Monday, January 24, 2011

Gig: Not the Wind, Not the Flag

Not the Wind, Not the Flag (Vagina Bison / The Deeep / Jonathan Adjemian)

Korova Milkbar. Thursday, September 23, 2010.

It was a good day for walking, on the 23rd of September. The sun was shining — the sun was shining. Had some time to kill after an in-store performance at Soundscapes, and it was an agreeable enough evening to stroll around some. Eventually, I made my way back down to College to head up to the upstairs space at Korova Milkbar, a new-ish spot. It turned out to have a very livingroom-like atmosphere, and indeed wasn't much bigger. The "stage" area was the floor in front of a big picture window overlooking College Street, the stage lighting some old desk lamps perched on the floor and on the ledge that ran the length of the long wall. Opposite that was the stairway up from the street, protected by a very precariously shaky-looking railing that I wouldn't want to lean too hard against nohow. On this night, the room was decorated with little cloth banners and feathers hanging from strings stretched across the walls. There was a smaller room in the back with the bar (PBR tallboys always on special!) that led to a smokers' deck. All told, rather cosy and inviting for this kind of show.1

Folks were milling around in a manner not unlike a house party, and one got the impression that this was very much an audience of people who knew each other.2 There was some time to linger as there was a bit of a struggle with the sound system, stuck in loudly-buzzing mode. Deciding to just play through it was Jonathan Adjemian — whose last name computer spell-checks want to change to "bohemian" — who suggested that the audience merely pretend we were in the tropics, surrounded by buzzing insects. A keyboard player with a fondness for zwipping analog synths, Adjemian has put in time in some local rock bands (he was a member of Jon-Rae & The River), but is probably seen more often amongst the improv/weird music crowd.

Here, he was playing solo, with keyboards, electronics and laptop on hand. "I typically apologize in advance," was his lead-in here as he started playing his first song, "Blue Gardenia". For the first several minutes he filled the room with a flippity-buzzy cosmic noise, part of it actuated by hand motions on a proximity-sensing microphone. Most of it was pretty gnarly, though the apology might apply to some of the sustained low-frequency blasts, which could feel a little unsettling as he held them at length. That melded into the vocal part of the song, appealingly crooned while the whirring drone of the keyboard parts continued, the whole thing stretching out over twelve minutes.

the second, and final, selection was "Some Liquidity For These Troubled Times", which was instrumental all the way through. This came off a bit more shimmering and less pulsating than previous, like the music that played in the background at the planetarium while something about supernovas was being explained. The four people sitting on the floor closest to Adjemian would be playing later that night and were listening intently — Isla Craig was nodding back and forth a bit, eyes closed, while Brandon Valdivia, as cool as a zen cucumber, looked like he might break out into some tai chi. Intriguing stuff — a bit of it was difficult to listen to, but generally likeable.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

Struggling some more with the sound system and a notional sampler, it took a little longer than expected for The Deeep — with three e's, yes — to get going. A duo the last time I saw 'em,3 this time beat provider Wolfgang Nessel was joined by an extra keyboardist, mostly contributing to the bass grooves that are central to the band's sound, which is based on Marianas Trench reggae riddims, drum machine beats, and the glorious pipes of Isla Craig, multiplied by her loop pedal. Although you could think of this band as a stealth delivery system for Craig's vox, you also wouldn't think of this as being particularly lyrically driven — the vibe of what she's singing gives away more than specific words. From time to time you could catch a phrase here or there that'd help define the emotional terrain — one section looped the word "away", for example, and the music took it from there.

Listening to this, I was caught between thinking "I'm not sure where this song is going" and "this music is staying in exactly the same place". The music is normally pretty slow, based in drone and repetition — the two musicians sitting at their gear nodded along slowly like they were in a trance — and it's Craig's vocals that act as the transforming element.

Showing off their roots, the songs were set off with rub-a-dub interstitial breaks, and the second song leaned more towards being overtly groovy — I dunno if you'd want to leap up and dance to this, but it can make you shimmy a little where you're sitting down. The one after that removed the bass groove, leaving a sonic backdrop of shuffling percussion, synth loops and the occasional random noise-burst. That was a little too formlessly gauze-y for my tastes, but the set closed with the delicious "Slow Coaster" ("our ballad," Craig explained), which had struck me when I heard it in the Music Gallery courtyard. For a band based in loops and beats, it all feels very malleable, as if the songs could fold in and deconstruct themselves in real time.4

Listen to a song from this set here.

