To be honest, I'm not sure what possessed me. At 4pm I heard about a random show, and by 6:20 I'm in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Storrow Drive trying to make it to Salem for a supposed 7pm start time. Although spur of the moment, it wasn't entirely indiscriminate; one of the bands had been asking me to come see it for weeks, and another came with a good recommendation from one of the bands on my label. Since I have no friends and little money, what else is there to do besides see shows, take pictures, and write all about it? So that's it really.
Quick things about Sputnix best represented as a list:
1) The streets don't seem to be well marked in Salem. Sure there is a sign for the Witch Museum or Dracula's Haunted Castle every few blocks, but street signs are a valuable commodity.
2) The locale of the show looks more like an abandoned schoolroom than a club. Is it new? Is it just a multiple use rental hall? Could I reserve it for my wedding reception? Does the drummer from one of the bands really own it as rumoured? There are so many questions and I have so few answers.
3) This was an all-ages show. Sometimes all-ages means under 18. This was one of those nights. It's okay, I'm used to being the old man. Although I do wonder if kids think I'm a creepy narc or child molester or something.
My normal instinct during this pre-show period is to look inconspicuous and try to blend in. Due to my advanced age, that was going to be impossible, so I devoted my energies to overhearing conversations instead. Although I heard catty grrls discuss second period English classes and, later, the grrls whom they used to be friends with but are now "bitches," my ears really perked up when the bearded boys started talking about the lost opening band that was still thirty minutes away. As a result, Stolen Bike Crusade was asked to go on first. To the members' credit, there were no egos; they just set up their gear.
Did the lost band ever show up?
Boston's Stolen Bike Crusade (or simply SBC) is, most obviously, a hardcore band. Live, the band's music is aggressive and driving and somewhat relentless. It is, however, a new school hardcore band, a band not based on the hardcore of Gorilla Biscuits or even Earth Crisis, but one that has known the hardcore of AFI and New Found Glory. As such, there aren't big breakdowns, but more commercial half-time sections that show how the band can be sensitive. If we were to judge SBC by its recorded demos alone, we'd probably call it emo. However, live, those telling dynamics are lost and the emotional pleas are abandoned for punchier screaming. While the band may have designs on Hot Water Music or Texas is the Reason, its blunt-object approach to songcraft just doesn’t bare that out.
Every band has an off night, and this appeared to be the first in a string of off nights inspired by Sputnix. Throughout the set Erik attempted to berate the audience into participation. However this is a dangerous cycle. If successful, the crowd is amped by the band, resulting in the band being fueled by the crowd, which further excites the crowd so the energies multiply. If a failure, the audience is apathetic, the band struggles to lift it and the audience recoils, causing the band to struggle further. SBC, unfortunately, inspired the latter. It didn't matter how many times vocalist/frontman Erik Scott jumped off his sound monitor, or ran into the audience to scream into the faces of passive observers; his enthusiasm was never returned. He asked the audience members to come closer, to dance, to even nod their heads, and still he received nothing. After a while his persistent attempts to motivate the audience seemed to detract from the performance. Bands, please, take my advice: when the audience won't budge, just play your rock, keep your dignity, and accept the polite applause.
Of course in this case, one can't really blame the audience for their indifference, I believe they caught this bug from the rest of Scott's band. While Scott flexed and jumped and tilted his head back to produce his inhuman screeches, the rest of the band members just leaned back and played their instruments like session players in the studio. While bands like Sum 41 may take movement to the level of gimmickry, some motion or intensity is required. Even when guitarist Jim McCormick would saddle up to the microphone for backing vocal duties, he seemed to be merely passing time.
Irony reached a highpoint when Scott asked the audience members to raise their hands if they "came to a show." When no one raised a hand, Scott tried to debate them on the issue. The truth is, the audience might have thought it was coming to a show, but it didn't get one. It only got musicians playing their music on a foot high wooden platform in the corner of a meeting hall.
Once SBC finished its set, the lights were brought back up, and the band removed its gear from the stage in silence. I forgot how quiet it could be at shows like this. With no soundman or overarching sound system to blast music to the audience, the show loses momentum. If I had had anyone to talk to, I might have enjoyed the quiet, but as it was, I dropped off some buttons with SBC's pleasant merch grrl, and then settled back into a corner to watch Faraway load its gear onto the stage.
Quick things about Faraway best represented as a list:
1) Every bit of the band's gear was racked and in expensive road cases.
2) Both guitarists played Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier amps through Mesa half stacks. One guitarist had a lovely Les Paul, the other a lovely SG. The bass player had an Ernie Ball Stingray and a big-ass Ampeg rig (including the Ampeg 8x10 cabinet). The drummer had some freaky custom kit from Orange Country Drums and Percussion including colour coordinated rims. Estimated value of gear on stage: $15,000+.
3) Looking at the band's cases, I saw stickers for Something Corporate, Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, and other similarly themed bands. I don't think there was a sticker from a band that had been around longer than 5 years.
