Tone Madison’s weird and loud fall 2015 music preview
Harness the insanity of Madison’s fall concert season in its purest form. | By Scott Gordon and Ben Munson
Every fall, Madison’s venues and audiences engage in a collective frenzy to guzzle down as much live music as possible, with a slate of touring bands that induces a mix of anticipation and dread. (OK, maybe the dread is just for those of us scrambling to cover all this stuff?) Even at this point in the year, there are likely still more shows yet to be crammed into the season’s calendar. And for whatever reason, this year the fall show pileup brings with it a lot of challenging, maladjusted, and/or abrasive sounds, from excoriating post-hardcore to experimental percussion to a mind-bending hip-hop legend. Which isn’t to downplay the comparatively sane likes of Jason Isbell (November 12, Capitol Theater) or Heartless Bastards (September 26, Majestic) or what have you, but it just feels like sonic miscreants are going to own the season this time around. In that spirit, we’ve picked a few heavy or just plain strange things in particular to watch out for, and below that a list of other noteworthy shows in store this fall. This is by no means exhaustive: There’s a lot going on and more shows being booked all the time. We’ll be keeping up in more detail in our features and weekly calendars as the season goes on.
During its first incarnation in the early ’90s, Seattle guitarist Dylan Carlson’s project Earth pioneered a dense, droning vein of metal that eventually inspired Sunn O))) and Boris, and maybe warped the fabric of time a bit through sheer drawn-out low-end abstraction. But over the last decade something unexpected and beautiful happened, as Carlson built songs around more clean and melodic foundations, though still often playing at ominously slow tempos and building on Carlson’s philosophy of finding melody “within the drone." This version of Earth’s arguable high point is 2008’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull, which pairs Carlson’s patient riffs (and an occasional growl of distortion) with conversational layers of piano and organ, and even a few guest parts from guitarist Bill Frissell. But there’s a ton of variety even within this current incarnation of the band—Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies have had a bunch of different people in and out of the lineup, and that’s actually made the output stronger, from cellist Lori Goldston’s contributions on the more improvisational Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light Pt. 1 and 2 to the harsher edges and guest vocals of last year’s Primitive And Deadly. We’ll be running an interview with Carlson later this week.
The free shows booked by UW-Madison students at the Wisconsin Union Directorate are, by nature, a grab bag reflecting the varied musical interests of the folks on WUD’s music committee. Every so often, a few of those students admirably tap into the sheer variety of experimental or just slightly eccentric music in Madison, and that’s basically the entire MO of this year’s Snake On The Lake Fest, a joint effort of WUD and student radio station WSUM. Whether you’re a townie or a freshly arrived undergrad, we recommend getting to this for, well, everything on the bill: the mercurial, sprawling avant-garde project Burial Hex, brain-tunneling electronic act Samantha Glass, euphoric synth-soul crooner Mr. Jackson, demented surf-rock trio Myrmidons, and lovably scruffy power-pop band Proud Parents. Plus, DJ Evan Woodward will be spinning between sets, and his selections tend to roam between accessible dance jams and far-flung experimental music, so if anyone can bring a feeling of continuity to this diverse bill, it’s him. It’s refreshing to see this kind of bridge between the campus community and some of the less-appreciated pockets of local music.
Long before Sonic Youth fell apart, Thurston Moore habitually explored and tinkered outside the band and its massively catchy post-punk idiom, releasing solo work and engaging dozens of live and recorded collaborations in the experimental music community. (One release from earlier this year, Full Bleed: Caught On Tape, captures his bruising collaborations with drummer John Moloney.) And even in the song-oriented mode most of us are familiar with, as on last year’s album The Best Day, Moore retains an uncanny harmonic touch. The Thurston Moore Band’s live sets leave plenty of room for improvisation and generalized Jazzmaster abuse—a great live recording from last year gives us high hopes for what Moore will do here with guitarist James Sedwards, bassist Debbie Googe, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley.
