By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The Dragons of Zynth will inaugurate the Voice's own Siren Festival this Saturday at the not terribly bewitching hour of 1 p.m., bombarding a Coney Island that might not have completely shrugged off the morning cobwebs yet, and serenading an audience that might not have arrived, might still be on the train, might still be in their apartments, might still be in bed, might still be at the party from the night before. They're the opening act, see, portending a bill of bands with whom they might not share much in terms of style and onstage temperament—but that's a position to which they are accustomed. For it's precisely this that makes them so valuable, so necessary, to this hoedown. It would be an awful shame if you missed them. Please don't.
The 13 acts slated at Siren thereafter all fall more or less under the amorphous banner of indie rock, some proggier, some noisier, some sleepier, some bawdier than others. The Dragons of Zynth do not—their blunt, almost free-jazz assaults on conventional songwriting convulse with moments of ethereal beauty and bursts of pulverizing thrash, which they punctuate onstage mostly by leaping about as though they're all on fire. The result is bombastic, manic, inventive, possibly terrifying, definitely exhilarating. Even if you've gotten some prior warning, even if you've absorbed (or so attempted) the band's evocative and bewildering debut record, Coronation Thieves, the DoZ live experience can be overwhelming. This is a deliberate effect: "I'm pretty used to playing to people who don't know what the fuck is gonna happen," notes vocalist Aku O.T.
I have been among those people myself twice now. First at an Afro-Punk showcase one night in the Delancey's dark, dank basement just before Halloween—the Dragons flailed mightily about while draped in neon, a space-age apocalypse in action, like having a brutal 'Nam flashback while watching Tron. Then, the next summer, they showed up first on an afternoon Central Park SummerStage bill, of all things, cleansing our palates for, of all bands, Television and the Apples in Stereo. In broad daylight, somehow, they were even more overwhelming, pulsing with even more violence, glowing with even more serenity. I wasn't immediately sure if I liked it, but I sure as hell wasn't going to forget it.
Ah, and that's the point. "It fuels me more to show our intent, to be really present and be involved, because you can really connect with people in that moment and bring them onto your side, or wherever side you're trying to go," Aku explains. "I'd say when we first started, we were just so tired of the one-two-three-four beats that we were hearing. We just wanted to make people, like, 'This is really happening right in front of you—just to let you know, this is happening. So if you're questioning it in your mind, I'm here to kind of just reiterate: Yeah.' "
Much of Coronation Thieves was produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek; his bandmates Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe show up as guest vocalists and/or guitarists. It's a sonic connection the DoZ don't work that hard to deny: The first song on TVOTR's last record is "I Was a Lover" (opening line: "I was a lover/ Before this war"); track one on Thieves is called "War Lover." But the record soon blazes its own volatile, seductive, occasionally atonal path. "Get Off" begins with a warped loop of the soft drumbeat from David Bowie's "Soul Love" (evidently he's a fan), but bashes out several wild, raucous choruses; "Who Rize Above" thunders along wildly and raucously (Devang Shah's drums are thrilling, and exhausting) for six unbroken minutes. But the album's second half is a quieter, eerier affair—a string of what could be straight soul ballads were it not for the gauzy shoegaze overtones, the sudden bursts of noise, and Aku's often unmoored howling. He reins it in, though, for the big closing number, appropriately titled "Closer," a gorgeous ballad wherein Aku starts out moaning "In this crazy world/Nothing feels right" and ends up demanding "Where did we go wrong?" over and over in a yearning, naked, disarmingly direct falsetto, before honking saxophones and bleating flutes overwhelm him.
It can be tough to wrap your head around all this, though Aku's guitarist bandmate and twin brother, Akwetey, politely notes that he doesn't consider it all to be nearly as far out as, evidently, his listeners do. By way of explanation, the band has pointed to Aku and Akwetey's apprenticeship with free-jazz paragon Yusef Lateef, who taught what DoZ notices have often referred to as an "audio-physio-psychic" approach to music. Akwetey makes an important clarification: It's actually auto-physio-psychic, which he roughly defines as "the concept of being able to submit yourself on a conscious level, and also in a way that can open yourself up to what some people would call 'musical accidents' and that kind of thing."
This is easier to do, you might imagine, with your twin brother and longtime musical cohort in the band. (Aku and Akwetey fled Cleveland and showed up here around the turn of the century.) Their songwriting can be pretty intuitive. "Painstakingly, sometimes," Akwetey says. "A lot of times, intuition also has its adverse effects: If we go into a room and we get on the drums and start playing a drumbeat that reminds you of a TV show that we really didn't enjoy, or someone starts playing a riff that reminds us of an experience that we shared together, that reminds us of an ex-girlfriend— there are a lot of idiosyncracies in having that kind of bond that sometimes prevents good things from coming about."
Clearly, they manage. Coronation Thieves came out last fall; Akwetey says the band's now working on a mixtape, which may or may not involve convincing some of their friends to rap like Ghostface Killah. (He sounded serious about this, in any event.) But for now, the Dragons of Zynth are best experienced in person, in often foreign environments under less-than-ideal circumstances. Early afternoon at Coney Island, for example. "I don't look at it as a challenge, when we're playing with bands who're more sweet and stuff like that," Aku says. "If anything, it's better for us, 'cause we'll stand out. At least you'll remember. But it's so great to be with another band or another artist who's on a similar wavelength. We just got off the Saul Williams tour, and we were all riding high on this other cosmic plane. We really created our own time and space, and everybody was right there, together." Get to Siren on time to try and get there, too.
The Siren Festival takes over Coney Island Saturday, featuring Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Broken Social Scene, Islands, Ra Ra Riot, and many others. It's free.