Doom, But Not Gloom

Delightedly running in circles at Japanther's dino-themed "comedic rock opera"

When a soundtrack of chirps swooped down onto an expectant crowd sitting cross-legged in a dark P.S.122 basement space Friday night, the tweedling didn't exactly convey the atmosphere of a spring awakening. No, the immediate tone for noise-rock band Japanther's latest multimedia endeavor, Dinosaur Death Dance—what with the birds, the jarring video projections, and the claustrophobic setting—was, at the onset at least, one of doom.

Doom, but not gloom. The audience oozed a jittery enthusiasm for what was about to occur, whatever it would be; if we were to suffer an inevitable and unhappy fate, at least we could ignore that conclusion for the moment and fixate instead on the playful skateboarders rounding the empty stage. Earlier in the week, my dad had relayed his deer-season success story, detailing the fall of a 12-point buck that wasn't so much a fall as a spectacular expectoration of life, head over hoof. I was queasy; he was thrilled. But I thought of it then, this creature propelling itself forward so powerfully that it actually flipped over in its last moments. (Then again, I spent much of last week in the throes of a root canal, entertaining delirious fantasies about smashing blunt objects against my jaw. I might have been channeling violence a bit more than usual.)

Nonprofit arts organization Performa commissioned Japanther's five-night, six-show residency at P.S.122 as part of its second biennial of new work. Billed as a "comedic rock opera," Dinosaur Death Dance actually served as a tastemaker's variety show, with various segments of live music, dance, video, spoken word, and animatronics; it was produced by a slew of Brooklynites—arguably for a slew of Brooklynites—but took place in the East Village. It isn't the first art-world endeavor for the duo (whose music is scads more accessible than everyone would have you believe), and their circle of collaborators has remained pretty close-knit. Last year, they teamed with Rodney Graham, Laurent Berger, Tony Oursler, and Dan Graham for Don't Trust Anyone Under Thirty, a puppet show turned video installation that was included in the Whitney Biennial; they also took part in the Dan Graham–curated Deep Comedy festival earlier this year in Marfa, Texas, with Laugh Dance, conceived and performed with dance company Robbins-Child. In turn, Graham designed the Death Dance set, and RobbinsChild's founders, Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs, were on-site at P.S.122, whirling around the central platform in billowy metallic tops and tights. Furthermore, the dinosaur of Dinosaur Death Dance—a cumbersome, animatronic skeleton that lit up and blew smoke in jerky movements—was designed and built by artist Ryan Doyle, a member of the Black Label Bike Club; Japanther can be seen in the 2005 film B.I.K.E., which documents that rowdy gang and was screened at Slamdance last year.

Smoke-blowing animatronic skeleton not pictured
Annie Fischer
Smoke-blowing animatronic skeleton not pictured

New to the Japanther fold but not to the do-it-yourself aesthetic that Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly espouse—he arguably helped found it—is writer and musician Penny Rimbaud, member of former anarchist-punk band Crass. Rimbaud orated from an elevated stage throughout much of the performance; according to press materials, he was meant to be on his deathbed, "recanting his belief systems." That part was kind of lost on us, but his voice was still a powerful medium for ambience. He read in tandem with the video projections, which alternately highlighted Columbus, Ohio's DIY space Legion of Doom, a gruesome loop of limp bodies, and a group of schoolchildren talking TV. (The last one, while cute, came off like a clip from Kids Say the Darndest Things.) Meanwhile, the skateboarding continued, as did the frenetic outbursts of dancing when Japanther intermittently took up their signature phone-mics for a few songs here, a few songs there; occasionally, they just played backup for Rimbaud's spoken-word sets. Some audience members were drunk, others were high—both intoxicants were smuggled into the space with abandon—but there was also a very real joy present among the small, intimate crowd.

At one point, I stood near one of the glass screens that Graham constructed to surround Japanther; a guy I know tapped me on the shoulder from behind and warned, "It's about to get real crazy where you're standing." I stepped back and watched as he and other members of the audience joined the throng of bodies running and skipping—at top speed—in circles around the room. With the exception of the two couples that did nothing but neck the entirety of the show, I think most of the rest of the audience kinda wanted to join in.

My friend David complains that with kaleidoscopic art-rock quartet Battles, "After a while it's like, 'Quit showin' off and give me some fuckin' melodies.' " But I forgive them, because I think Mirrored is the sexiest album of the year. At their Webster Hall show Tuesday night, a backdrop of pinpoint lights provided a dreamy juxtaposition to the high-energy tracks from the record's April release. The boys never stopped moving, and the audience was even more relentless—cheers went up when drummer John Stanier doffed his shirt three songs in (and pretty much every time he reached up to crash his seven-foot-high cymbal thereafter); later, some blonde chick in a cropped denim vest rushed the stage during the encore. (She was quickly escorted off, and never stopped smiling.)

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