Sometimes I go to shows knowing I'll leave with my head spinning. Maybe the bands are too spacy, too noisy, too loud, or too complicated – I guess there are there lots of musics that can make me woozy. I might brave a show like that because I'm in the mood to have my boundaries pushed, or maybe I just need to see what all the fuss is about. And then there are confounding shows that I find myself at without realizing what I'd signed up for. That can happen when I go to see a band that I've seen a dozen times before and I don't pay attention to the other four acts on the bill. Especially when I didn't realize the entire bill was a warmup, of sorts, for an outlandish festival that commences the following night two states over. Maybe one billed as a "Party for the love of unorthodox sounds." Knowing something like that wouldn't have changed my decision to go, but it might have prepared me for the next four hours. Let's see what I got myself into.
The show started just after 7:00, allowing me plenty of time to finish my burger at the attached Leafeater. Soon the vegan burger joint will move, and that prelude won't be possible. I will miss that. The first act was Medians from Tallahassee. The instrumental foursome featuring guitarists Dallas Lanius and Kurt Stevenson, bassist Nick Ossi, and drummer Ki Nakai is roughly mathrock. It's a genre that can mean many things to many people. I won't recount the genre's roots, just know that "rock" is the base, and the "math" is the complicated and shifting rhythms that mold the compositions. From there, anything goes. Mutations and crosspollinations have always expanded the genre in every direction. Medians' music is notey. There are few chords, and those that present are just likely to come from Ossi's five-string bass as from a guitar. More often, Ossi taps up the fretboard alongside of both Lanius and Stevenson – especially Lanius since Stevenson picked more traditional twinkling leads, the sort that define Midwestern emo. But that's not really what this band is. The band's songs don't have traditional structures. As such there aren't crunching drops or complicated changes in the band's music. If change is the constant, it's not really a change, is it? During a short 22-minute set, the band played songs that were bright and more happy than dour. Its songs were rock but colored deeply with pop and only microdosed with jazz. Can you hear it yet? No? That's okay, the band have a new album out called Music For Bats, Frogs, & Other Imaginary Friends, and you can stream it to understand what I was incapable of describing.
As would be the case all night, the stage was quickly turned over to the next act. Bands that share drums and bass cabinets should get 25% off at all Taco Bells visible from the interstate. Thank you for your service.
Tang from Nashville were up second. The band is an instrumental four-piece configured identically to the opener with Jack Steiner and Taylor Neal on guitars, Matt Wiles on bass, and Connor Streeter on drums. Although painting with the same brushes, the foursome created entirely different art. It started with the foundation. While not committing to pop rock's ABABCB prescription, the rhythm section was still able to create beds for expected movement – especially from the guitars that ruled the band's sound. Lyrical guitar leads sung throughout the set, introducing elements of jazz fusion along with a palpable love of progressive rock. Leads morphed into solos, sometimes adding accents, and often intentionally stealing the focus. Neal offered most of this virtuosic magic, delivering ostentatious Malmsteen-like sweeps and plenty of speedy hammers. And just when it seemed like songs might disintegrate into notey etudes, chords would appear creating anchoring riffs that both band and audience could lock into. The mesmerized fans that packed the front of the stage were even treated to a heavy rock downbeat or two during the band's short nineteen-minute set. Tang aren't the post-hardcore-born mathrock that I cherished in the early '90s, but we might have held an ancestor in common.
By this point I was beginning to understand what I was in for. Not only could I not usually count time signatures through the first two acts, but I often couldn't even find the "one." My head was already getting fuzzy, and the night was just getting started. And the next act would only add insult to my blooming injury.
Snooze are from Chicago, and Chicago has a reputation. It built both the percussive and noisy elements of mathrock's first rise, and added the jazzy guitar elements more commonly heard today. Snooze ride atop both of those waves, and also explore the genre's murky inception. The band is another two-guitar quartet that lines up as Login Voss and Mike Stover on guitar, Demetri Wolfe on bass, and Alex Kennedy on drums. Soundcheck took a while. For the first time, the sound engineer had to worry about vocals. Three of them. The mic checks included three-part harmonies. Three. Part. Harmonies. Ostentatious on a Yes level. The band seems to center around the vision of Voss. He carried most of the vocals and if any band on the bill had a rhythm guitarist, he'd be it, providing shifting augmented chords, stomp box explosions, and wah-wah pedal powered moments of notey 3D chess. The show, however, was on the other side of the stage. Feeling the music's hardcore roots, Stover bounded and danced about while simultaneously providing leads and taps and picked arpeggios through extended chords. I couldn't keep up. Wolfe bounced in the middle of the stage – always smiling, always bopping his head from side to side. Kennedy's pounding double bass and ugly crash were both pulled straight from the extreme metal playbook. His arms swung over his head before every impact on the poor heads of that shared drum kit. Gear was paramount. Every guitar on stage had too many strings and each was capped by a fret wrap. All the musicians wore in-ear monitors – no doubt a necessity when you're trying to harmonize and blend voices surrounded by a crashing din. Less importantly, the earphones probably allowed the players to hear the laptop-provided backing tracks that added keyboards and Lord Fripp-knows-whatelse to the already loaded sonic recipe. For the entirety of the band's 32-minute set I tried in vain to source all the sounds I heard, but as I counted beats in 7 and attempted to echolocate vocals, the rest of the audience effortlessly nodded with every downbeat and grinned with every flowering lead. The audience's excitement for the act was palpable, and the way it queued to fist bump Stover and, hopefully, get one of his picks after the show was surprising. I wished I had brought an Advil.
