I got a phone call around three o'clock in the afternoon from Brad Hodgson asking if I could bring a spare set of strings to the show. Two issues here: one, I had forgotten about the show entirely, and two, Brad already had my Telecaster to use as a second guitar. Issues escalated when Brad revealed he had no idea where the borrowed Telecaster was. Ouch. Luckily all was resolved when I arrived at a well-lit club a little before 10pm.
A painful hour followed in which I milled around the club looking for something to entertain me. After bugging everyone I knew only to have them politely excuse themselves one after another, I moved into the modest poolroom and invited myself into a game. Now the table was gratis and so there is use in complaining, but for my own defense, the cues were horrible and I played only appropriately a shame after my stunning performance only the night before. The jukebox provided additional non-entertainment by allowing me to insert my dollar for the five Bob Seger greats I had in mind, and then turning mute. The Wurlizter-wannabe just sat there all lit up and festive, smug with its success.
When The Brannock Device began their set at 11pm I was thrilled to have something to do. Having only seen the band once before, I listened intently to try and understand the band's vision. Certainly their music is very complicated but they keep the song structures simple enough to avoid the prog-rock cliches, and they keep it bright enough to avoid any math rock comparisons. Ultimately the band's sound is driven by the plucked, slapped and thumbed bass work of vocalist/bassist Jason Beers. Although the vocals have yet to gel for me, his instrumental work is awesome without being overtly flashy. The rules have been reversed in this band as the guitar carries only support roles along side drumming which doesn't create interest itself, but merely accents existing song structures. Although the band's forty-five minute set seemed a bit extravagant for an opener, their short songs kept the set moving and the audience came along for the ride.
There is usually an interesting story when a new band plays their first show, and don't play the opening slot. I'm not sure what story applies in this case. It could be that although To Conquer is new, it's members have all paid their dues in established Kansas City bands, or it could be that the debut of To Conquer was so anticipated, and the crowd it drew so substantial, that it warranted the middle slot, or it could be simply that guitarist Keanon Liggatt plays in both Haloshifter and To Conquer and staging and sound logistics dictated they should play adjacent to one another. Regardless of the reasoning, To Conquer did debut to a large audience that was prepared to be impressed.
Certainly comparisons will be made to the previous bands each member represents is To Conquer more like the winding intricacies of The Hillary Step, the raw sonic power and emotion of Haloshifter, the delicate soundscapes of The String and Return? Yes, it's more like them all.
The set began with a simple keyboard part played by Brad Hodgson just two notes played alternately. When drummer Mike Myers began playing it muddied up the song immediately, and when the rest of the band joined in it was disturbing and disjointed. My ears quickly scanned the stage to find out if this was the intended effect, or if this was the result of some horrible timing miscues. Just as I began to understand the band's vision they suddenly came together in a powerful and reassuring chorus.
This desire to mold momentary chaos (cerebral) into something whole (emotional) was a reoccurring theme in the band's music and often accomplished through the use of this heavy chorus. Alternatively they were equally as successful in transforming the noise into planned atmospheric interludes used to reset the whole timbre of the song. Despite a lack of pop structure or memorable hooks, the band were able to command the audience of onlookers who seemed to be with the band for nearly every note.
For the band's final song, entitled Empire Falls, Myers came forward to play keyboards and guitar while Hodgson used brushes to plod out a somber rhythm. The song slowly developed into an epic befitting its title, and in a Mogwai fashion, an eruption of furious noise defined its middle. With each member of the band maniacally attacking their instruments, this seemed more like a last show rather than a first. How the band moves forward from here will be a delight to see.
As I was helping unload To Conquer's gear from the stage, I thought to myself how much I'd hate to be in Haloshifter right then. Not only must Haloshifter follow a band that had just turned in a phenomenal performance, but also their guitarist just debuted a side project that could certainly demand the majority of his time and creative energies. Everyone keep an eye on Keanon as he may be the barometer that reveals to us if To Conquer is a side project, or a real band.
Haloshifter, however, wasn't unprepared for the situation. They had a secret weapon to unleash on the crowd; a proverbial ace in the hole. Alongside the usual guitarists, bassist and drummer, there was (duh duh duuuh) a DJ. Initially I couldn't imagine how a DJ might interface with the band's thick and exposed indie sound and that grew my excitement. However from the DJ's initial noodlings as the band set up, to the music he played while the rest of the band ended their set, this was a dramatic failure.
The DJ was in no way part of the band's music. There were no clever samples, no looped rhythms, no items of interest, and mostly, there was no point. The self-pleasing hip-hop snippets played between songs only seemed to annoy the band who looked back at the DJ before starting each long as if to ask permission to begin. In total, his participation ranged from a total disaster between songs, to [thankfully] inconsequential during them.
Although unaffected by the turntablist, the songs do seem to have shifted once again. Is it possible that once Keanon's attention was averted by To Conquer guitarist/vocalist John Ferguson seized control? Maybe that's a little far-fetched, but the songs don't seem as complicated as they once were, and the delicate guitar work seems to have vanished. Instead their songs are much harsher, louder and more emotional. For those familiar with the "Screemo" genre, Haloshifter are well on their way to joining a genre that is usually exit only.
Looking at the clock can be a dangerous thing and only when I noticed it was 2am did my legs suddenly start to give out. Giving in, I tucked away my camera and I found a surprisingly comfortable stool that was still warm from the butt of a recently-exited patron who probably had to work in the morning. Almost immediately my eyes began to rise and fall in conjunction with the buzzing guitars and when the band finished their set moments later, I was left debating the merits of Haloshifter with eyes open versus Haloshifter with eyes closed. Ludicrous internal conflict is usually a sign I need to sleep so hands were shook, compliments made, and doors were exited without another thought of the show.