Drinking the Kool-Aid

blow.jpgSo much white it'll hurt your eyes

Relapse Records might be the Stax/Epitaph/Kompakt of underground metal, but it's having something of an off-year. Mastodon has been called up to the majors, High on Fire are pulling out their couch cusions looking for the remote, and who even knows what Neurosis is up to, so the label is finding itself without a real flagship band. Last night's Relapse showcase is held at Ace of Clubs, a small, grimy downtown club in the basement of what looks to be a sports bar, and Jucifer, a Royal Truxian psyche-roar duo, is the ordained headliner. But further down the bill, the Brooklyn doom-metal power-trio Unearthly Trance roars out some of the blackest, most misanthropic troglodyte riffage I've heard in quite some time. I'm only down in that basement for maybe half an hour, but I walk out with my ears ringing. They certainly don't look evil: give or take a couple of neck tattoos, they seem to be pretty normal dudes. But they grind out huge slow-burn sandpaper-burn sludge that fits perfectly with what I was saying a month ago about how underground metal is the last voice for the sort of violent-squall pigfuck tendencies that have been banished from indie-rock for so long that it's hard to remember a time when they were welcome. Ten or fifteen years ago, Unearthly Trance would've been a big deal. They would have been jumping on bills with Helmet and Unsane and Prong and Life of Agony, entertaining all the same major-label bidding wars those bands did. These days, they're fifth on the bill at a label showcase that no one seems to care about. The music hasn't changed, but context is everything.

Context is certainly everything for the Blow's Khaela Maricich, who doesn't seem quite sure what to make of the crowd that fills Irving Plaza most of the way up. The Blow comes from a long line of female-fronted technopop art-projects with some connection to Pacific Northwest liberal arts colleges: Le Tigre, Tracy and the Plastics, Anna Oxygen, Scream Club. And their music perfectly fits that lineage: dinky electronic beats, shivery-clear vocals, obliquely articulate lyrics. But the Blow is a little less concerned with artifice than any of those groups, a little more emo in their blips and hums. And lately, they've become the beneficiaries of an accidental perfect storm of hype, as Pitchfork and the Fader and the New York Times all noticing that Paper Television, their new record, is pretty great. And since that new record came out just before CMJ, that means Marichich is suddenly playing a venue about five times the size of the ones she played here month and a half ago.

She's on a bill with for Apples in Stereo and Architecture in Helsinki, but it's pretty obvious from the mass exodus immediately following her set that a whole lot of people are here just for her. And since her bandmate Jona Bechtolt, the guy responsible for all the album's jumpy, brittle handclaps and keyboard bleeps, is off on tour with another project, she's standing out on this big stage by herself, no equipment or bandmates or props, in front of all the other bands' drums and amps. I don't think it's condescending to say that the Blow is a project that was intended more for living-room parties and dingy lofts than clubs like this one, and Maricich looks a little lost and bewildered up there. There are certainly people in this crowd because they've heard Paper Television and they like it, but there are also people here because that's just how CMJ works: bands graduate from total obscurity to buzz-bin status in no time at all. One guy up front keeps putting both of his hands in the air and doing the boob-squeeze gesture. It's really uncomfortable.

Maricich starts off her set by singing a quiet song accompanied only by her finger-snaps, and people in the crowd shush each other. She looks out, incredulous: "Where are you guys from?" She's not exactly a born performer, and when she awkwardly dances across the stage, there's visible joy, but there's also massive self-consciousness. She's nervous and ticcy and brave, like she had to force herself to get up and do this. One of those intolerably attention-seeking front-row drama-nerd types wants to know if she needed backup dancers. She spins around, turns her back on the crowd: "If I stand like this and the drums watch us, you guys are all my backup dancers." She tells the crowd that sometimes she imagines them as all one huge pulsating polar bear, that she imagines she's in love with it. It's sweet, but it's also confrontational, like she'll drag these fools into her world kicking and screaming if she has to. And then she launches into a long story-song about the existential plight of the dude who yells at girls out of car windows, and it reminds me of that track from Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death where Jello Biafra talks about getting arrested for throwing a rock at some fratboys, yelling it over horrible feedback but still keeping it riveting through sheer personality and storytelling skill. Here amidst this massive spectacle of indie-rock eating itself, she's like a beautiful alien here to save us.

Down at Tonic's Jagjaguar showcase, the door guy isn't letting anyone else in, and he's being a dick about it. It's not like I'm really hurting to see Ladyhawk and Oakley Hall that badly, and I'm already a bleary-eyed mess after four days of this stuff. I could probably go find another show somewhere, but this feels like a sign from God that I should go home and watch Over the Hedge and sleep. Again: context.

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