After the band was set up and the audience returned to readiness, things stalled while guitarist Luke Dent struggled with his wireless system. Eventually he made the right decision and directly plugged in his monster cable, accepting the fact that he'd be tethered for the next thirty minutes. On such a small stage, wireless seemed entirely overkill anyway. With that, vocalist/guitarist Larry Shae apologized to the crowd that the band was not metal and began it began its set. Looking at the Mesa Boogie half stacks, I silently disagreed.
Faraway is a dual-guitared local foursome that has been together for less than a year. While probably not the members' first band, at an average age of just under twenty-years old, they can't have much experience under their belts. Sadly, they seem to suffer from the same lack of history that plagued The Stolen Bike Crusade, only this time in spades.
Simply put, the bulk of the band's material is tedious. This band is too young and has yet to find its voice. Instead, it has studied the tried elements of other bands, appropriated them, and then duplicated them with considerable skill. Although this approach created accessible music easily digested by teenage audiences, it was too bland for my tastes. Oh and about that "we're not a metal band" comment, no, they're not, but their guitar leads are.
On a very real upside, the band was fun to watch. While the entirety of the band was more enthused than the openers, bassist "Tiny" Adams, with his floppy blonde mop, was particularly entertaining. Without resorting to synchronized jumps, gratuitous trips into the audience, or flips off of the amps, the band brought an element of "show" to the show.
Although I've applied this comparison before, Faraway reminded me very much of the first (and only) time I saw Blink 182. This was in 1994 and a group of unknown kids with professional gear, charisma, and run of the mill songs was opening for stalwarts Samiam. Faraway is that accessible, and, with better writing, has the ability to go far. But just as no critic has ever given Blink 182 credit for anything other than being what it is, Faraway will be saddled with the same fate unless the band finds its own original voice.
When Faraway had completed its set, the lights came back up once again, and the silent stage was then handed over to The Loon and Buggy. As is my particular hobby, I occupied myself by listening to the conversations around me. Yes, I am that creepy. For most of the kids, now seemed to be the optimal time to leave; they'd seen two bands, and now it was time to either dine or find greater mischief at a party or some such. As a result, when The Loon and Buggy began their set, the audience had thinned from a respectable fifty or so down to a disappointing twenty-five. It is interesting to note, however, that the number of people actively photographing did triple for The Loon and Buggy's set. The band may not have had many fans in attendance, but apparently the ones it had were devoted.
The Loon and Buggy (or "The LAB" as the band often confusingly refers to itself) continued several music trends of the evening. Outwardly, this is yet another local foursome with two guitarists. They are of similar vintages and born from roughly the same influences as the previous two bands. They also suffer from many of the same shortcomings as the evening's predecessors. Thankfully, they do other things much better.
First, the bad news: this band was just as lifeless as a band could be. Aside from a singularly gimmicky moment when vocalist/guitarist Mike Beaudoin and bassist Jamie McCarthy traded finger-taps on each other's fret boards, absolutely nothing of interest happened on the stage. In fact, the let down was almost immediate. Bassist Al Frazier began by telling the audience that the band was going to "melt their face off" or something similar. At which point the band began its set with a long, lazy, and uninspired keyboard solo. Wow, that Casio melted my face right off. That ill-advised introduction was the only time that the keyboard was used throughout the set. No one asked for my advice, but lose the keyboard kids.
Further complicating the band's live performance is the lack of a dominant frontman. Although Beaudoin would seem to be the de facto choice, he has no stage presence or charisma. Rather than the energetic frontman for a post-hardcore band, he leaned back, stared at his guitar, and finger tapped away ignoring the audience as if he were the third guitarist for Phish in the middle of a four-hour long set. While Frazier was given a microphone for his second vocal duties (as was McCarthy), he seemed unwilling to rise to the challenge of presenting this band to the audience. This may seem a minor detail, but it does make the band seem unfocused and leaves the audience unsettled.
While stage presence is certainly important, mercifully the band does have abilities where it matters. First, its songs are interesting and inventive. The band owes more to the post-hardcore of Quicksand and the tricky emo of Braid than to the pop strains that served as influences to Faraway. Furthermore, the members of the band are able musicians. They have the skill to pull off the interesting technical bits they add into their music. If the band can establish its stage show, expect good things from them, but until then, they're just not firing on all the cylinders required to make the band go.
As the members of The LAB walked off of the stage I heard one of them mutter, "That sucked." Almost immediately afterwards, he was greeted by a fan proclaiming, "That was awesome." The band member thanked his friend and fan, was appropriately gracious about the compliment, and then continued to pack up his gear. I'm pretty sure both band and fan knew the real score.
Things I noticed abut the kids at the show, best represented as a list:
1) High school grrls will always be cute no matter how old you become. From what I was able to gather through careful and deliberate staring, one cutie was the little sister of a band member. That band member was later established to be in High School still. Yes, I know, I'm going to Hell.
2) The boys at the show seemed to come in one of two categories. They were either young, tall and thin with clean, long hair, or they were a bit older (college-aged) and wore beards on their more-rounded faces. Those really were the only two options for a good 80% of the crowd.
