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Monday March 11th, 2024 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Sleeptime Gorilla Museum, & Season to Risk

I'll confess my brain likes things clean and orderly. It doesn't deal well with grey areas and certainly not with chaos. And of course, my musical tastes are colored by this. I like music that makes sense to me, or at least doesn't inflict psychic wounds upon me. So what possible reason could I have for attending a show like this?

I've been to Record Bar dozens of times. Maybe a hundred times. Like I said, I know what I like. But the venue has never looked like this. After working my way through an proper entrance queue, I beelined toward the front of the club, past foreign consoles and roped off areas created just for the night, and toward a stage packed with strange instruments, foreign lights, and augmented by a hulking catwalk that extended into the crowd. I nervously took my usual spot abutting the stage, pulled out my camera, and waited the half hour for the opening act.

Somewhere there's a long biography about Season to Risk that details the venerable Kansas City noise rock band's origins, its unlikely major label days, its struggles, and its various resurrections over a 35-year career. In fact, I've probably written that article more than once. There's no reason to rehash it, but if you're not familiar with it, you've got some homework. The band lines up as it has for years. Steve Tulipana on vocals, Wade Williamson and Duane Trower on guitars, Billy Smith on bass, & David Silver on drums. The first three also dabbled in synths when more wobble or uneasy atmosphere were required. But more often than not, the two guitarists spent their time trading sharp jabs across the stage. Smith then, was the foundation. His tone was enormous and rolling, creating a storm cloud punctuated by the thunder of Silver's canons. That floor tom was particularly booming, but everything sounded bigger than I remembered.

And that was the theme. Every song in the band's fourteen-song set was thicker, more aggressive, and more modern than I expected. The quintet hasn't lost a step and have probably picked up a few new tricks. This was especially true for Tulipana. With help from an electronic toybox and a second, CB-styled microphone, he offered all sorts of sounds. The blackened scream that kicked off "Underself" was unexpected, disturbing, and wonderful. He moved about the stage, gesticulating wildly as he controlled the audience. Lights flashed and scanned the stage while video projections covered him on their way to the screen at the back of the stage. Between songs he delivered agitprop unintelligible to my ears. Maybe that was due to my post at the side of the stage, or maybe we can blame the mush on just how deeply I was wearing my ear plugs for the entirety of the band's loud 50-minute set. Or maybe the bands chaos had already scrambled my brain. I began to steel myself for the headliner.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is a collective as much as a band. It began making experimental music and situationist art 25 years ago, before spiraling out into other projects that put the effort on hiatus. But now the act has reunited to complete some unfinished business. Maybe it's a movie. Maybe it's an album. Maybe it's a revolution. I'm not sure and I won't pretend to know what I don't. The fans that packed the venue around me knew though. They called out to the performers by name. They delighted at the first introductory notes of songs. They knew lyrics. They danced and worshipped. I was in way over my head.

Five members set up on stage. Each was surrounded by their own pod of instruments. Instruments should be in quotes. Some were recognizable, some were foreign, some homemade, and some appeared to have been pulled from a scrap yard. This was particularly true of the station that engulfed multi-instrumentalist Michael Iago Mellender. Alongside his glockenspiel and keyboards and guitar and trumpet there were all sorts of additional drums, pans, bicycle rims and other miscellany to beat upon. Carla Kihlstedt may have provided violin and vocals predominantly, but then there was that dulcimer-like stringed instrument that she beat on with multiple sticks. Dan Rathbun had one of his own – a seven foot long one strung with piano strings that he tuned differently for each song using C-Clamps. Sometimes he just played bass. Behind him Matthias Bossi stuck to a standard-enough drum kit. Center stage stood our emcee and vocalist Nils Frykdahl. He played guitars. And flute, just because. Oh, and that catwalk that extended into the audience, it lit up to highlight a dancer. A dancer in red and white robes rolling and contorting in slow controlled movements while the band played. His red garb was echoed by the rest of the band, with each of their outfits more curious and confounding than the last. All of them in their own face paint. The six of them performed under constantly reacting lights and video projections. I'm having PTSD just recalling everything I saw and couldn't comprehend. So let's talk about the music instead.

The band is indeed experimental. Tempos varied greatly between songs and often during them. Songs averaged five minutes or more. Time changes were a given. The band swerved together in a flightless murmuration. It was usually heavy. Percussion happened across the stage with a clanking industrial element always shining through. Songs were constantly shifting through disjointed arrangements. Tony Levin once said the band pushed beyond King Crimson's boundaries. That takes a lot. Frykdahl grunted his vocals during the prog metal "Helpless Corpses Enactment." Kihlstedt's vocals were otherworldly. Can a work be sparse and contain epic chorale parts? That happened a lot as multiple voices rose up in response and condemnation of the instruments. Can a tune be both ambient and funky? Yes, frequently. Can it be frighteningly brutal and beautiful. It can if it is closer "Salamander in Two Worlds."

After about six songs I slipped my post and moved up to the mezzanine to give myself some distance from the musical assault. There I discovered several fans sitting in chairs, unable to see the stage, in what I suspected were similarly self-imposed timeouts. A few patrons talked loudly at the bar below. But most of the packed room remained enthralled by the show for the entirety of the 90+ minute set. I can't count myself as one of the band's devoted followers who were positively thrilled to see the band in Kansas City for the first time since 2007, but I was mesmerized by it all. After the one-song encore of "Sleep is Wrong" I slipped into the night with a dizzy raddled brain, but also maybe one that had been expanded just a bit. Maybe that's why I attended a show like this.