Guardian Alien | Starring | Kisser | Zagk Gibbons The Firebird August 16, 2012
The line between improvising and jamming is quite thin. None of the bands at The Firebird last evening were the archetypal Dead-head or Phish-phreak groups. Guardian Alien (subject of this week's RFT Music feature story) is a cross-cultural improv troupe from Brooklyn. Fellow New York group Starring is an absurdist psychedelic rock collective. Kisser is a mathy trio from St. Charles and Zagk Gibbons is a local solo performing loop maestro. But all of the bands' sets stepped way beyond the realm of improvisation; roughly 70 percent of the music performed qualified as jamming.
Zagk Gibbons set the evening's tone with an impressive showcase of multi-tasking - triggering drum machines, dogpiling guitar melodies onto his looping pedal, sporadically manning an electric bass, and hopping on a drum kit while his patterns played back on autopilot. Reference points include Minus The Bear, Ratatat and Holy Fuck. After a handful of songs that pushed the boundary of attention, Gibbons announced "This will be my last song. It's really long." He was right. Gibbons' set was promising, and with some self-editing he could be capable of greatness.
Kisser followed with jagged, mostly instrumental indie rock that put the group in line with local weirdo legends like the Conformists and Dazzling Killmen. The band's structured portions were meaty, the free-form sections meandering. At more than one point, the band sounded confused and at the edge of abandoning the song and apologizing into the microphone. Luckily, the group pulled through. Feel free to read the last sentence of the previous paragraph and replace "Gibbons" with "Kisser."
Starring was billed as the evening headliner, but played second to last. The band was the evening's biggest draw, and a few nerdy hippies filed in during the group's line check. Imagine a They Might Be Giants fan having a life-altering bad acid trip and you'll have a decent idea of this band's demographic. Starring's set was the most successful (spoiler alert!) and the group whose jamming was most deliberate. The tightly knit outfit reminded me of a weirder Black Mountain or, more specifically, a rocking-er version of Kansas City oddball Ad Astra Per Aspera.
Starring's singer Clara Hunter is a commanding performer, her raccoon eyes and yoga-like movements lending a dramatic element to the group's songs. The band's instrumentation is slightly unconventional - drums, bass, organ, and violin with Hunter swapping between guitar and flute. With the aid of distortion, the organ's low register chords were Sabbath heavy. The wah-pedal enhanced violin was reminiscent of Hendrix. Somehow, the guitar was the least guitar-y of the non-drum instruments.
As a whole, Guardian Alien's set was confusing. It was difficult to tell when the soundcheck ended and the set began - until drummer Greg Fox banged a miniature gong, the official instrument of "get it on." Once the band was in motion, vocalist Alex Drewchin, Jr. seemed confused, guitarist Bernard Gann looked bored, and bassist Eli Winograd appeared to be obliviously rocking out. Turner Williams was the most intriguing performer. His unique instrument, an electric Indian zither-like device called the shahi baaja, added shimmering depth to the band's one-song set. He was convulsing in his chair while playing, but since he faced Fox, his communication with the audience was nonexistent. Fox was similarly closed off to the crowd, his head down in concentration. Given the insane physical demands of his playing, this is completely forgivable.
When Guardian Alien's members locked in, some moments were stunning. The sound of Fox's initial entrance of blast beats - or "burst beats," long story - caused a physical reaction in my body, as if I was temporarily numbed by the high volume. One of the few composed sections of the band's See The World Given To A One Love Entity, where Alex Drewchin and Greg Fox line up on a treacherous pattern of rhythmic accents, was a highlight. It was one of few moments where Drewchin appeared comfortable, even breaking into some David Byrne dance moves. As the song came down, Bernard Gann's spurts of shredding were a beautiful counterpoint to the glitches from a small synthesizer box managed by Drewchin.
These high fives were memorable, inspiring even, but one could argue that they were too few sparks in Guardian Alien's forty minute performance. Such is the risk of improvised music (or, as the young ones say "jamming"). It's not all hits all the time. When the stars did align in Guardian Alien's favor, it was phenomenal. With only a few years of spontaneous composition under each member's belt, these folks are still newbies compared to the improvisational lifers. Even so, the group's ability to fashion gold, however small the quantity, out of the ether is remarkable and certainly not easy.
Personal Bias: Every band was very close to being something I could fall in love with, and the discrepancy between where the bands were and where I wanted them to be may not have worked in their favor.
Overheard: "Did you see that? Did you see that?" by the overexcited dude next to me air keyboarding along with Starring.
By The Way: When did it become okay to wear shorts on stage? I always thought that was a forbidden practice.
Guardian Alien set list:
See The World Given To A One Love Entity (extended version)