75% of the bands we saw this week couldn’t really write a song with a million-dollar recording contract to their heads–hardly a big surprise in the world of “indie” music–but some bands pulled off the atmospheric shtick better than others. On the last day of CMJ we saw a swoon-inducing British “metal” group whose full-body riffs made sure you were never less than entranced. We also saw one more noodly underground rock act than our already taxed brains could handle–which at least made us realize that the lost spirit of audience participation needs to make a swift and brutal comeback.
The Best: Jesu, Blender Theater
Jesu’s success, especially with the core metal audience, has been one of the minor miracles of recent times, at least as regards getting kids to pay attention to certain kinds of music they might otherwise overlook with their genre blinkers on. As the band fronted by “the guy from Godflesh,” Jesu was always going to have some heft to its tolling riffs, but compared to the pulverizing machine music of Godflesh at its best, Jesu’s guitars are, to quote one song title, “weightless and horizontal.” Too heavy for shoegaze, too airy for doom, they’re not quite metal and definitely not indie rock, one of those hybrids that both fits a trend (the Neurisis school of atmospheric metal) and transcends it (no one’s doing the My Bloody Headbanger shtick with as much elan as Justin Broadrick).
So Jesu plays to rooms full of kids in extreme metal T-shirts, but what was the last metal show you were at where the vocalist could comfortably stay at a whisper or a cavernous croon? You definitely had to strain to hear the occasional delicate moments buried in Jesu’s big sound, lost in the crummy acoustics of the Blender Theater; a wonky mix didn’t help much either. On record, the drums are distant as waves breaking on a shoreline when heard a few blocks away, leaving Broadrick’s super-sincere, almost naive melodies to fill up most of the space. Live, however, the drums were the loudest part, the snare like a gunshot puncturing each riff. The bass swallowed the rest, and with the silver mist almost dispersed, the show became more about the inevitability of those riffs, Broadrick banging not only his head but his entire upper body in an exaggerated display of each monster downbeat. A certain softness of touch did occasionally peek through, however, like on the title track from this year’s Conqueror, where laptop-triggered loops floated us through Broadrick’s most weightless composition yet, definitely making us wish we were horizontal, rather than stuffed into a seat with bad sightlines.
The Worst: Stars Like Fleas, Galapagos
More woosh, tinkle, chime, plink, strum, whine, woosh, clank, chime, tinkle. Still growing like kudzu in basements all over Brooklyn with no sign of abating. Middlebrow indie that mistakes tiny gestures like scraping intently (but gently!) at your instruments for a brave reinvention of rock, when it’s really just being unable to write a goddamn song with a verse-chorus-verse that might actually thrill those outside of your immediate peer group who call Animal Collective a “pop” band with a poker face. So tap the tip of your drumstick in a concentric circle around a cymbal and blow a conch shell and moan a few lines of inscrutable lyrics and plunk out a half-assed intimation of a backbeat and call it “indescribable” and wait for the hype cycle to catch you in its undertow.
Jesu may not be blessed with Tin Pan Alley appeal, but their grandeur and physiciality, however well-worn or even childlike, is definitely a reprieve from this avalanche of mimsy art-indie. I mentioned this briefly in the daily round up, but it bears repeating: Why doesn’t anyone call people out for this stuff? You can boo! You can heckle! It’s your duty as an American and a music fan to shame bands until they get their act together and shut you up, or until they quit entirely. Sure it makes you look like an asshole, but tough love isn’t about being liked. And the unchecked and unregulated “experimental” end of indie rock needs an intervention wicked bad.