I've been doing it for 25 years. That hour-long drive to Lawrence in the dark and the snow to see a four-band bill at The Bottleneck. Twenty-five years ago, I made that Hajj at least once a week. I've lapsed lately. But to be fair, so has The Bottleneck. But a bill combining a favorite from those halcyon days alongside a much-ballyhooed new band I'd been meaning to see was enough to set me back on that path of righteousness.
My own biases had me referring the gig as a The String & Return show, but that wasn't the case. In fact, the venerable band were the firsts to take the stage, beginning promptly at 8pm. The band's opening set consisted of only six songs that stretched across 30 minutes. Most of the songs were new — not just in comparison to the band's last release, but even compared to its summer performance at Lemonade Park. Longtime fans needn't prepare for surprises or disappointments; the new material is still the slowly evolving, heartbreakingly beautiful, and explosively punctuated indie rock that the band made its name with. Fans will be particularly happy with new cut "To Light." The song begins with the familiar twinkle of Andrew Ashby's picked guitar and the soft call of his voice, but soon picks up the remaining players, slowly opening and blossoming in familiar satisfying ways. The aged Ashby is a quiet and subtle front man, while drummer (and astonishingly, keyboardist and auxiliary vocalist) Mike Myers remains bolder in his interactions. It was Myers who urged fans to the merch table, and who announced the band's forthcoming album (its first in seventeen years) this summer. With any luck the album may connect with a new younger audience enjoying the shoegaze revival and ready to lose themselves in the band's sad songs that make everything feel better.
A quick turnaround brought Midwestern to the stage. Although vocalist R.W. never introduced the band, he did ask where the dancers were, and threatened to find them if they didn't make themselves apparent. It was no idle threat. As soon as co-conspirator Charmaine Ejelonu dropped a beat, R.W. was off the stage and in the faces of the small audience. Throughout the night the shirtless, hyper-active twenty-something jumped and paced and stumbled and shouted into his gripped microphone owing much more to hardcore than any hip hop scene that I'm aware of. Ejelonu added melodic vocals delivered with a controlled flow, but oh does she have a howl. A deep guttural howl that would send shivers down an exorcist's spine. She too entered the audience, collapsing in a tortured heap, shouting the song's emotional refrain of "You said that you would be there for me." At the start of the set the duo were joined by drummer Titus who played a small kit offering barely noticeable accents over top of the dirty beats that originated from a Ejelonu-controlled laptop. For the final songs, he left the stage allowing the Macintosh to carry on without him. While R.W. was genuinely frightening, the band is, at a minimum, disruptive. The band's confrontational approach also allowed the duo leeway to run the show on its own terms. During one new song Ejelonu simply cut the beat after a verse, telling the curious audience "I ain't got no more," and then pushing on to the next number. I don't have much context for the band's experimental and emotional hip hop, but I know enough to get out of the way and let the kids push the scene forward.
Up next was Abandoncy, because, well, of course it was. The band gets around. Being just as comfortable playing in dank basements as it is on bar stages, the trio has earned fans across the spectrum. Its sound is a chimera of punk, hardcore, indie rock, noise rock, and emo such that genre purists are going to find an Abandoncy to be a bit like panning for gold — there's a lot of slurry to sift through if you're only looking for one thing. Falling back on those preconceptions is the wrong way to approach the band, but I'm still making that mistake. I found myself delighting in the aberrant slow, melodic guitar picking of Damian Fisher in one new song, or in the smooth auxiliary vocals of bassist Lincoln Peterson in another, or, more often than not, delighting in the completely gonzo percussion of drummer Morgan Greenwood, but I still haven't surrendered to the band's blender philosophy of volume, complexity, honesty, and aggression. The sound engineer had a seemingly hard time as well, never quite catching the sweet spot with Fisher's varying volumes, and thus leaving the vocals either buried in the mix or shouted into the cacophony. That, combined with a set stuffed with new material (the band have a new cassette coming out February 25th), the band's propensity to write just as many two-minute songs as multi-part six-minute suites, and for samples to bridge songs, all revealed that I had no idea what the band played aside from closing with a new long number called "I Have Your Disease in Me" that careened between slacker indie rock and broken chord chaos until it ultimately imploded in a screaming emotional hardcore finale.
Battered by Abandoncy, I took the break between acts to catch my breath and survey the crowd. Maybe only 30 people in the audience. Most under 30 years of age. A few girls dressed up as goth fairies in big boots that stomped to the bands, but most in attendance were dressed down in their baggy midwestern comfort attire. One guy danced a lot, generally alone, but he was happy to push into two others who found a moment of collective excitement during Abandoncy's set. Attendees were otherwise well spaced out, and everyone (except RW from Midwestern) wore a mask. Low key, relatively safe, pleasant. Nice to be out of the apartment.
Flooding were both the headliners and the brains behind the night's bill. Yes, as the marquee proclaimed, this was a Flooding show despite my own delusions. After releasing its debut album last year, the young trio has made a name for itself on both sides of the DIY divide. Like Abandoncy before, Flooding refuse to play by the rules of my generation, instead mixing genres freely. A case could be made to place Flooding under any number of banners, and even more if we allow a "post-" prefix into the mix. Most songs were quiet, with Rose Brown's vocals often not making it past the plugs that I had lodged into my ears as I prowled the pit for my photos. But when things got loud, they got loud. Bassist Cole Billings had no trouble making his screams heard over Brown's gauzy guitar, shattering the delicate shoegaze with a rough ugliness. The arms race only escalating from there, with effects pedals driving nastier tones and sending drummer Zach Cunningham into overdrive. Despite these moments of release, there was little motion on the stage, and only the slimmest banter with the rapt audience. When the short set ended I both wanted more and needed silence to process my first encounter with the band. Choosing the latter, I slipped out the door without a thought to the two DJs scheduled to follow, instead feeling fortunate to be on the road early enough to avoid the bulk of the snowstorm.
As the flakes sailed past my headlights, I thought of Flooding's approach to scarring up ethereal shoegaze. Already a generation looks to push beyond the revival that the previous ushered in. But that is only right and proper of course. And it's a fitting echo of the propulsive explosions layered on top of The String and Return's own twinkling indie rock. Far from bookends (as there is no end in sight for either act), rather it's nice to think that 25 years from now I'll be making my regular expedition to The Bottleneck, where I'll see legacy act Flooding introduce a new batch performers taking music to the relevant new places that it needs to go.