Friday, December 05, 2014

Post-Card From A Mosh Pit

Devin Townsend Project, Animals As Leaders, Monuments at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, November 30 2014

Hey, P___ — greetings from the mosh pit.

And, at 49-years-of-age, I've gotta say: it's looking like my final visit.
"This used to be fun!"
I know, I know: “Never say 'Never.'” But honestly, P___, the whole evening's been dishing out more punishment than a half-century-old bod has the wherewithal to absorb.

Nor is it the moshing that's at issue, not for me at any rate. Gave that a wide berth, thank you. Wouldn't want to scare the kids.

No, it's the standing that kills.

I'm told sitting is the new smoking, but I don't buy it for a minute. I've been standing for the last five hours, and couldn't feel worse if I'd hot-boxed a carton of Gauloises. While the kids lunge and pogo and stage-dive, yours truly is staying put, hands in pockets, slowly champing his feet like an old horse to keep the numbness from setting in, and to extend what mercy he can to his suffering pelvic-girdle.

“Pelvic girdle” — there's a topic you won't hear kids discussing, unless mistaken for fetish wear.

But enough about age — what about the acts?

Things have changed since we were kids, bouncing around to Black Flag, Killing Joke, etc. The musicianship, for one thing — today it's off-the-charts accomplished, with very little margin for error in the performance (when someone goofs, you see immediate, stricken recognition in the band's faces). Tonight it's Monuments, Animals As Leaders and Devin Townsend Project, all three of whom take King Crimson as their acknowledged starting point — then ricochet away from there in their own peculiar directions.

It's all Metal, of course — we get the expected contrapuntal poundings. But these guys have absolutely no fear about introducing earlier icons of genre to the proceedings. Surprisingly catholic, in a way. Take Monuments, for example: wasn't familiar with them, and thought at the outset, “Okay — Bad Brains meets King Crimson. It works, it works.”

But near the end of their set, the lead singer (Chris Barretto) picked up an alto sax and played, as an intro, John Coltrane's intro to A Love Supreme — note for note.

P___, my jaw hit the floor. I whooped and did my own little hobble-hop, glancing to see if any of the kids were getting this. If they did, they chose to acknowledge it with reverent silence, waiting instead for the double-bass to kick the mosh back into motion. Which it promptly did.

The all-important double-bass. So long as the drummer is working it, the kids are happy.

And, to my astonishment, the kids seemed very happy through the duration of Animals As Leaders.

Prior to the show, I thought the group a slightly odd fit to Townsend's Penny-Rock-Opera antics, though I could certainly see their appeal to Townsend. One of their shirts at the merch booth reads, “Odds are we are better musicians than you.” Indeed. Of the three Prog Crimsonites, this trio is pushing the “Progressive” edge of things the furthest.

I watched guitarists Tosin Obasi (founder) and Javier Reyes do the technical push-me-pull-you with each other, while drummer Matt Garstka . . . well, geez, what did he do? What didn't he do? I mean, he set the foundation and kept the kids jumping (no stranger to the double-bass, he). But he often had a push-me-pull-you routine entirely his own, with the sort of brocaded jazz flourishes that put me in mind of Max Roach.

I was mesmerized, if not smitten. Then, shortly past the midway point, Garstka and Reyes triggered some sort of feedback loop — a deep, pulsating BWOOOMMBP-BWOOOOOOMMBP — that I found extremely unpleasant. Did they mean to do this? Was it accidental? Were they kettling us toward the exits? I stared at them to try to discern; they struck me as somewhat baffled by the noise.

My latent agoraphobia, which I'd managed (with the help of a barley sandwich on an empty stomach) to keep down to a shadow-child nudging me in the ribs, now blossomed into a nine-foot behemoth intent on hugging my face.

I'd done the groundwork for this eventuality, positioning myself between two exits and making sure I kept my car keys on my person and not in my jacket at the coat-check. I now positioned myself outside the crowd, closer to the nearest exit.

Nobody else seemed to be panicking. The kettling noise eventually stopped, and music once again took over. I endured the rest of the set, standing next to a father with his seven-year-old son, who was dressed in Ziltoid regalia — clearly anxious, like I was, for Townsend to take the stage.

Which Townsend and Project finally did, some 40 minutes later.

They performed to spec, I thought — though Townsend attested vigorously and at length to just how out-of-sorts he was. “Twenty-five years of this! Forty-two years old! And I know nothing! Twenty-five years ago I knew everything! I'd figured out the patchwork quilt of the universe! Now every night is an existential surprise, and I'm wondering, 'Why am I acting like such a jackass?' Or: 'Maybe I should be acting like more of a jackass?' Not tonight. Tonight I'm just running off at the mouth. But that's what you paid to see — isn't it?” [Raucous cheer from crowd, etc.]

The crowd ate it up, and if Townsend, a Vancouver resident of long-standing, begrudged the Hogtown locale, he gave no evidence of it. In fact he appended the opening bars of RUSH's YYZ to the closing bars of Ziltoidian Empire, which finally roused me out of my beaten torpor.

And there's the sad truth of it: by the time they took stage I was too used-up to take much pleasure in the act I'd come to see.

Also, something else was niggling at me. I couldn't get over the corporate reliance on computer-loops to fill in the missing sonic gaps. All three acts used the tech, but AAL did it the least conspicuously, chiefly because their music is a constant recalibration of syncopation — against each other, and against the computer. The other two acts used the computer to bring in female background vocals and the like, which, every time I caught it, distracted me from the actual performances.

Now, I do understand that performing in coordination with digital-loops is terrifically challenging. At one point, with a band I won't name, there was a moment when I thought, “Something's out-of-sync here.” Then the drummer did this massive “THWOP!” and everything seemed to click back in gear. So props are due to any band who manages the feat, night after night.

And my sensitivity to it was likely highlighted by the sound-filters in my ears, but I really was astonished at the degree these performers were willing to let a previous recording inform the delivery of the here-and-now. It couldn't help but bring to mind all those Sunday mornings in church, when a girl would climb up behind the pulpit and start singing along to a tape.

"Who needs an orchestra?"
That “But is the music genuine” issue is my generational baggage, however, and seems not at all pertinent to the kids around me, who are all having a hoot and bouncing around like so many neutrinos in a lead cup. For them, I suspect, adherence to a recorded sound they've committed to memory might be the higher value.

Interesting times, no? Wup — looks like Townsend's done shaking hands with the fans. Here comes the encore.

Wish you were here — D___

P.S. 1:00 a.m., back home. Spent the ride wondering if the Garstka/Reyes feedback-loop wasn't intentional. Recalling Tom Araya's observation that, once you get the taste of metal, it's like a drug: you want it as heavy as you can get it. AAL were definitely the heaviest act tonight. I kinda regret not getting a shirt. In fact, I'm wondering when's the next time they'll be in town?

But then, I've given all that up — haven't I?

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