Batman has The Joker. Strawberry Shortcake, the Pie Man. Sherlock Holmes, James Moriarty. And I have scurrilous flyers. On this night I believed one that said 7pm doors and 8pm show. I showed up at 7:45 to learn that there was "some confusion," and the show wouldn't start until 9pm. Well played, flyer, you win this time. So, as not-advertised, the doors opened about ten minutes before showtime, creating a curious mass of people snaking the long stairwell up to the Disaster Room at Minibar. We each paid our $10 and then packed into the venue. Busy for a Tuesday night.
Emmaline Twist kicked off the night playing the role of the classic warm up band. The band's 35-minute set featured familiar songs from 2018's Dissimulation as well as the two digital-only singles which followed in 2021 and 2022. Some bands are prolific, but not Emmaline Twist. But what's that axiom about quality for quantity?
The quintet is an amalgam of established players. Meredith McGrade provides vocals and guitar, Kristin Conkright bass and backing vocals, Krysztof Nemeth additional guitars, Alex Alexander synths, and Jonathan Knecht drums. The band's music is moody and dark, throbbing with energy but never frantic. Post-punk but not twitchy or anxious. It's sound starts with the rhythm section. Simple percussion and round bass tones are both supported by a shifting, often one-note synthesizer bedding. Staid, nearly monotone vocals from McGrade set the mood, while the ghostly backing vocals add depth and intrigue. It's Nemeth's guitar (or baritone guitar) that delivers many of the melodic leads. Like every Emmaline Twist show that I can recall, there wasn't much banter (although Nemeth did shout an excited expletive from his dark corner of the stage), there weren't any histrionics, and volumetric dynamics were limited. Even the club's dim lights were steady. The result wasn't dull, but rather lulling – the velvety, hypnotic soundtrack for a head trip.
The audience lined the stage for the entirety of the opening act's set – certainly a rarity – and the spectators didn't move between acts either. I've never seen fans hold their positions like this at a Minibar show. As I scanned across the sea of heads, the room seemed full to back wall. As McGrade confessed from the stage, "We couldn't pack the room on a Tuesday night." Kansas City had turned out for Airiel.
Airiel is the Chicago-based shoegaze project of Jeremy Wrenn. Years ago (26 in fact), our paths crossed, and I released his band's debut. Since then, I hadn't talked to or thought about the band once. No bad blood, just life. When friends told me how excited they were to play with the band in Kansas City, I was surprised to learn that the project was still active, and that it was intersecting with my musical world once again. After a bit of research, I was left scratching my head. There were dozens of times we should have crossed paths and never did. A handful of releases that I should have bought. The musical world is a curious place, simultaneously small and enormous.
Shoegaze is a description slapped on nearly every band today. It’s become a watered-down term for any band with an effects pedal or half an interest in creating atmosphere alongside melody. It’s also a modifier for every genre under the sun – blackgaze, surfgaze, nugaze, it’s all there. Skagaze can’t be far behind. But if any band has right to the appellation, it’s Airiel. Wrenn, guitarist Andrew Marrah, and bassist Rich Fessler each had impressive pedal banks used to sculpt thick, beautiful noise. They played at an astounding, often oppressive, volume. There’s indie rock and structure in the band’s songs that place it closer to Ride than My Bloody Valentine if you intend to compare it to the Mount Rushmore of the genre. The band’s ten-song setlist also featured several numbers that shed the heavy swirling guitars, and instead created lush dream pop, thrilling me even more. During "In My Room" guitars jangled and shimmered while Wrenn’s shockingly blissful tenor wooed the room. Kansas City had its own romance with the genre in the ‘90s with acts like Shallow/The Capsules and most everything David Guame played in. One of those band's touched by Guame was Stella Link, featuring drummer Chris Metcalf, who happens to be the touring drummer for Airiel. Again, a connection curiously not made sooner.
Airiel played with a surprising amount of energy. Andrew Marrah entered the audience several times as he thrashed about with his guitar. Wrenn did the same near the end of the set. Marrah and Fessler swapped positions several times, and all three members pulled off synchronized kicks under the pulsing stage lights in a move that was more Bon Jovi than Slowdive. Further bucking the trend, Metcalf was an animal on drums, bringing the same chaos and energy fans are used to seeing when he performs with The Life and Times. For a genre that often features plodding drums or even drum machines, Metcalf played with refreshing power and lyricism. During the sweaty final song, he lost two sticks. One was picked up by Fessler who repurposed it beating his bass during the song's climax. Later the quartet's one-song finale was concluded by Metcalf who collapsed into his kit, sending drums and cymbals tumbling across the stage.
After using the jaws of life to get my earplugs out, I reintroduced myself to Jeremy Wrenn and asked him to sign a copy of that first release. "That old thing!" he said has he scrawled his name on the inside of the CD. We didn't catch up any further as there were a dozen fans queued at the merch table waiting for his attention. Besides, if the band can pack the Minibar on a Tuesday night, I figure they'll be back soon anyway. Sooner than 26 years at least.