The casual shorthand about Low is that they’re a slow, quiet, delicate band, but that completely belies the sonic and emotional multitudes this long-established Duluth, Minnesota band contains, and the variety in the records they’ve put out over the past 21 years. The live setting especially brings out the deftly controlled volatility behind drummer Mimi Parker and guitarist Alan Sparhawk’s gorgeous vocal melodies: You might get an extended drone-out version of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” from 1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast, or a ruggedly distorted take on “Clarence White” from 2013s The Invisible Way. While The Invisible Way was a warm and largely acoustic effort, the band’s new album, Ones And Sixes (due out September 11), bears a bit more eerie electronic scarring—you might call it the spiritual cousin of 2007’s rather bleak Drums And Guns. It’s also the first Low studio album that, to our ears, does enough to highlight the combustive precision of current bassist Steve Garrington (another feature that becomes far more prominent in the live setting).
Rapper Kool Keith records so prolifically that even devoted fans have likely skipped over albums like Tashan Dorrsett and Pimp To Eat, the sole full-length from Analog Brothers, his weirdo rap group featuring Ice-T. But his latest, this year’s Time? Astonishing!, a bizarre, bendy sci-fi excursion over producer L’Orange’s wavy boom-bap, should easily appeal to heads that have followed Keith since he created Dr. Octagon, then killed Dr. Octagon, and then brought Dr. Octagon back to life. He may skip over oddities like his Andre 3000 diss track off Diesel Truckers or anything from Nogatco Rd., but if his recent setlists are any indication, Keith will probably cram plenty of Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis, and Ultramagnetic MCs material into his show.
Thrash-punk outfit DRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) formed in Houston more than 30 years ago and soldiers on with founding guitarist Spike Cassidy and founding vocalist Kurt Brecht still in the mix, even planning to record new material later this fall. When they come to Wisconsin these days, they tend to recruit Madison band Zebras as openers, and Zebras will be using this show to celebrate the vinyl release of a new album, The City Of Sun. Zebras members Vincent Presley and Lacey Smith recently joined us to talk about the new album and the band’s increasingly metal-oriented sound.
Dillinger Four is playing a very short set of dates to celebrate turning 21. It's a legal drinking age party from a band that's already a decade plus removed from writing one of the most perfectly bittersweet alcohol anthems ever, "DoubleWhiskeyCokeNoIce." Plenty of other punks have propelled themselves with booze as fuel but few bands have imbibed D4's ability to clearly convey melody and big ideas while keeping the music loud as fuck. The band hasn't put out a full length since 2008, but hearing live any material from its near-perfect Midwestern Songs Of The Americas and Versus God is more than enough reason to show up and let your ears get punched in the face. It’s also worth noting that Wisconsin punk trio Tenement, who’ve been getting some much-deserved attention for their epic new double album Predatory Headlights, have been added as openers.
Chicago trio Russian Circles doesn’t treat the heavy and the atmospheric as two separate dynamic phases—instead the band’s instrumentals often have one swirling uneasily about the other, in a subtle, indirect dance where the real payoff is in the textural nuances. (The occasional big chunky crescendo is nice too, of course.) The band has been together for 10 years now, debuting with 2006’s Enter, but their most recent albums, 2011’s Empros and 2013’s Memorial, are perhaps their richest yet, maintaining the raw immediacy of their early work while patiently exploring myriad shades of dark melody.
Minneapolis-formed jazz trio The Bad Plus’ shows always have an unpredictable flow, not just because of the role of improvisation in jazz, but also because it’s always thrilling to see the band find new ways to make bold, contemporary ideas sound tasteful and fluid. Saxophonist Joshua Redman joins them here behind the recent album The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, which comprises all original composition. Much like The Bad Plus’ occasional daring cover choice (Aphex Twin, Rush, etc.), the incorporation of Redman comes across not as a novel leap but as a considered expansion of the band’s formidable grasp on jazz fundamentals.
