I began the month of May by attending a great double-bill at Emo’s. On the inside stage, Parts & Labor and Year Future were opening for Wilderness; on the outside stage, Cadence Weapon and Why? were opening for Islands. My original plan was to watch Parts & Labor’s set, go to the outside stage to see Why? and then go back inside for Wilderness. I knew that Emo’s was going to stagger the shows so that the set times didn’t overlap, but I didn’t know that they would start the inside show a half-hour earlier than was advertised on their website. I showed up at 10 p.m., only to find out that Parts & Labor had already finished their set. I was saddened by this because I was looking forward to getting my hearing damaged by their set. Their latest album Stay Afraid is a noise-rock behemoth that occasionally sounds like Green Day playing in the middle of a nuclear holocaust. (Yes, I plan to review it in the near future.) Year Future started playing shortly after I walked in. It only took two minutes of their indistinct post-hardcore racket to convince me to flee to the outside stage, where Why? was setting up.
Why? gave us a brilliant set, especially considering the circumstances behind it. They were recently whittled down to a trio after a member moved to a remote island (not kidding). Vocalist Yoni Wolf now does double duty on keyboards and auxiliary percussion; his brother Josiah, in an insane display of coordination, plays a rearranged drum kit and vibraphone simultaneously; Doug McDiarmid handles all the guitar duties. This new lineup has forced the band to slightly tweak the arrangements to their songs. They’re not as rhythmically dexterous as they used to be — Josiah can’t solo like a madman now that he has more than one instrument to play — but, by the same token, they’re actually more faithful to the homespun textures that made last year’s Elephant Eyelash album so endearing. I didn’t think they’d be able to pull off the prog-pop madness of “Fall Saddles” with just three people, but they did!
I then walked back to the inside stage to see Wilderness. This was the band that I was most excited to see, and their set exceeded all of my expectations. Initially, their music sounds like an extrapolation of Interpol’s slower moments — ethereal guitars, booming bass lines and martial, tom-heavy drumming. As soon as vocalist James Johnson opens his mouth, though, he gives the band its singular identity. Johnson whoops and wails with the drama and pretension of a Shakespearean actor delivering the soliloquy of his life. Most of his lyrics consist of four or five sentences, which are repeated and rearranged until the syntax is destroyed and the sound of his voice is all that is left to convey meaning. This approach has garnered comparisons to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Public Image Limited’s John Lydon, although Johnson is more expressive than either of them. When he sings against the music or veers off key, it’s an intentional choice, not just a consequence of his vocal limitations. Because of this, I’d put him closer to someone like Daniel Higgs of Lungfish. When Johnson wasn’t singing, his hands were chopping the air to the beat of the music. During Wilderness’ set, a man and a woman started doing strange interpretive dances to the music, bending their bodies in positions that I’d never seen outside of a yoga class (or a copy of the Kama Sutra). Other people in the audience started swaying back and forth to the music like they were in a trance! It felt like half of the audience was having a religious experience, while the other half were simply wondering what the hell was going on. Wilderness’ set exceeded all of my expectations.
After Wilderness’ set, I walked back to the outside stage to see Islands. Despite their pedigree — both singer Nick Diamonds and drummer Jaime Tambour were members of the Unicorns — I wasn’t that excited about seeing them. I’d listened to their album Return to the Sea before, and it felt like a Unicorns album with twice the polish and half the inspiration. Many of the songs were simply too long, and not even the unexpected genre clashes (calypso detours, Busdriver cameos, etc.) could keep my attention from wandering when I listened to them. “I know they’re not going to be as good as Wilderness,” I told a friend, “but as long as they don’t royally suck, I’ll be satisfied.”
I will say that Islands had a great sense of showmanship. Nick Diamonds occasionally delivered his vocals while hanging off of the ceiling, or straddled atop the shoulders of other band members. There were freestyle cameos from Cadence Weapon and two members of Why? There were lots of instrument changes, unexpected starts and false endings. Despite all of this, I still couldn’t remember any of their songs after I left the venue. It also didn’t help that Nick Diamonds’ stage banter was often insufferable. “I was going to thank the bands that played on the inside stage,” he said between songs, “but I figured that it would be phony because I don’t know who they are.” Shut up, then, and play the next song! The only thing that Islands’ set really did for me was remind me how sloppy and catchy the Unicorns were. The Unicorns may have spent more time goofing off between songs than actually playing them, but the few songs they did play were always better than this.