Somehow I remained upright during a precarious Friday night commute to Record Bar. I shuddered as I braved cold temperatures, freezing rain, and slick sidewalks all for a noise rock show, despite it being a genre I'm historically indifferent to. But the bands on this bill intrigued me, and as we've discussed in the past, that's enough to get me out of the apartment. It's admittedly a low bar.
The first band of mystery was Violenteer. Research told me little other than the Omaha band is a trio led by bassist brothers Randy and Barry Cotton and augmented by a drummer that has shifted during its short lifespan. I also read that the band often includes disparate performers for added impact. For this run of shows the band would be joined by Steve Tulipana (of Season to Risk, Men of Men, Drop a Grand and countless others) who would provide vocals and sample manipulations. But that was really all I knew. Until these shows, the band had avoided posting audio or video of its craft, so with only the brothers' past resumes, the fact that the band was supporting Unsane, and the knowledge the lineup can be flexible from show to show to go on, I made some guesses about what I’d see. I got a lot wrong.
Reality came as a seven-song, 40-minute set of heavy reverberating alternative rock. Just big and expansive and enveloping rock that never escalated to metal, nor devolved into noise. The foursome brought me back to 1988 when a sixteen-year-old me was having his mind blown by the sheer sonic enormity of Nothing's Shocking. But there are no guitars in this act. Instead, one Cotton brother or another shirked the traditional supportive roles of bass and slid up the neck of his instrument to deliver melodies (often with the help of effects pedals) that cut through the immersive music. The set was thick – not doom, not sludge – but tempos never raced. Mostly it was loud. The band brought massive stacks of amplifiers to ensure its music was felt, and the hard-hitting of drummer Corey Thumann followed suit. Thumann's muscular approach kept the band focused, ensuring it never devolved into a post-rock jam fest. All this volume often left the heavily processed vocals of Steve Tulipana lost in the mix. The recording from the soundboard fixed that problem, but from my vantage point at the front of the stage, the vocals provided reverb-drenched distractions, rather than driving songs forward. Still, compositions appeared to be written to make room for vocals, leaving me to wonder if a singer was always part of the grand plan, and if that person might be Tulipana. I hope that's the case, as that would increase the likelihood that the band returns to Kansas City soon.
Big Water was scheduled to go on next. The band is the noise rock project of Matt Perrin (ex Bummer) and would undoubtably been a hit with the crowd. Unfortunately, bassist Morgan "Punch" Mabrey was unable to make the show at the last minute, so instead the PA blasted tunes for the next hour until it was time for the headliner's set.
Unsane is one of those "if you know, you know" bands. Since its founding in the late '80s, it has released records on heavyweight labels that have helped define indie (Matador), noise (Amphetamine Reptile, Ipecac), punk (Alternative Tentacles), and metal (Relapse, Southern Lord) scenes. Few acts have moved so freely between those genres. While only guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer remains from the band's earlier incarnations, the project has nevertheless been active for most of thirty-five years. Fans of the band were thrilled to see a tour announced in celebration of the re-release of the band's earliest material. I can't say I was thrilled, but as someone who those early albums, I was curious to see what a 2023 Unsane show might entail.
At 9:55 Spencer took the stage backed by Eric Cooper (bass) and Jon Syverson (drums). Both veteran musicians, yet both notably younger than Spencer. Together the trio delivered a nineteen-song set of songs pulled from its early career, including eight cuts from its self-titled debut. For nearly an hour the trio pummeled the audience with constant roiling and shifting rhythms. Heavy, but always off kilter. As someone who counts time when he watches bands, Syverson was my nightmare. Time signatures constantly evolved under the band, yet the trio avoided every bit of prog or even mathrock posturing. More surprising still, bits of melody landed just as hard as the rhythmic punches. There is plenty of "rock" in this band's noise rock.
Spencer only spoke to the audience a few times during the set, instead his voice was saved for effective screams that defied his age. His guitar howled along. Few riffs, few grooves, few leads, just screams of its own. With neither Spencer's guitar nor Syverson's drums holding songs together, the responsibility of cohesion was left to Cooper's bass. He was the perfect glue, and even offered his own screams from what may have been the largest mouth I'd ever seen. The two performers collided numerous times throughout the night. Sometimes when Spencer felt rowdy, but just as often when Spencer felt joy, pulling Cooper in close for moments of head-to-head intimacy. Spencer was enjoying the outing, enjoying the boisterous crowd, and enjoying playing these tunes with his new band.
The audience had packed in tightly to the edge of the stage. There were maybe fifty or so fans, most bearded and old, but some shockingly young with Xs on their hands. Heads nodded and fists pumped throughout the night, with some songs earning jumps of elation, and a few toward the end generating a small push pit that sent fans sloshing from side to side. After a short break to say thank you, Spencer led the band through a planned two-song encore of "Body Bomb" and "Can't See." Then, before 11pm, it was over. The crowd was spent and happy, with one patron in a Dead Kennedys shirt telling me, "I needed that," as she pushed her sweaty hair from her face. I needed it too.
Sometimes my curiosity pays off and I find myself loving a show despite my prejudices. Of course, sometimes it kills the cat. But with nine lives, I figure it's worth risking one on an icy five-block walk to Record Bar to see an underrated and influential band hitting the road to kick off a new chapter. Surely that's not too low of a bar.