As previously reported, this annual celebration of local and touring punk, garage-rock, psych and power-pop is set to have possibly its best year yet, with sets from brand-new Madison projects and headliners including We Are Hex, Running, Obnox, and Male Gaze.
Melodic doom-metal outfit Jex Thoth—that’s also the name of its lead singer—is based in Madison, but this will be the band’s first time actually playing a show here, after years of touring the U.S. (including a fall tour last year with the mighty Windhand) and playing big European metal festivals. On the band’s most recent album, 2013’s Blood Moon Rise, Jex uses her voice to evoke both psych-rock bluster and unnerving vulnerability, and the band as a whole matches her emotional range, from the nasty trudge of “The Divide” to the mournful balladry “Keep Your Winds” to the somber, epic closer “Psyar.” The band will be spend part of this coming winter working on a new album. At this show, they’ll be opening up for Eugene, Oregon’s Yob, whose take on doom metal is a bit more burly and crushing but no less sophisticated—we’d recommend 2009’s The Great Cessation or last year’s Clearing The Path To Ascend as starting points.
The night after the Yob show, the High Noon hosts extended heavy griddlings of a more spiritually demanding sort, as Deafheaven plays behind its forthcoming third album, New Bermuda. On 2011’s debut album Roads To Judah and 2013’s Sunbather, the San Francisco band uses pummeling black-metal rhythms and billowing layers of guitar to heave and heave and heave through big emotions—the first album’s a bit more grim and the second has a surreal brightness to it (as the title suggests), but on both Deafheaven sounds determined to sustain its climaxes until the listener is just plain wrung-out. They’ve got the stamina and creativity to turn that into a virtue, as demonstrated on New Bermuda opening track “Brought To The Water.”
Winnipeg trio KEN Mode’s approach to noise rock feels both grisly and giddy, spiraling between sturdy lurching Jesus Lizard-isms and high-wire technical complexity. To listen to the band’s latest, this year’s Success, is to be kept off-balance, even if you’re used to nasty and warped music: Opening track “Blessed” recalls the gargle-voiced, sludge-coated ravings of Madison’s own Killdozer, while “I Just Liked Fire” and “Failing At Fun Since 1981” combine frantic aggression with disorienting math-rock rhythms. Holding the variety together is a thrillingly sharp execution that never gets caught up in pretension, not to mention a constant sense of unhinged, malevolent wit.
So Percussion formed in New York City in 1999, and while rooted in the modern-classical world, the quartet can seemingly morph percussion to suit just about any outlandish musical excursion. So Percussion have a few albums of their own, but more than anything they’re voraciously collaborative, having worked with artists including modern-classical giant Steve Reich, expansive trumpeter Dave Douglas, blistering avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline, and electronic experimentalists Matmos. More recently, So Percussion joined The National’s Bryce Dessner on the new album Music For Wood & Strings, and last year the ensemble lent their skills and endurance to Ryonen, an excellent album by Onedia drummer John Colpitts’ project Man Forever. When playing or recording as just So Percussion, the group embraces a variety of percussion instruments alongside myriad electronic elements, so whatever happens at this show, it’s likely to be one of the most otherworldly things to ever hit the Union Theater.
Oh, to see the looks on people’s faces when they come expecting a mannered, magisterial night of throat singing and instead get themselves keelhauled through Tanya Tagaq’s visceral, electronics-aided deconstruction of Canadian inuit music. Tagaq learned throat singing growing up in Nunavut, Canada and is a legit practitioner of such techniques as singing multiple notes at once and building rhythms around a complex array of sounds that range from breathy to guttural, but she honors those traditions with an unmistakably confrontational edge and sometimes uses her music to defiantly express her politics (anti-fracking, pro-seal hunting, etc.). Her 2014 album Animism uses densely arranged layers of her vocal techniques, shuddering strings and fritzy electronics to unsettling effect.
MORE NOTEWORTHY SHOWS THIS FALL: