Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Never heard a man speak like this man before" - The Mars Volta, Palace Theatre, 07/08/2011

If there's one thing to be said about progressive rock ensemble The Mars Volta, it's that they have always done things their way. Right from their inception, they have somehow managed to build up a loyal fanbase by refusing to conform to "standard" musical practice - concept albums that seem to be released quite frequently, musical pieces of an extended length, an ever-changing roster of band members (remembering of course that The Mars Volta refers to just guitarist and band director Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler Zavala) and live shows which may or may not include forty minutes of improvisation and jamming, it's all part and parcel of what we've come to know and love about Volta. On this night however, they'd take it one step further and break the few rules that they are willing to follow - their own.

During the week, most fans were surprised to say the least with the announcement that Fearless Vampire Killers would be opening the night. Usually, it's been common practice for Volta to simply have a DJ warm the crowd up with experimental music before the headlining act comes onstage and plays quite a lengthy set. But tonight, the established convention was thrown out the window and these Melbournians were given the honour of warming the stage. Their sound wasn't an ideal match for the band they were opening for, but most punters in the room warmed up to their garage rock sounds, and between songs there was plenty of polite applause and cheering. The band seemed pleased with the response they got; no doubt it is a demanding task to win over a near-capacity crowd of prog rock fans.

The familiar strains of Ennio Morricone's Fistful of Dollars came blaring out of the Palace PA, and the crowd reacted accordingly. Though a few of their traditions might have been abandoned on this recent tour, the band playing this as intro music is something that they've continued to do at just about every live performance to date, and it always gets the fans ready for the main event. As the climax of the song approached, the crowd broke out into loud applause and cheering as the current incarnation of The Mars Volta made their way out onto the stage - in addition to Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler Zavala, the band now features Deantoni Parks back on drums, with Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez taking a more expanded role on keys now that long-term member Isaiah "Ikey" Owens has departed, former off-stage member Lars Stalfors joining in on sound manipulation and keys, and long serving bass whiz Juan Alderete rounding out the lineup. It was then that the night began, as the band postively exploded into the first song - and a large percentage of the audience began metaphorically scratching their heads. Since Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's "solo" tour at the beginning of the year (which actually featured the current lineup of The Mars Volta), the band has been test-driving a few new songs, and on this particular evening, they'd play no less than SIX brand new pieces, and one experimental jam.

This meant that well over half of their set was fresh material, which was a bit of a controversial move. Even though fans warmed up to the sounds of the new songs, there was an undeniable air of uncomfortable unfamiliarity throughout the venue and it has to be said that the band would have got a better response if they had've played a few more tried and true classics. That said, these new songs are sounding pretty good; the opening double of Aegis and The Whip Hand was Volta at their theatrical and riff-driven best, songs that definitely could stand up to the likes of Inertiatic ESP in their back catalogue. Other tracks like Trinkets Pale of Moon and The Malkin Jewel lowered the intensity substantially, but still displayed that trademark Volta brilliance that fans have come to expect from the group. Despite the fact that the songs they were playing were unfamiliar, the stage presence of the band remained very much unchanged - Bixler Zavala danced frenetically, throwing his microphone and stand around with little regard for his bandmates, meanwhile Rodriguez-Lopez drew the audience's attention effortlessly with his impressive guitar wizardry. This was used to particularly great effect during the intermediary Broken English Jam, where he just kept going and going!

Another thing the Volta seem to be doing different lately is embracing the crowd more. Bixler Zavala has never been one for banter, but at recent shows he's been positively animated - introducing songs and explaining their reasons for playing so much new stuff, among other things. Tonight he was a little subdued - perhaps he was feeling the strain at the end of the tour, as between songs he made straight for the kettle situated on the right side of the stage (yes, the kettle was back!) - but in his place, even Rodriguez-Lopez was talking to the crowd, thanking the crowd for being nice to Fearless Vampire Killers, and just for generally being there.

After The Malkin Jewel, the band segued into a bridging sort of jam they've been playing around with lately, which has been dubbed Broken English Jam. Set a slower pace than the rest of the evening, this was an opportunity for the band to experiment with a few new ideas, including some truly mind-blowing guitar work from Rodriguez-Lopez and some interesting typically nonsensical rantings from Bixler Zavala (perhaps this is what inspired the name of this piece). Though the band have been trying to streamline their songs a bit more over the last couple of years and have been cutting down on their penchant for freeform jamming that stretches out over extended periods, on this particular number they took the opportunity to cut loose like the good old days, sending the crowd into stunned amazement. When it finally finished, there was rapturous applause and then finally, the moment that truly woke up the crowd - Omar's familiar introductory line to Son et Lumiere. Though the crowd had enjoyed the new stuff, it was obvious that they had steadily been growing restless as the band indulged themselves for over an hour, and with the indication that familiar material was finally going to be played, the crowd literally came alive. The band chose some of their more popular material to finish the night off, namely obviously, Inertiatic ESP, The Widow and Goliath. Though he held it together admirably, it was obvious Cedric's vocals were faltering a little and he actually encouraged a crowd singalong during The Widow. A slowed-down, experimental version of The Bedlam in Goliath favourite Goliath was the number they chose to close the show with, with a sound reminiscent of the early days of them performing this piece, when it was still evolving from the song Rapid Fire Tollbooth from Rodriguez-Lopez's solo career. The crowd enjoyed the different take on the song, and were highly entertained by Bixler Zavala embarking on a rant about the band's plans for their trip to Hong Kong to support Red Hot Chili Peppers the following night. Finally, in an explosion of musical intensity that only a band like Volta could deliver, it was all over, after just 90 short minutes - definitely something a few people muttered under their breath about due to Volta's past history of treating us to shows comfortably stretching past the two hour mark. Nevertheless, this show showed a band that are comfortable only when they're flying in the face of convention, and though some aspects of the show could've been improved, there was no doubt that The Mars Volta deserved points for bravery, and a set mostly based on new songs that in time will surely stand up to the rest of their very impressive back catalogue. As musicians, it's very hard to fault them on a stage.

(A Fistful of Dollars intro)
The Whip Hand
Trinkets Pale of Moon
The Malkin Jewel
Broken English Jam
Son et Lumiere / Inertiatic ESP
The Widow

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Too fragile for sleep today" - Saltar Hype presents Showdown at the Corner, 30/08/2011

In recent years the Melbourne-based Saltar Hype booking agency has had great success with its attempts to stage small-scale "festivals" at various points throughout the year in venues across Melbourne. First we had Rock the Bay in March and Swarm in October 2009, then in 2010 a winter edition came along with Showdown at the Corner. Though the billing usually features relatively underground Melbourne (and occasionally interstate) talent, these events are usually quite popular and well-attended by music lovers in Melbourne. This is no doubt due to the events always bringing together a tidy package of great local bands for a very affordable price, and the 2011 edition of Showdown was no different. Headlined by Sydonia and featuring an enticing supporting cast of bands as diverse as Over-reactor, Sleep Parade and Mushroom Giant, punters packed out the Corner bandroom for a Saturday afternoon and night, and enjoyed immensely!

The Corner was looking a little empty though at the start of the day, as Tempting Fate kicked things off, followed by Le Belle, at around 3pm in the afternoon. Unfortunately these bands were somewhat lacking in the originality department, and weren't really impressing the punters that had turned up for some early brews and bands. Both female-fronted, comparisons to the likes of Evanescence came to mind way too quickly, and this is a genre that's just a little bit out of date and wasn't really that interesting in the first place.

The day took a turn for the better though just after 4pm, when Melbourne post-rock luminaries Mushroom Giant took to the stage. The band attracted a mixed response from fans last year when they reintroduced former vocalist/guitarist David Gogerly back into the band, recording an EP and playing several live dates as a five-piece. The "controversy" (if you will) resulted from the fact that the band was most known for their stunningly beautiful album Kuru, which had been recorded without Gog (as he's affectionately known) and had for the most part, been completely devoid of vocals. Fans really appreciated that particular style, and introducing a vocalist into the band had got a few people offside. However, the band have only just recently reverted to their Kuru instrumental lineup (including the return of David Charlton; a show in December last year was billed as his "last" with the group), and fans were very happy to see this lineup back in action on the Corner stage today, with one enthusiastic punter shouting out "Why aren't you headlining?!" A 30 minute set hardly seemed enough for a band whose repertoire is based on pieces that evolve over a gradual time frame - as a lot of post-rock tends to do - rather than just a to-the-point verse-chorus structure. Nevertheless, they did their best and played a good selection of material, including a track which was presumed to be new entitled Comasphere. The quartet concluded the set with the first two parts of the trilogy contained on tracks 8-10 on Kuru, the more reflective and gentle Woman Heroin and its intense conclusion Poor Tom, featuring dizzying blasts of rapid-fire riffs and drumming. As usual, they had set up a projector which displayed various psychedelic imagery which perfectly accompanied their atmospheric soundscapes.
The Drake Equation
400 and Falling
Woman Heroin / Poor Tom

Up next was more another disappointingly unoriginal set, this time from a band by the name of InVolume. Despite being a very energetic group and appearing very comfortable onstage, their overall sound was more than a little off-putting - it soon became clear that these guys had probably picked up instruments around the same time that nu metal was popular, and in this day and age, that is NOT a good thing. Granted, a lot of bands in the current Melbourne scene have had their sound shaped by that late 90s/early 2000s wave of bands, but the ones that have been most successful are those that have managed to put their own spin on things and create something unique. Hence, a band that sounded an awful lot like Disturbed were never going to impress those who had come to see some more interesting talent. They do deserve points for stage presence though.

After their set it was about 5:30pm, and the bandroom crowd was growing noticeably, in anticipation for some truly awesome acts to come later in the night. The quality of bands on show was starting to grow too, and Branch Arterial got a solid response for their progressive-tinged rock numbers. Despite obvious similarities to their contemporaries such as The Butterfly Effect, there's undoubtedly a whole lot of talent in this band, and being a relatively new band, they still have plenty of opportunity to make a mark in this particular scene. They are definitely one to watch. Following their set, it was the bizarre and unique sounds of Xenograft that left a definite impression on the crowd, even if for a lot of people that impression was one of "...Huh?" For those that haven't seen these guys in action, there's six of them onstage, including saxophone and keyboards, and though their influences aren't immediately apparent, one could assume from their spontaneous free-jazz-meets-metal freakouts that they might perhaps be fans of the likes of Mr Bungle and Frank Zappa. Probably the most forward-thinking band Showdown had to offer, to be sure.

At the 2009 Swarm Festival, a relatively young Melbourne band by the name of Anna Salen won themselves a whole heap of new fans with their highly unique and technical blend of math-rock/progressive metal fusion. Though that microphone onstage is only used for between-song banter (and occasional nonsensical non-lyrical chants), after support slots with the likes of Jericco and Engine Three Seven, the regular Melbourne gig followers have quickly welcomed the instrumental trio affectionately known as Anna into their hearts, as evident tonight with the increasing number of punters adorned with the band's t-shirt. The boys riffed and grooved their way through a stomping set, with some old favourites and potential new classics getting an airing to a very appreciative crowd.

A little while later, Melbourne's very own "supergroup" in The Khyber Belt made their way out onto the stage, with many of the audience looking forward to seeing what they'd deliver, now they've notched up a few shows on their belt (no pun intended). Though they only formed late last year, they drew attention to themselves immediately with a lineup consisting of former members of Rook (vocalist Forbes McKail and guitarist Tyson Fish), Bushido (guitarist Guy Shenfield and drummer Alex Dinic) and Sleep Parade (bassist James Livesy; coincidentally his former band were also on this lineup), and they got a very rousing response at their very first gig earlier this year at Rock the Bay. McKail acknowledged that "some of you might recognise us from other bands we've been in", yet through their set they quickly proved that the new band is a force to reckon with in itself - the five guys were obviously a lot more stage-ready than before (and thankfully the technical problems that plagued Shenfield at RtB were non-existent) and they showed a new level of skill with a fresh batch of new tunes. McKail promised an EP in the works sometime soon, and although it seems like a lot of bands feel obligated to make these kind of statements no matter how much intention they have delivering them, the crowd assembled definitely hoped those words would count for something soon.

If there was any doubt about the bands that had taken to the stages up until this point, the next act on the bill proved that it was now very much the business end of the evening - it was the no-nonsense death-hop fury of Over-reactor. Fresh off a national tour with Perth heroes Karnivool, vocalist Ezekiel Ox and drummer/studio-guitarist-meets-live sample-man Cory Blight had gained themselves a whole lot of new fans and a new level of respect for those who had already been familiar with them. For many in the audience, the memories were still fresh from Karnivool's Melbourne shows, when Over-reactor had performed in this very room, and indeed wowed an audience who had probably expected to turn up early and enjoy a few quiet brews - instead they were assaulted by some truly brutal riffs (coming from a laptop no less) and had Ox literally yelling in their faces. Tonight however, the band were a little more subdued, with Ox electing to remain on the stage for the entire duration of the set (not something he does often!) and let the crowd decide whether or not they would get into the Over-reactor sound. Which, for the most part, they did. The setlist was similar to the Karnivool tour, with the best tunes out of the band's double album getting an airing, such as Control of This, Nu Metal Motherfuckers and of course, Something More. Something that was a little different was Ox deciding to get a little artistic during the set - an easel had been set up at the back of the stage, and between songs, Ox picked up a spray can and painted various colorful things on a piece of paper, before auctioning it off at the end of the set. Something you don't see too often, to be sure.
Control of This
Call in the Bombers
Free Music
Naked Words
The Gangbangers
Point to Push
All Shields Down
Something More

The energy levels in the room were continuing to rise, and the next act on the bill were a favourite for many - the former Byron Bay lads now calling Melbourne home, Engine Three Seven. Getting things off to a flying start with older number Win 4 Me, the crowd expected big things of these guys, as their reputation has certainly preceded them and they haven't disappointed on a live stage in recent times. The first part of the show was mostly based on their first EP, but a very special moment came when frontman Casey Dean announced that they were going to play one they hadn't played in a very long time - one of their newer songs that didn't make the cut for the Atmosphere EP, an uptempo rocking number by the name of Erasure that was a staple in sets a few years back, but fell off the radar recently. It had been a while since the fans had heard it, but they recognised the familiar riff and were very happy to welcome it back into their hearts on this evening! They followed it up with another rarely-played-live track, but a favourite nonetheless, in the acoustic-based Retrospect, before the set moved focus to the Atmosphere EP. The show came to its end with the favourites, including the title track, Cops, Have it All and of course, Hysterical Hysteria to close. An accurate description of the crowd, perhaps!
Win 4 Me
Automatic Everything
Easy Graceful Descent
(first time since January 2010!)

Have it All
Hysterical Hysteria

It was time for the night to take a slightly more reflective and proggy turn, with the next on the bill being Sleep Parade. They have certainly taken their time getting another album out into the world, and in recent live shows they've been testing the waters with a lot of new material, which has gone over well at some shows and not so well at others. Tonight however, they'd play one of their better sets, helped out on second guitar and keys by the amazingly talented Red Black of A State of Flux. His presence really helps the band get a more full sound, certainly evident on tracks like Everyday where his keyboard hammering only served to make frontman Leigh Davies' guitar solo sound even more impressive. As expected, the band's newer and more mature sounding material got a fairly solid go during the set, but for the older fans there was Passengers and of course, the regular set-closing epic Weeping Walls. No matter how many times you've seen it, it's always fun to watch that final moment in the song where Davies sings into his guitar pickups to make that incredible solo. This was one of their best sets from recent memory, and hopefully is an indication of good progress on the forthcoming album!
Mr Identify

Weeping Walls

It was certainly getting a bit late in the evening (in fact, it was now pushing into the small hours of Sunday) but the punters had plenty of energy left for the final performance - when that band is called Sydonia, there has to be something left over! The band started their set with guitarist Sam Haycroft and bassist Adam Murray positioned at their oversized custom percussion drums, which meant that nobody was surprised that it was Adornment that opened the set! But as one of Sydonia's more popular tunes, it was definitely a good choice to get the crowd amped and ready for what would turn out to be another belter in Sydonia's recent run of excellent shows! Numerous times, the band mentioned their long-awaited second album (apparently they've actually booked studio time now), and were more than willing to air some new material, including not-so-new-anymore favourite Sinner, which hadn't been played for quite some time before this show. Also in the "songs making a comeback" department was a surprise rendition of Dream Kiss, apparently at the request of some hardcore Sydonia fans. Old favourites such as No Woman's Land and 3 Tongues got the crowd singing along, until finally it all wound down, predictably, with a shout of INCOMING! The crowd was pretty wrecked at the end of a long day's rocking, but Sydonia sets have been extremely high on quality lately, and this was no exception. So at the end of the night, the feeling in the room was that it was all totally worth our necks hurting!
No Woman's Land
Dream Kiss
3 Tongues
Ocean of Storms
Taste More
Crash Here Tonight