Meanwhile, setting up away from the stage were the possibly-unfortunately-named Vagina Bison5, a collaborative project between Andrew Zukerman (who runs local experimental label Bennifer Editions) and Montrealer Emilie Mouchous. With a couple tables of gear looking like a science fair project that had gotten out of hand, the pair produced the sort of stuff that Zukerman, after making blooping noises for a few minutes while setting up, had to explain to the audience "we haven't started yet". Once they were going, they provided a collage of muffled found-sound television samples, looped percussion that sounded like a game of Pong and bursts of static. Imagine, perhaps, a cassette of a John Carpenter score slowly being chewed up as an Open University lecture droned on in the next room. When it all paused for a second and someone started cheering, Zukerman looked up and commented, "we're not done."6

A bit of a mixed bag, then. As an experience, it was saved by the fact that the composers weren't taking themselves too, too seriously — one experiment involved an attempt to play a friend's hair with a bow, for example. And I suppose the best way to face this would be to ignore and notions of musicality and just try to appreciate it as sonic sculpture.7 It was in that frame of mind that I faced the final section, with percussion that sounded like the noise made by a child's bubble-blowing toy lawnmower combined with blurbering noises like something from a Jawa instructional language tape.

The set ended with a bit of a game of "are we done yet?" with Mouchous hitting play on a heavy metal cassette for a few seconds, which was followed by more popping, fritzing noisemaking, then more metal, and so on, which I found to be the most trying part of the set. But I know what I hate, and I didn't hate this. I wouldn't say it brought me great comfort or joy, but it wasn't charmless, especially in that "this would be more fun to do than to listen to" sort of way.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

And then time to head down to the street for some fresh air — the room was getting a little stuffy — as the headliners got ready. Once the instruments were set up Not the Wind, Not the Flag — who were playing this show to earn some gas money for their tour — finished the preparation by lighting some incense. Colin Fisher even thoughtfully went down to the street and back patio to round people up before sitting down to play. And then he said, after looking through the window and greeting friends in the room, "we'd like to acknowledge the Moon for this set."

Such is par for the course for this musically versatile duo. Always taking their cues from the environment they're playing in, the pair's mood and intensity and even choice of instruments are always subject to change. Here, the full moon outside inspired a rocking groove at the start, Brandon Valdivia providing a solid beat while Fisher, on guitar, started off seated as he played a surging low part into a looping pedal, then standing up to play more on top of that. This gave the backbone for a fully righteous thrust, going about eight minutes before Valdivia came in in the flute, slowing things down as the guitar became more atmospheric and echo-y.

After exploring that for a bit, Fisher switched over to the drums and Valdivia picked up a thumb piano for the next section, which was dedicated "to the clouds around the moon". Exploring a gentle rhythm, this was very lovely, slowly building up to a logical conclusion without needing to get overly frenetic. Entrancing stuff and really worth staying up late for on a night like this. NTW,NTF never play the same set twice, but I would say they're always worth seeing.8

Listen to a song from this set here.

1 I'd feel a little bad if that description made you eager to check the space out for yourself, for it looks as if this venue is already defunct, the restaurant downstairs shuttered. When I walked by last week, there was a hand-lettered sign in the window that simply read, "WE LOST".

2 It could probably be expected that a night of "outside" music would have this sort of "inside" crowd. There's probably a graph to be plotted here, revealing an inverse relationship between the size of a crowd and its pre-existing social familiarity — at the opposite of a show like this would be a giant arena pop show, with a crowd of strangers.

3 The extra "e" is for "extra member".

4 The Deeep will be playing in the afternoon portion of "The C is for Cure" benefit show at The Music Gallery on January 29, and have plans for a special 12" release show for late February.

5 I must confess that to be sure I wasn't missing out on anything, I checked at Urban Dictionary to make sure this wasn't the name of something unmentionable in polite conversation, but as of yet, it is unclaimed as slang.

6 Random smart-ass comment from the crowd: "play the single!"

7 Taking a look at Zukerman's collage-based artworks, which feel like the visual counterpoint to this sonic experimentation, could also provide a sort of conceptual way in to what's going on here.

8 In what promises to be an intriguing night Not the Wind, Not the Flag are playing The Tranzac in February 2, 2011 with Khôra and Nick Kuepfer, who released two of the albums in Constellation Records' very tasty recent series called "Musique Fragile". Highly recommended!

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