Monday, May 24, 2010

Gig: Serena-Maneesh

Serena-Maneesh (Depreciation Guild)

The Drake Underground. Friday, April 2, 2010.

Definitely a sign that something was awry when, with about forty-eight hours' notice, it came out that this gig was being moved from the relatively roomy Great Hall to the much cozier confines downstairs at The Drake. Mildly eyebrow raising. Here was a show by a band that made a fairly big splash a few years ago with their first album, and they're being downsized to a c. 200 person capacity room? What went wrong? Do people really have such short attention spans? The fact that the local promoter had been acquired and merged into a new, larger out-of-town operation? Maybe just that it was the Easter long weekend and people were doing family stuff and not going to shows. I suppose I didn't mind the shift to more intimate quarters, but I noted from the Drake's listings that the late-night dance party was still scheduled, so I was hoping that the show would stick to its new, earlier time.

In fact, the doors opened a chunk past the newly-listed eight o'clock, and when I sauntered in, it was to a pretty much empty room. "Where is everyone?" I wondered to myself. "Don't they know this show has a curfew?"

It wasn't, in fact, until 9:30, in what was still a very empty room that Depreciation Guild hit the stage. Taking a spot in the centre of the dancefloor as they began, I looked around sheepishly, feeling exposed, as there was no one within about ten feet of me — just a handful of people seated on the couches up front and a few more back by the bar. About a dozen people in sight, including staff and members of Serena-Maneesh.

All around, a tough night for the Brooklyn trio — one of those gigs where the band must be wondering if it's worth all the effort for this. Unhelped from pretty much any quarter, it even seemed like they were playing under about the least-flattering stage lighting you could imagine — bright, almost like house lights. Soundwise, they were thrown to the wolves as well, with an unsympathetic mix. There just wasn't nearly as much volume or, well, drive as I was expecting.1 Definitely that shoegazey vibe in there, but without a powerful roar from the sound system, they came across as more merely new-wavey and a little anemic.2

With two guitars, drums, and laptop I was also feeling my standard-issue rockist grumblings about technological determinism and so on — with the drummer wearing a click track and playing along with rhythm tracks from the laptop, he actually seemed mildly superfluous. There was a missing "live" feeling here, and it sometimes felt more like the band were accompanists for the backing tracks.3

The just narrative arc of the whole thing, if this were following Hollywood rules, would be that they pulled it all out despite the adversity and played a triumphant gig. But, in real-life style it was more... okay. Decent tunes, good ideas and so forth, but a little undistinguished. And then, it all kind of ended with a limp thud when they finished a song just shy of the half-hour mark and the soundman came to the front to tell them they were done. The band clearly had more in their setlist and seemed a bit frustrated with things — but they didn't carp, just giving a quick thanks before quickly unplugging.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The place had filled in somewhat, but was still at maybe half of capacity for the headliners. With a guitar tech on hand and enough boxes of merch to serve a Phoenix-sized crowd, Oslo's Serena-Meneesh weren't rolling like they were normally playing venues of this size. Although, by and large, the band themselves looked like they were above such droll concerns, none more than singer/guitarist Emil Nikolaisen, sporting an apocalypse chic look with pants held together with electric tape and a ragged poncho. Not playing like a band in a rush, the instrumental thrum of opener "Ayisha Abyss" unfolded with precision over seven minutes before careening into the howling guitars of "Reprobate!" — which was, by contrast, catchy and concise. For all of their propensity to create more of a moreness, the band can also generate a catchy single — well, within the parameters of noisy shoegaze — when called for.

But indeed there was no time to waste, and the band moved quickly from song to song. No chit-chat, save for Nikolaisen commenting, "Canadians and Norwegians seem to have a little in common — we dance inside." Clearly a comment on the lack of overt movement on the crowd's part. Mind you, with the notable exception of Nikolaisen himself, the band weren't a bunch of dynamic movers. The new bassist — who comported herself admirably — spent most of the set with back to the crowd, watching the drummer, and everyone else was generally rooted in place.

Keybs/electronics player Aadne Meisfjord had a laptop and drum pads amongst his gear and some of the songs started with programmed beats but there was never the sense (in contrast to Depreciation Guild) that the laptop was dictating what the band was playing. Musically, the band was eminently under control, which contributed a bit of a tension to their music. For all the volume and noise (and, compared to the openers, S-M got a nice, loud chest-shaking sound in the room) there's never a sense that a song could fall apart. Which could imply that the band is showing too much restraint and not pushing against the limits of the song. I went back and forth a bit on whether that sense of control hindered or improved the songs.

But the band exploded those limits with their last two songs, including the awesome slowed-down haze of "Melody for Jaana", where that musical restraint felt like the pressure that turns coal into diamonds. That fed into set-closer "Blow Yr Brains in the Mourning Rain", where they came the closest to hinting at out-of-control chaos, with Nikolaisen pulling off his shirt and stepping down into the crowd to finish the song, at one point throwing his body dramatically down to the floor.

Sadly, that was it. A few minutes past eleven, the all-important dance party must start, so we were limited to eight songs in forty-five minutes. Again, the easy trope to trot out would be to say something to the effect that the band squeezed ninety minutes of intensity into a forty-five minute set. But I wouldn't quite go so far. It was solid, professional stuff and I did enjoy it — but not a brain-melting experience. Even if I didn't mind getting home at a decent hour for a change, the show sure could have gone on longer. I suppose we go to shows hoping for a sort of rock'n'roll transcendence, to be lifted up out of, y'know, the muck and mire or the everyday. So when a show feels haphazard and compromised by banal realities, it feels a bit too much like, say, the rest of one's life.

Check out some music from this set here.

1 I'd seen the band before, so I had a notion of what to expect.

2 However, it's important not to pin that on the band. Spotting me leaning against the wall and jotting down notes in between sets — and clearly mistaking me for someone more important than I am — S-M guitarist Øystein Sandsdalen took a moment to come over to me and explain that they had been doing some extra practice with their new bass player, and as such, Depreciation Guild did not get a chance to sound check. So that, and the enforced quick turnover time, explains a lot about why they didn't sound quite like I would think they wanted.

3 Interestingly, though, the Nintendo beats that were once a major talking point of the band's sound are now more limited to little in-between song segues, useful to pass the time while tuning. Though even then, once they were ready to play, the band sort of had to stand there waiting for the laptop to finish.

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