Dear Mill Iowa City, I hope you won’t feel neglected that I haven’t made it to any of your Mission Creek events. You will always remain dear to me, but so far this year my heart’s a few blocks north, once again running up and down the alley.
Ex-Action Model (Yacht Club) 9:00 p.m.
I’ve known Brendan Hanks (aka Ex-Action Model) for several years, first encountering him at a Yellow Ghetto house show where he was running his laptop off of battery power to eliminate a gigantic ground loop hum, and his set ended when the battery crapped out. He’s progressed a lot since then, putting out an album (full disclosure: I did the digital mastering for it) and gigging around town regularly. For a sparse but enthusiastic crowd at the Yacht Club, he presented familiar and new music with his trademark spiky beats and restlessly morphing synth sounds.
Sweet Chariot/Big Box (Gabe’s) 9:30 p.m.
Iowa City goes through phases in what type of music fills the venues. Judging from this year’s festivals, punk rock has the edge, but metal, though definitely a minority genre, still draws a decent audience. The Iowa City metal scene comprises extremely loyal fans, who often are in bands themselves. Strangely or not, a musical genre that focuses thematically on themes of death, betrayal, bodily corruption and evil seems to have a fan base that are cheerful well-adjusted people, unusual only for their high auditory pain threshold and body modifications.
Every so often someone gets on cable news decrying the menace of metal, and some church-going folk think it is literally the work of the devil, sent to lure innocent kids into the lake of fire. I think that the truth is much stranger: The focus on the dark reaches of human experience has more in common with the way Buddhist monks will meditate on photographs of decaying corpses as a way to find peace with the impermanence of life. The more I listen to it, the more I find it paradoxically soothing.
Sweet Chariot is a trio comprising veterans of fondly-remembered Iowa City bands Ten Grand, Kita and Breakdance, and their thrashy brand of heavy riffing isn’t tied to any particular genre signifiers. They make an unholy racket, but it has a purity of musicianship and rhythmic urgency that makes it much more than an over-amplified tantrum.
Big Box to my ears seems to fall into the remarkably large–and fertile–no man’s land between punk and metal. Front man Colin Samek is a total spaz, pulling ridiculous faces as he screams and howls. Great fun.
Matt Fee/Dylan Newton/Kinfolk (Yacht Club) 10:30 p.m.
As a veteran of the dance music scene in Iowa City during the last century, it has been curiously gratifying seeing a new generation of DJs and producers carrying on what we started back in the early 1990s. It’s easy for a creaky old-timer to complain about those damn kids (GET OFF MY LAWN, YA PUNKS!), but the primary feeling I had about these guys was that they get it, and they are carrying on the proud tradition of DJ as curator, engineer and performer.
The technology has changed (MacBooks instead of Technics) but it’s still all about finding that sound that will keep people smiling and dancing. Matt Fee and Dylan Newton concentrated on the modern digital incarnation of house music and techno, and Kinfolk represented for more insurgent styles, like dubstep and trap. It’s a blast to be in a roomful of people entrained to the same beat; there’s something hilarious watching people locked in shouted conversation, seemingly oblivious to the music, and yet their heads are nodding in perfect sync to the beat.
Pallbearer (Gabe’s) 12:30 a.m.
All that stuff about metal above? It goes triple for Pallbearer. There’s a most desirable quality in metal of ‘heavy’ (as in the original appelation applied to originators like Black Sabbath). Pallbearer is heavy like a black hole — you could practically feel the gravitational tide the closer you got to the stage. I don’t think they broke 70bpm the whole time I saw them, and the bass and lead guitarist thrashed their heads in unison, faces invisible behind Cousin It-style curtains of hair. And lead singer Brett Campbell does something remarkable for a metal frontman. He sings his heart out in a clear voice that would not sound out of place in less noisy surroundings.
They may think of themselves as Doom metal, but for me they’re practitioners of an austere, reverent religion of sonic overload. I was talking to veteran sound-man and musician Bronson Karaff, and was saying how difficult it would be to capture the sound coming from the stage. Imagine music so heavy it’s unrecordable, and imagine further their sludgy, stately riffing owes as much to Bach as it does to Ozzy and Lemmy. You had to be there, and the hundred-odd people there will still be talking about it years from now.
Mister Lies (Yacht Club) 1:00 a.m.
Speaking of new waves of dance music, Mister Lies is a Chicago college student who is making his own brand of soulful, melodic dance music that draw influences equally from UK Bass innovators like Burial, and the House and Footwork music originated in the city with broad shoulders.
Clearly chuffed to finally be in Iowa City (he was late because of Megabus’s usual relaxed policy on timetables), Mister Lies launched into his set with a hyperactive vigor, fingers dancing over his MIDI controller almost faster than the eye could follow. What he played was close to what you can hear on his album Mowgli, but in a more stripped down, frantic, splintered mode, that still retained it’s essential graceful groove.