Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Place to Bury Strangers at Dartmouth 2/6/09

After a last-minute MGMT cancellation last year, Dartmouth’s Friday Night Rock has struggled to book well-known (at least in the college crowd) acts. Having spent much of ’08 opening for Nine Inch Nails, A Place to Bury Strangers looked to be a major coup for the group, getting a band used to playing for thousands to play for a couple hundred in a dank student center basement. The fact that the venue did not come close to reaching capacity, however, gives indication of one reason FNR struggles to bring viable acts.

Trying to engage the couple dozen lounging hipsters, openers Elks managed
to be both ear-splittingly loud and mind-numbingly boring. Mixing abrasive metal riffage with classic rock guitar jams, their skinny-jean Metallica failed to win over anyone not personal friends with on of the band’s two Dartmouth students. The guitar work was tight and coordinated, showing potential if they tried to be an instrumental band, but anytime a groove started the build the lead singer leapt in like an barroom drunk yelling incoherently at the wall. Lead guitarist providing the saving grace preventing a collective audience eardrum removal, trying to steer the band towards Sabbath from Slayer with sharp riffs and clear solo potential. Too bad the other three seemed determined to drown him out with their meaningless wall of noise. In the battle of loud versus good, talent had to raise the white flag to volume.

A Place to Bury Strangers’ set hit a rocky beginning when their smoke machine set off the student center fire alarm and the police showed up to empty the building. Another talent that will never again pass Dartmouth way. Half an hour of waiting in the cold muck later, the band again gave it a try, smoke-free. The delay was soon forgiven as A Place’s soundscapes washed over the small crowd, deafening but beautiful. DEVO-style beats propelled along reverb-soaked guitar that echoed My Bloody Valentine and band heroes The Jesus and Mary Chain.

The A Place guitar effects put even those two in their place, however. And for good reason: lead singer/guitar man Oliver Ackermann’s primary claim to fame is not as a musician himself, but as a musicians’ tech guru, having founded the famous effects pedal company Death By Audio that supplies everyone from Wilco to U2. Ackermann knowing his way around reverb should no longer be so surprising.

More than just a gizmo band though, A Place employed chose unexpected chord progressions over melody, incoherent vocals only another ambient wave in the ocean of noise. Tempo-changing strobe lights helped the hour of noisescape keep a momentum, climaxing in Ackermann viciously ripping the strings off his axe and scraping them along the pickups, microphone, amps, other strings, other instruments…you get the idea. Total sonic meltdown, T minus zero seconds. The guitar was demolished, but the reverb lived on, and while the other two band members rocked on Ackermann then proceeded to play it by messing with – what else – his effects pedals while the audience craned their necks to see what he was doing. As feedback swirled and the band tried to rival with cacophony of their own, Ackermann stomped off. The show was over but the buzzing in our ears remained.