I don’t go to many live shows. I have the soul of a seventy-year-old man; I despise crowds and noise, and my aversion to public bathrooms verges on a phobia. But when I learned that two of the most massive singularities in the post-black metal scene, So Hideous and Bosse-de-Nage, were co-headlining a tour, and that they would be stopping in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, I knew I had to swallow my quasi-agoraphobia and go.
We began the evening with dinner on Mill Ave., where the youth go to be young. Unfortunately, the brewery where we chose to dine had live entertainment and an abominable Cinco de Mayo celebration well under way. As we ate, we listened under duress to a guitar/bass duo play covers of John Mayer, Michael Jackson and Sublime. All around us swarmed obnoxious kids from ASU, each of them poised to get hammered on shots of Patron, contract an STD and end the night vomiting in public. As if the music wasn’t bad enough, the band routinely went into protracted vamp-sessions so that the chickbait dudebro singer/guitarist could banter at the ladies. After an hour of this torture, we were pining for a black metal palate-cleanser.
Our pining took us to Yucca Tap Room, a small live venue tucked away in the armpit of Tempe, AZ. The crowd was thin, to say the least. As we cozied up to the bar, I spotted at least eight people (read: old barfly dudes) who were going to leave as soon as the first band struck their first chord; I was not wrong. I also spotted no less than two youngsters who’d dragged parental units to the show: a girl with her mom and dad, who would leave after the first band, and a young boy and his semi-cool-looking Pa Dukes.
The opening band was Nullingroots, and yes—they nulled my roots. On record their music is full of post-y accoutrements, but live it’s just two guitars, drums, no bass. Aside from their drummer, who was probably twice the age of his bandmates, they looked like the little brothers of the dudes in Deafheaven. And sounded like it too. Armed with vintage equipment including a Rickenbacker guitar and an Orange amp head, they treated us to longform post-black metal, with ghoulish death metal breakdowns sometimes woven in seamlessly, sometimes thrown in ad hoc. All in all it was enjoyable, although at times almost laughably predictable. For example: There’s a simple melodic lead in “I’m So Proud of You” that is lifted straight off of Sunbather—but since Deafheaven lifted it off of Explosions in the Sky first, all must be forgiven. These chaps are young, and still have plenty of time to refine their sound and/or rethink how deeply they wish to worship the Deafest of Heavens. Anyone into the whole blackgaze thing should definitely check them out.
Next up: Pocket Leaf. I can only assume the name is a reference to marijuana. Whatever the case, they play hateful stoner sludge. Not my cup of tea at all. Their riffs were utterly unremarkable, derivative of all ten billion stoner sludge bands who paved the way for them. Which would have been bearable enough if it weren’t for the singer and his grating stage-presence. He oozed irony in his Hawaiian print t-shirt and khaki shorts. He tried to crack a few jokes, none of which landed. Before their first song he issued a warning: “It’s about to get loud in here.” And then it did. And that’s all it was for the next twenty minutes or so: LOUD. The bassist’s open-handed, strumming, full-chord technique was the only noteworthy aspect of the performance. Too bad his amp was cranked so high that the guitarist was inaudible. The combined rumble of the bassist’s cabinet and growl of his distortion pedal was so totalitarian that the entire set sounded like one droning chord; I hadn’t realized they’d added Sun O))) to the bill . . .
It wasn’t until Ghost Island began to set up that I realized 50% of the people currently in the bar were members of the bands on the bill. This saddened me. So far, none of the spectators had come within twenty feet of the stage, everyone had hugged the walls or, as in my case, remained hunkered down at the bar, waiting for the real entertainment. Was the whole evening going to be this bleak? Whatever the case, Ghost Island delivered a nice refreshment after the bludgeoning Pocket Leaf had just dished out. Ghost Island plays post-rock. Say the words “post-rock” to yourself in your mind, and you will instantly know how all of their songs go. They sound more or less just like Mogwai, when they’re not busy sounding more or less just like Explosions in the Sky. Their setup was minimal: two guitars with a smorgasbord of effects pedals and a drumset. The two members alternated percussion duties (and unfortunately one of them was very noticeably better than the other). It wasn’t until their last song that the stagefront began to fill with furtive human shapes. They’d managed to lull all those alienated by Pocket Leaf; by the time they were done, the vibe in the room was locked on chill. (Can chillcore be a thing now? Please?)