As the other bands had, Snooze mentioned it was on its way to Plus Fest the next day. I had no idea what Plus Fest was, so I spent some time between acts looking it up. The website described the festival as "a curated array of both local and national artists in math rock, midwest emo, jazz, progressive rock & metal, avant garde and more." Other than locals Via Luna and each of the acts I had been introduced to on this night, I didn't recognize any of the 30 acts playing the two-day festival. I did take pride that Via Luna was listed in the second largest font. So whatever Plus Fest is, I'm proud Kansas City is owning it.
The night's penultimate act was Atlanta's Challenger Deep. Bucking the trend, the band was touring only as a trio featuring guitarists Jason Murray and James LaPierre alongside drummer Connor Streeter (borrowed from earlier act Tang). Bass lines came from pre-recorded tracks, but maybe that's not normally the case. For most of the set, LaPierre hid under his long hair, delivering wiry leads or intriguing taps broken up by crunching chords. Meanwhile, Murray contributed lyrical leads and enthralling finger taps of his own while still moving about the stage. Streeter managed the shifting and complicated songs like he was there then they were written. When the lowest common denominator was hit, the band united for big hardcore-inspired downbeats. Noting the band delivered the most straightforward set of the night says more about the bill than it does the band. While I happily convulsed to the familiar rhythms and marveled at the progressive guitar wizardry, the audience seemed less enthused by the band's 27-minute set. In fact, the space next door that hosts the bar and restaurants was as full as the main room. Soon the doorway to this room will be sealed again, leaving Rino with less than half of the space it has today. Shows like this will be impossible.
There were many things about this bill that I wasn't prepared for, and it turns out one of them was the Strandberg guitar. I first saw this strange headless beast played by Dallas Lanius of Medians. I'm no gear hound, but I've seen thousands of bands live and never come across one. I asked Lanius about his guitar afterwards and he was kind enough to explain that it was an ergonomic model from a Swedish maker called Strandberg. Fancy neck. Fanned frets. Interesting. But then that same model appeared again played by Mike Stover of Snooze. And once again by Challenger Deep's Jason Murray. Research confirmed that the guitar has been primarily embraced by fusion players. Or as one reviewer put it, guitarists who play "Fast technical prog tapping weird time signatures etc." I wondered if Plus Fest would be the largest gathering of Strandberg guitars in the world.
The night ended with locals Via Luna. I've covered the band ten other times, so there's likely nothing I can write about them here that I haven't shared before, so I'll be brief and encourage you to click the links on the right to read more. The band is a quartet, built like the others with two guitarists (Chris Gordon and Greg Baker), a bassist (Blain Bridges), and a drummer (Mike McConough). Unlike the other acts, its songs develop slowly – some at a glacial post-rock pace. The five-string of Bridges provides a foundation and the drumming of McConough is similarly sturdy though often colored with tumbling accents. Neither overplay their hand, nor do the guitarists. There are taps that accent songs and interesting arpeggiated chords, but there's always space in the band's compositions. Songs don't sing with jazz fusion leads. They don't obliterate with notey explosions. Instead, there's an organic breath to songs that earns them both Midwestern emo and dreamy shoegaze comparisons.
While Via Luna would be also heading to Texas the next day for Plus Fest, the show carried an even greater significance for the band. Almost ten years ago it released the first of four EPs with planned interlinking artwork. On this night the project was completed with the release of a limited-edition vinyl box set containing those four EPs. It's a lavish package with rich art that is worthy of celebration. Chris Gordon got sentimental speaking about it just before introducing the final song of the quartet's scripted nine-song set. Closer "No One Cares" started slow before building to an uncharacteristically suffocating post-rock strum fest. It was a cathartic finale, yet the audience still called for an encore. The band obliged with "Pretend," a track that Gordon noted was the first song written by a nascent version of the band. It would end the band's 53-minute set and complete the five-band bill.
While the post-show crowd flooded the merch booths, hugged friends in Via Luna, and quizzed the traveling acts about tours, I packed up my camera and hurried out the back door. Four hours of music, five bands, and enough five-string basses and seven-string guitars to last me a lifetime. Still, despite my headache, it was great to be introduced to a musical sect that I had somehow missed. Next time, however, I should check out the bands beforehand, just so I know what I'm getting myself into.