Monday, October 1, 2012

Show Review: Assemblage 23 with Espermachine



Background

In the Dark Age known as the late-90s, I was visiting family and friends in San Diego. A married couple I knew had drafted me to join them for a goth party. The wife insisted that I wear all black – no hint light colors. My dad – who I was staying with at the time – found the demand ludicrous.

His exact critique was this, “You mean to tell me that this is a countercultural event…and there’s a dress code?!”

Valid, though his point was, there was something to be said for sticking out like a yuppie thumb.  I went with the darkest clothes I had on hand – jean shorts and a Decepticon t-shirt. And that pretty much sums up how “goth” I am. In other words, I’m about as gothic as a number 2 pencil – khaki color and all.

For decades, I’ve been on the periphery of the gothic subculture. Frankly, I’m surprised the movement (if it can be called that) ever survived the 90s unscathed. But survive it did, especially in the Pacific Northwest where sunlight is a rare commodity. My continued exposure to the EMB/synth-pop/industrial scene(s) is all thanks to the married team of Missionary Promotions. Because of them, I was able to get on the list for this show.

Problem was…I’d never listened to Assemblage 23 before. I had two days to study up on their oeuvre before the event. Thanks be to the Internet Gods for YouTube! Not only did I enjoy what I heard, but I was able to pick out favorites I hoped to hear.

The Venue

The Fez is an interesting bar/events space situated on the second level of, uh, some building on corner of W. Burnside and SW. 11th in downtown Portland. I’ve attended two other concerts hosted there – one being another Missionary effort. To say it is unique would be an understatement. The furnishings, to put it mildly, are…well…I can’t quite explain it.

I will use this pillow as an example.

 
Here I was, sitting on a backless couch-bench-type-thingy, and I kept nudging up against this pillow. It was hideously fascinating – plush, furry, and orange. All I could imagine was how someone could conceive of such a thing. I imagined a ginger-colored Muppet Rastafarian being skinned alive and compressed into a square.  That sums up my opinion of The Fez. I like it, but – damn – if it isn’t eclectic.

The Audience

In typical geek fashion, I half-expected to stick out like I always do at such gatherings. I was attired in black corduroy pants, black-and-gray NIKEs, and a black turtleneck zip-sweater. Less goth and more beatnick foodie-vegan-poet uniform. To my surprise, everyone in attendance for this event were just like me!

The majority of the audience looked like normal freaks and geeks who shed their everyday wardrobe to embrace their inner goth. Weekender goths, in other words. No one seemed particularly – or seriously – “scene” in the slightest, merely music geeks in one fashion or another. Sure, there were those that were decked out in vinyl, or pleathered from head-to-toe, but the majority was on my end of the geek spectrum. That was oddly reassuring.

The Opening Act

Espermachine is the brainchild of Arkansas native James Esper. To date, they have one album to their credit – Dying Life – produced by Assemblage 23’s Tom Shear. Another interesting fact I learned: The lead singer – a gentle giant of a man – owns eight cats. EBM artist, Southerner, and cat-herder – this group had my esoteric attention. 


At first, I found them prototypical of the EBM genre – dark melodies, thumping downbeats, haunting vocals, et al. – but they accomplished a feat rarely achieved. For an opening act, they engaged the crowd. Oftentimes, an opener can barely connect with an audience attending for one particular group. I’ve only seen such an achievement once.

The standout performance – for me – was for the song “Dead Man Walking”. Not sure what it was about this boot-stomp of a beast-ballad, but it had me enthralled.  Like skull-screwed, cyber-hammer hypnotized. I blame the melodic refrain. In short, very effective introduction.

The Main Act

As mentioned above, I’d heard of Assemblage 23, but never listened to their music before. The Seattle-based group was created by Tom Shear in 1988, starting off as a hobby. He wasn’t courted by record labels until roughly a decade later. This was to be their fourth Missionary-hosted concert to date.

Sound-wise, I compared them to Praise the Fallen-era VNV Nation – another influential EBM act out of Germany. Their rhythms were industrial to the core, but with an emphasis on macabre melodies tapered throughout. It was an interesting juxtaposition. In my (albeit last-minute) research, I took a liking to two particular tracks – “Damage” and “Let Me Be Your Armor”. Both were quintessentially dark electro, but were unique enough in their own right.

Lucky for me, both songs were performed live. It gave me something to fanboy-faun over along with the other dark-clad attendees. Shear was a captivating performer, avoiding one of the central trappings of other genre acts – merely standing still with the microphone. He made it a point to actively include the audience in the performance.

Also worthy of note was their nontraditional approach to the encore performance. As in, they didn’t do one; rather, instead of exiting the stage and coming back, Shear simply asked the audience if they wanted to hear more. What was equally spectacular is they did this twice! Two encores! Their final song of the night was easily their best – “Cruelest Year”, a bittersweet softer piece laden with hints of hope.

Aftermath

I went home without a voice, ears ringing, and a healthy beer buzz humming my skull. Last I checked, these were signs of an epic concert experience. Hadn’t had one of those in recent memory. Then again, my memory was a little fuzzy. That all said, I couldn’t think of a better (or darker) way to spend a Sunday night.

There is still one question I have, though: Is it now industry standard that all electronic musicians be bald and goateed?

Just wondering.

3 comments:

Enki Düm said...

black corduroy pants, black-and-gray NIKEs, and a black turtleneck zip-sweater. Less goth and more beatnick foodie-vegan-poet uniform. To my surprise, everyone in attendance for this event were just like me!

You obviously didn't see the people wearing corsets, pyramid studded clothing, or stompy boots. While the clothing you were wearing would not make you stand out like a sore thumb, it is a far cry from being "just like everyone else" that was there.

Jess Gulbranson said...

Hi, Enki! Thanks for commenting! Here in word-land we have this thing called a rhetorical device, and the one in particular that seems to be confusing you is called "hyperbole". Now excuse me, I'm going to go do A TON of paperwork.

Geoff said...

@Enki - 2nd paragraph, a few sentences down: "Sure, there were those that were decked out in vinyl, or pleathered from head-to-toe, but the majority was on my end of the geek spectrum. That was oddly reassuring."

But, yes, I could've structured that first paragraph better.

However, I did see more spectacled thirtysomethings (like myself) than not. So, let's call it a draw.

@Jess - The epitome of hyperbole, as Brian Regan would put it.