The second Ghost Island quit the stage, the size of the crowd tripled and the lax vibe was obliterated. I was pleased. Some strange new characters appeared, among them a guy who looked (and dressed) like the butler from Scary Movie 2, and a girl with floor-length dreadlocks whose headbanging technique resembled a scene from The Walking Dead. We switched from microbrews from the tap to Pabst in a can so as to avoid sloshing good beer all over ourselves. Then I wrenched myself out of a misanthropic funk and dragged myself out onto the dancefloor. Bosse-de-Nage had begun to set up, and so afflicting is my obsession with this band that I got more enjoyment out of watching them lug equipment onto the stage than I did from listening to the three previous bands combined. In my defense, these gentlemen make a pretty interesting group to look at. The guitarist is tall and bald with the facial hair of a lycanthrope in mid-transformation; the singer is a short bespectacled dude who looks like an irritable librarian; the bassist frankly has no business being in a black metal band of any kind because he is clean-cut and well-built and handsome to a dreamy degree, and would be better suited modeling for American Apparel (which for all I know is his actual day job). I am not alone in this assertion—as soon as he appeared on stage, my
girlfriend photographer and I looked at one another and it was clear we were thinking the same exact thing. As for the drummer, well, he just looked like a drummer. That’s fine: his insanely fast, nimble and dexterous playing kept my jaw on the floor for the duration of the set. This guy is a force to be reckoned with; there may be faster blasters in modern black metal, but is there anyone more interesting? His ability to be artful and propulsive at all times is astounding. He is the mechanism pushing fuel into the roaring engine that is Bosse-de-Nage.
I could write a thousand words on their set alone. But I’ll contain myself. They murdered it, and there’s little else that needs to be said. To be honest, while watching the younger, not-so-cocksure bands play, I’d grown afraid that Bosse-de-Nage would turn out to be just as under-confident. Silly me. Their sound was crystal clear, their execution as precise as it was passionate. With confidence derived from years of playing together and a singularity of vision, they trounced everything that had come before them. They know who they are and what they need to do. By the end of their set my heart had swelled to near-lethal volume with joy; if they’d been cruel enough to play “Washerwoman” I might have expired. (Note: the semi-cool-looking Dad from earlier was now front and center in the crowd.)
I was curious to see how co-headliners So Hideous would sound without a full orchestra backing them. It is difficult to say whether or not something was missing: for one, everything was so drenched in reverb that there could have been an orchestra playing and I would not have heard it; also, I was fairly toasty by this point. Whether or not they had a recording of the orchestra looped, I cannot say. As soon as they took the stage, they inverted the intimate vibe with a fog machine, blue floor lights and a singer wearing Neo’s trench coat from The Matrix. Clearly, they were the only band on the bill concerned with putting on a show. In this context, it made perfect sense for them to go on last, to blow everything out with some good ol’ Pomp & Circumstance. Too bad the crowd had thinned out; the lights and fog were a bit heavy-handed, but made for a magical experience nonetheless. I found myself completely enveloped in pulses of light and waves of sound, scarcely able to discern where one song ended and another began. Did they play two songs? Five? No idea. It was all a pleasant blur.
And when it was over, rather bizarrely, So Hideous packed up their merch and disappeared before we had the chance to purchase anything. Only Bosse-de-Nage’s and Ghost Island’s merch were still on the table. And only the singer from Bosse-de-Nage was still around to peddle his wares. I bought a shirt and debated internally over saying anything to him. I must have been pretty drunk, because I ended up breaking character to gush at him about how awesome the show was and how much I loved his band, etc, etc. I’m not sure I was enunciating clearly, but I’m confident he got the message: Me like your band, your band good.
You can check out So Hideous and Bosse-de-Nage on tour right now.
5/9 Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst Atrium #
5/10 Sacramento, CA – Starlite Lounge #
5/11 Portland, OR – Panic Room #
5/12 Seattle, WA – Funhouse #
5/13 Vancouver, BC – Funky Winkerbeans #
5/14 Eugene, OR – Black Forest #
5/15 San Francisco, CA – Elbo Room #
# with Bosse-de-Nage
All original artwork courtesy of black pen, Sharpie and Crayola.
All photos taken from Snapchat stills–whatever those are.