starts to play, you might think you are indeed at a good ole’ roots rock show.

But, by God, you ain’t.
If I have seen Maldora ever play before, I don’t recall it, and, as the line-up stands and performs now, I know I would remember it.  I’m going to go ahead and say this band is my favorite band in Raleigh, knocking Demon Eye out of the top spot (though I still love Demon Eye).
To pull off a punk dissonance while also displaying roots rock sensibilities can only be managed by some very seasoned and wise musicians – which this band possesses, all of them well-known and highly respected in the Raleigh music scene:  J Chris Smith, Vox & guitar; Marc Smith (no relation), Vox & guitar; Lutie Cain, bass & vocals; Jesse Huebner, drums.
The push and pull of this music – destroying harmony while at the same time layering it on – creates an inherent tension that cannot be ignored and is, well, fucking tantalizing.   I was drawn in, spellbound by the fact I was witnessing the very magic of music as a true expression of feeling, of the human condition.  These guys, as they play, are creating an altogether revolutionary force through the unconscious collision of two music genres.  The music feels like it might fly apart at the seams – we are teased with the possibility.  But it’s doesn’t.  It’s not going to.  Because it’s grounded in that good ole’ rock and roll I was talking about.  I was stopped in my tracks by it that night in Slim’s.  I had to put down my glass of gin and stop flirting with Larry Burlison and Molly Flynn and pay attention.  Oh, I see a lot of good bands. But rarely, VERY rarely do I see bands that make me wonder aloud, “What the fuck is happening to me right now?”
A lot of that impact also has to do with our J Chris Smith’s voice.  To me, it’s what holds the whole enterprise together and directs it, perfects it.   Lutie and Marc also sing a couple of songs, but that’s just gravy on the fried chicken.  There is a melancholy overtone in Chris’ voice.   And there’s a pure Southern twang to it, and when he sings, it’s like you just walked into the middle of a monologue in a modern Southern novel, full of all that deliciously languid pathos and steamy introspection.   When Chris sings, I don’t even know what the words are.  It just FEELS like he is privately grappling with his own conflicts and demons and I’m peeking in.  But his language is universal and he, very unself-consciously, notices you watching and says, “Aw, come on in Angela and think on your part of the story.  We’ve all got demons to manage.”  So, I did.  I joined him.   At least, that’s what it felt like.  His voice is a kind of catharsis for me personally.  Who do you know who can sing like that?  Well, the greats do it.  That’s why they are great.
Despite the down-deep conflict of the music (inherent to any great art), the night never got dark or depressing.  Oh no.  Because while Chris and company present the whole range of human experience in every song, they also resolve it simultaneously through pure Southern raunch.  That’s right.  Raunch.  The music made me feel like I was carousing with abandon in a seedy saloon (which, I suppose I was – I was in Slim’s, after all).  So, ultimately, when you see Maldora, you have a good and dirty fucking time, not realizing until hours later, after you get home and crawl into bed, that you’ve been gently jerked from despair to elation in ways you never, ever dreamed possible.