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Wednesday June 14th, 2023 at Record Bar in Kansas City, MO
Sprain, Drowse, Agriculture, Nerver, & Flooding

Perpetually behind. And a five-band bill. Five complicated and challenging bands. Anyway, I'll try to be brief.

Flooding opened the night. I guess someone must go first. The band is no longer new and the songs the trio plays are no longer the solo compositions of guitarist/vocalist Rose Brown stretched to incorporate bassist Cole Billings and drummer Zach Cunningham. The songs the band plays now were born knowing their power and heft. Intricate slowcore arpeggios are always going to explode into screaming intensity. The audience knows this and they're here for it. Between songs the audience was silent, putting Brown in the figurative spotlight and forcing her to make small talk while adjusting her guitar tuning for each composition. Long songs filled the 30-minute set quickly, and the audience called for more that there just wasn't time for.

Too Much Rock is littered with reviews that say things like "I'll have to see the band a few more times to figure out what they're doing." It's not code for disliking a band. The truth is I like nearly every band once I can wrap my head around them. What’s not to like about music? Nerver is a band that flummoxed me for the first two times I saw them. Turns out third time is the charm. During a short six-song, twenty-minute set the band proved that it’s worth every bit of the buzz that’s been building around it. From a distance, the band is metal. Or maybe they're hardcore. Or probably just noise rock. But decode it and you'll find its all of them as well as secret joys like those hidden in the bands that created the Chicago sound in the '90s. There were no dancers, just an audience in awe of Evan Little's flying hair, the pounding drums of Mat Shanahan, the riffs-as-leads guitar work of both Jake Melech and Dakota Hollenbeck, and the quartet's ability to move in unison through tempo shifts and speedy explosions.

Agriculture from Los Angeles was up next. Bad name. Great band. The foursome's half-hour set was built from only a handful of songs. Most were epic black metal compositions that flowed between multiple glorious movements. Bassist Leah B. Levison does the shrieking. Guitarist Dan Meyer offers backing vocals – including one curiously quiet song with clean singing. Lead guitarist Richard Chowenhill put on a show. Sure, there was tremolo picking, but also big sweeps, finger taps, and enormous bends too. Drummer Kern Haug completed the quartet, playing spare atmospheric hits or blast beats as the mood required. Between each track he stood up as if to shake off the taste of the last track and prepare for the next. The band describes their music as "ecstatic black metal" which is a curious way of saying the songs are big and emotional third wave USBM, rather than the genre's earlier raw and shredded variations. The band has a new album coming out soon, so do whatever that pre-save thing is you're going to want to feel this album tear at you.

After a half-hour delay, the stage was turned over to Kyle Bates who performs as Drowse. The Portland-based project is maximalist, pulling in all the chaos and confusion of a noise artist, the texture of shoegaze, and the mad composition of the avant-garde new music set. He realized this vision with pre-programmed backing tracks, samples of dialog, piles of electronic wizardry, and an electric guitar enhanced by a bevy of effects. Bates is a prolific artist, with over a dozen releases attributed to Drowse alone. Some of those songs served as moments of clarity during a long, often-formless 45-minute set. Those songs – especially those with lyrics, whether spoken low, sung quietly, or delivered as emotional screams – provided structure that was missed during the moments between the songs, when improvised sonic squalls were allowed to go on for minutes at a time. Near the end of the set, the members of Sprain slowly joined Bates on stage, allowing the project to trade harsh noise for warm analog volume. The final song, with its four guitarists and live drummer, moved into delightful Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory, finally creating a moment that I could grok and delight in.

Throughout the evening I eavesdropped on a group of Zoomers camped beside me. Several extolled the virtues of the headliner, telling the uninitiated that they should go buy the band's album immediately, and not wait until after it played, because "you're going to want it." Of course, they also talked about how good Creed was, so, really, I had no idea what to expect. The band is on the same label as the two preceding acts, could that be a clue?

Sprain is from Los Angeles. The four-piece lines up as Alex Kent (vocals, piano, guitar), April Gerloff (bass), Sylvie Simmons (guitar), and Max Pretzer (drums). That is the only normal thing about the band. The set began with a twenty-minute composition punctuated by several minutes of a single sustained note on Kent's piano. He stood motionless, expressionless, holding his note. The band around him stood still. Eventually he added histrionic vocals, and then both Gerloff and Simmons joined in, bowing their instruments, and joining the drone. Over time, the composition grew in intensity and complexity, until finally adding in syncopated rhythms that sent Kent bounding across the stage, stomping each repeated crash. If Nerver secretly held the soul of Chicago's complex and mathy past, Sprain exemplified the utter obliteration of expectation found by Skin Graft bands during the same period.

In the second half of the band's 45-minute set, songs were shorter, though they often abutted one another to ensure the audience received no reprieve. The slow Swans-like drones and textures of the opening piece were now frequently bookended with fast slashes from Kent's knifing guitar. The rest of the band put their bows away, instead, finding drumsticks to use as slides. In one unnamed new song, everyone but the drummer dropped out, leaving Pretzer to actuate his hi-hat for over a minute while he waited for the band to come back in. In another song, Pretzer played quick sixteenth notes on a ride with both hands for minutes at a time. My wrists burned watching this repetitive motion. Yet it was only Pretzer that smiled during the set. He seemed bemused by the theatricality of it all, with the rest of the band maintaining a tense focus. Simmons was particularly intent, staring down Kent carefully, for signs of changes to come, or signals that she was free to conjure the bloody screams of feedback out of her guitar and amplifier. The band ended its set with screeching guitars that came together for pounding down beats. Then ended it again. And again. And likely again. I lost count. In fact, I lost control of all bodily functions a half hour earlier, and only stood watching the band, mouth agape, with a pool of saliva growing at my feet. Yeah, I'm going to have to see this band a few more times to figure it all out.