3) Way too many kids there wore Slipknot, Mudvayne and similarly themed shirts. In fact, I noticed a few straight-up spooky kids. I forget how high school works I guess. When you're in school you must stick to your strict cliques, but when you're out of school, you move to very general ones? In this case, all the non-mainstream kids can get along after-hours because of their common enemies?
I've a long-standing rule that any band playing in front of less than 500 people that hangs a banner behind its drummer is bound to suck. I've never have my hypothesis proven wrong, and so it was only natural for me to cringe when I spied the bassist of the headlining band climb onto the stage carrying a banner. With the help of the drummer, the banner was ceremoniously unfurled, giving me a glimpse of the predictably garish advertisement consisting of two-foot high black letters spelling out the band's name, "My Pet Demon," in the Ogilvie typeface upon a background of red. With less than fifty people in the room, this just was not a good omen.
Before the band played, someone tipped me off that My Pet Demon is metal. He actually mentioned touchstone band names, but I think he was way off, and I've got my own to drop later. But if My Pet Demon is metal, it means its fans must be metal too. This explains the tall boys with long hair (the fact we're in the affluent North Shore village of Salem explains the hair's clean, flowery aroma). This also accounts for the Slipknot shirts that, up until now, seemed out of place.
Furthermore this explains why so many kids kept requesting Iron Maiden from the other acts. I had thought Maiden must be the Skynard of a new generation, but this new revelation provides a much more palatable explanation. Now why kids (actual high school kids) care about Iron Maiden is beyond me. That band hit its creative peak between 1982 and 1984 – years when I couldn't yet have been counted as a target demographic, and certainly before any of these kids were born. I was left pondering this lust for Maiden until the band began its set.
By looks alone, My Pet Demon could have continued all of the evening's trends. It is yet another young four piece (I was told all of its members, save frenetic drummer Matt Kenney, are still in High School), no less clean-cut than any other band that played. However, the band quickly polarized the audience. The older, rounded and bearded boys stepped back, and the fresh-faced, longhaired ones came forward – very forward. In fact, for My Pet Demon's set, the core audience of 30 fans was sandwiched tightly together, and seemingly attached to the front of the stage. This made taking pictures nearly impossible. The rest of the remaining audience (consisting largely of other bands, significant others, and a few older family members) kept a safe distance from the band and its fans. There is still a stigma attached to metal – one that I imagine its outsider members must appreciate and nurture more than fret over.
Although My Pet Demon was full of interesting sociological conundrums without even playing a note, once the band's set began, there were even more tidbits to examine. Most incongruously, this group of teenage boys from Massachusetts has built its sound firmly upon the foundation of the new wave of British heavy metal born in the late 70s. Although nowhere near as progressive as the oft-requested Iron Maiden, the band was every bit as brutal and guttural as Motorhead, with fluid leads reminiscent of early Black Sabbath. Bassist Adam Fullerton's Led Zeppelin shirt was only the most obvious nod to the band's debt to the Brits. Thankfully, frontman Ken Pellegrino avoided the faux cockney accent, but instead delivered his vocals in a natural shout similar to James Hetfield of Metallica (a band that itself was inspired entirely by the same British heavy metal.)
While the band played an abnormally long set for such a venue, the duration was justified by the appreciative audience. Throughout the set, the fanatics up front bobbed their heads to the beat, whipping their hair up and down in time with the music. In the rare slow sections, the undaunted audience members adjusted their own pace, creating a curious scene when heads would drop, wait a second or two, and then bob back up again in unison. Only one grrl seemed to prefer the newer-style head banging, which involves the spinning of hair rather than merely dropping it. When done right, the practitioner of this variation looks a bit like a pinwheel. I once saw the entire front line of Cannibal Corpse do this and it was hypnotic. Another couple stood at the side of the stage, holding hands, and bobbing their heads enthusiastically – she much more than the closely shorn he. Irrespective of head banging preferences, the bulk of the audience shouted and offered "devil horns" of approval as My Pet Demon concluded each song and launched seamlessly into another. While individual songs no longer stand out in my mind, at initial hearing each seemed catchy, involved, and intelligent. Needless to say, these are all qualities I didn't expect to find from teenage boys playing in a rec hall. To give credit where it is due, however, the charisma and drive of the band is provided entirely by Pellegrino. It's his vocals, his guitar leads, and his songs that make this band work. Whether in this band or another, a great future awaits him. If success is to find My Pet Demon, the band needs more time to mature – currently the foursome wears its influences too proudly. In fact, the band covered both Motorhead (the wonderful, yet entirely too natch, "Ace of Spades") and Metallica ("Creeping Death") during its set.
My Pet Demon concluded the exhaustive evening by reminding the audience to come back out tomorrow night as it would be playing another set at the same club – this time with a different assortment of openers (seven or eight bands they thought). While inarguably spontaneous, I knew I had already reached my limit – I'd be spending tomorrow night safely at home with a good book.