The back story was just as hazy as Brightblack Morning Light’s brand of psychedelia. Something had fallen through on their tour and Guilford College’s WQFS had picked it up and they would be playing Square One- the bombshelteresque practice space and sometimes venue for Greensboro’s very small (but very alive) indie and underground scene.
The hype had been building throughout the week leading to the show (“Dude, these guys are huge.”). Which had me wondering: how exactly to you measure the popularity of a mysterious indie psych band of non-static size from New Mexico whose songs have been described as moving at “glacial” speeds?
I had heard the split EP they had done with Will Oldham a few years ago and though (I hate to admit) I found their songs a little boring, the buzz and the mystery were too much for me to pass up.
The crowd was impressive- especially for a show tucked so much out of sight. However, by the third 10 minute song consisting of breathy vocals whispered behind clouds of foggy instrumentation that while maybe not glacial, certainly demanded patience, the crowd had thinned considerably.
As the undergrad scenesters filtered out, leaving behind the very stoned and the more committed music junkies (the two, by no means, being mutually exclusive) my skepticism trailed at their heels.
There’s no shortage of shoegaze dealers or slow-psych groups out there, red-eyed and kinda hungry, noodling for an audience in about the same shape. What makes BBML exceptional is the fact that most groups float the trippiness out at you in thin sheets- at some point you realize that, yeah, if you put that much reverb on the drums or use whatever kind of pedal the guitar player has, shit will sound waaay groovy.
This band, however, really architects what appears (at first) just to be tripped out mumbling. The two vocalists’ barely audible whispers floated and bobbed along a wonderfully crunchy wah guitar which just barely flitted about the swelling Fender Rhodes organ. Ebbing and flowing, the organ and guitar were moved by a bass tone that I couldn’t quite distinguish (presumably the second keyboard) and a liquid drum that didn’t so much beat out a rhythm as massage one.
Instead of the rhythm section keeping a beat which the guitars and keys moved around, the pulses and beats shifted in and out from under the gossamer tones, moving them around and along until the lengthy frequency tones of a trombone (?!) coalesced it all into the closest thing that passed for resolution or climax with this group…until it all slid back down to lap and swirl around the deeper and slower rhythmic units again. You would never have noticed the vibraphone, mistaking it’s ringing for tonal anomalies, if it wasn’t such a huge instrument.
Don’t get me wrong: BBML may have been playing the same song over and over again, all night. But, all presumable caveats standing, I really couldn’t help but think of “Miles In the Sky” era Miles Davis while soaking in their incredibly patient, incredibly gauzy arrangement and movement.
While a Godspeed You Black Emperor may live and die with epochal loud and quiet dynamics and a Sigur Ros may butter their bread with dewy-eyed Romanticism, BBML was playing lysergic chess.
And even though I knew they were aiming for the queen the whole time, I had usually forgotten by the time they got to it, immersed as I was in their movement across the board. And each time they captured her, I was equally delighted.