This show was what I like to call an “Earplug Night.” I spent it at a show full of bands so excruciatingly loud that by the time I walked out of Emo’s, the insides of my ears felt like mush. The first act on the bill was Austin’s very own Gorch Fock. This septet got its name from a 1,900-ton three-masted tallship, and appropriately so --- with two drummers, three guitarists, a bassist and a singing trombonist, the band is just as titanic as its namesake. The drummers play facing each other, their kits positioned so closely against one another that the dudes can (and do) use each other’s tom-toms! Two of the three guitarists play wireless, so they spent most of the set wandering through the audience. (Not wanting to be upstaged, the third guitarist eventually stripped down to his skivvies.) The bassist plays through a distortion pedal and an amplifier that’s just as tall as he is. The singer stalks the stage in an all-white uniform, looking like a wayward sailor. The vocalist shouted unintelligibly into his microphone while swinging his trombone mere centimeters from the faces of nearby audience members. He eventually got frustrated because the slide on his trombone was too tight, and smashed it to pieces in mid-set. All tolled, these bombastic metalheads put on one of the most brutal sets I’ve seen all year. The very first sentence of their one-sheet states that they aspire to be “a group that people have to go see.” They definitely achieve that goal. While their latest album Lying and Manipulating is growing on me (it takes a while for discernible riffs to emerge from the murk), there’s no way that it could EVER approximate the fury of their live show.
The second act on the bill was math-rock near-supergroup Bellini. I knew about them because the octopus-limbed Damon Che (of Don Caballero) used to be their drummer, but he quit the band three years ago. In retrospect, it was probably for the best, as Che tends to steal the spotlight in every band he’s in. Although current Bellini drummer Alexis Fleisig isn’t as flashy as Che, his tom-heavy rhythms do a great job of supporting the REAL stars of the show: guitarist Agostino Tilotta and vocalist Giovanna Cacciola. The Italian husband/wife duo used to be in an old Touch and Go band called Uzeda, and Bellini doesn’t stray too far from that band’s sound. Agostino definitely has a distinctive playing style, full of fleet-fingered runs that make frequent use of open strings to generate dissonance. He’s a chubby, pug-nosed middle-aged man who dresses like an auto mechanic, but when he grabbed that guitar he turned into a rock MACHINE. He stood open-legged, screaming at his guitar as if it wasn’t making nearly as much noise as he wanted it to. Meanwhile, Giovanna’s Sprechtstimme pulled against the music. She occasionally gave us a brief melody to latch on to, but more often she let out a series of moans, sighs and wails that sounded as if they were drawn from a wellspring of rage and sorrow. They played every song off of their latest album Small Stones and a couple from their debut Snowing Sun (including “Marranzano”, which is still my favorite song of theirs). Bellini’s website contains the following mission statement: “We have all played music forever with other bands & are dedicated to playing music that is brutally honest with no compromise.” On stage, the quartet certainly gave off the impression that they were doing what they loved, and their passion was inspiring to me.
The headlining act was Mono --- not the British trip-hop outfit, but the instrumental rock quartet from Japan. When I saw them perform earlier this year at South by Southwest, I was slightly underwhelmed. Their fusion of Mogwai’s violent dynamics and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s orchestral weepiness isn’t groundbreaking in the least, and the truncated set time (the band was only allowed to play three songs) robbed them of an opportunity to stretch out and show the audience what made them truly distinctive. This time around, Mono had 90 minutes to do whatever they wanted, and they definitely rose to the occasion. They played all of the key songs from their last two albums, whose titles are so long that I won’t even bother to print them here. The build-ups took longer, the crescendos were louder, and --- most importantly -- the melodies were stronger. Guitarist Takaakira Goto served as the “de facto” conductor of the band. With a Jazzmaster hanging off of his shoulder and a T-shirt with the word “DESTROY” on it, he waved his hands along to the beat of “16.12” until it was time for him to obey his T-shirt’s command and bring the noise. Like last time, the bassist wasn’t loud enough in the mix, which is a shame considering that her playing often carries the entire band during their more volcanic moments. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to “Halcyon (Beautiful Days),” but the abrupt shift in volume that comes around the five-minute mark is ALWAYS a kick in the pants. Live, it felt like a layer of skin had been singed off when they stepped on the distortion pedals. The excellence of Mono’s performance compelled the audience to chant for an encore, but the sound man wasn’t having it. Thus, I walked out of the club at a shockingly early 1:30 a.m. --- nearly deaf, but very happy, and with a copy of all three bands’ latest albums in tow.