At their second New York appearance together since the Go-Betweens’ breakup, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster played to a packed Merc June 8 with no backup, little patter, and the bemused geniality of former allies in a lost cause.
In the postpunk ’80s, the Go-Betweens were like farmers battling cowboys over homesteads in Nebraska. They wanted to stay in one place and make things grow. They were wrestling with feminism and funny about it, always losing arguments with women who wanted to take other lovers (though satisfied with them). Spiking grubby credibility with irrational elation and plainstyle poetics with a radiant sound McLennan once dubbed the “striped sunlight effect” (as through Venetian blinds), their struggles were so sharply delineated fans could believe the songs were about themselves.
The Merc fans gave back keen attention, effortless sing-along, knowing nods at fine phrases, a communally drawn breath as McLennan uttered his plaintive rallying cry, “Faithful‘s not a bad word.” But the mood was hardly slavish; nor was that what either performer seemed to want. When McLennan asked the crowd, “How did that sound?” after the song was over, it was a pleasantly businesslike question.
“Bachelor Kisses” was certainly a high point, though the hour-and-a-half, three-encore set was consistently strong. It made room for solo material, songs they’d just written, and lots of titles from the new (but never cited) best-of Bellavista Terrace. My own favorite was Forster’s “Danger in the Past,” where, moved by the crowd response to his rhyme of “curse” with “Perth,” he fell into a spasm of comic miming. While McLennan, now a cute, graying middle-aged man, was dressed more stolidly than anyone else in the room, Forster was foppish in cream suit and lipstick. In the old days, while his bandmates wore street clothes or Sunday best, his hair color changed and leotards made you wonder what tensions that caused, or expressed— though it was tensions with the pair’s musical and romantic partners, Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, that proved terminal. Yet a peculiarly kindred spirit remains at the band’s old core. As to full-scale reunion, was there anything they could do? Probably not, but on this scale there might be something. — Carola Dibbell
Explaining Magma to nonbelievers is likely to prompt much eye-rolling. OK, there’s this prog band, they’re French, and they invented their own language. (Kobaian, the better to express an endearingly anachronistic futurism centering around the outer-space Eden of Kobaia.) But any doubters at Wetlands last Tuesday got their asses whupped. At their first NYC appearance in 26 years, Magma put on a dazzling display— ridiculously ambitious, utterly in control, rocking as hell. Lengthy pieces— they played four songs in about 90 minutes— ended in enormous, ecstatic crescendos. Drummer, founder, and guiding
spirit Christian Vander— whose portly frame,
ruddy face, odd hair, and facial contortions made him resemble a monk gone to seed— seemed tentative as they opened with “Köhntarközs.” But the piece combusted after about 20 minutes, or roughly the halfway point. Later the seven piece— drums, keys, guitar, bass, and three vocalists— had fans singing along. In Kobaian. Less obsessive onlookers marveled at an emotional and spiritual expressionism rarely associated with prog.
Perhaps even more than other ’70s Euro art rockers, Magma make for difficult description. Not jazz, though Vander’s a Coltrane freak; not rock, though the guitar and bass are miles more wrenching than fusion; certainly not classical, despite the pomp and the “operatic” vocals. The singers wrung arresting choral effects from hisses, whispers, frantic chanting, and baroque wails. When their melodic lines doubled the keys or guitars, it maximized the high-end impact— a good thing, given Vander’s attack and the brawny bass lines slammed out by Philippe Bussonnet. One beauty of Kobaian is that since the language is inaccessible, all attention is focused on the
overall sonic richness. “It is not music for short attention spans,” went Giorgio Gomelsky’s introduction. “Anyone with a short attention span should go to the Knitting Factory.” At the merch booth, $30 brass belt buckles depicting Magma’s bat-wingesque logo sold out. Sun Ra, wherever you are, eat your heart out. — Jon Fine
Off the Scale
“The harder you hit, the more shit I’m gonna give you. It’s that fuckin’ easy,” drawls the carny hawking his Test Your Strength meter at Ozzfest’s Never Never Land. His pitch goes unnoticed: today, hell’s just too fuckin’ hot. But wait, who’s that picking up the mallet, aiming for the metal mark?
It’s the Swedish chicks from Drain S.T.H.! With a hard thwack of the hammer the meter
rises while the boys in the crowd cheer. Up, up, up, the meter registers Brute! (“Not only do they rock, but they harmonize!”) System of a Down step up to the plate and surprise the masses with their Muscle Man reading. (“They yell ‘Kosovo! NATO! Do you know why?’ They question authority!”) Godsmack don’t fare as well, recording a Nice Try. (“But keep up the droning morning affirmation of ‘I’m doing the best I can!’ over and over and over.”) Next, Primus two-step their way to the mark. With a twang and a thudump, the gauge soars. It’s a Manwich! (“Primus suck! The mystery man disguised in a KFC bucket, swinging a neon nunchaku, is a hollerin’ hoot!”) Slayer don’t disappoint either, scoring Brute on the thrash-o-meter. (“The crowd pumps devil-horned fists! Slayer throw out signature drumsticks!”) Godsmack smile when the Deftones fall short of the Nice Try mark. Their incessant stating of the obvious— “This is the hottest show yet”— earn them Weakling. (“No shit it’s hot! We’re all gonna burn in hell!”) Then Rob Zombie stomps through in a blaze of pyrotechnics and proceeds to use his head as the hammer. It’s a He-Man Richter rating! (“Not only does he know how to make an impression but he’s a feminist too: ‘You are the Sabbath girls!’ ‘You are not the nice girls!’ “) With the sun safely set, Ozzy Osbourne cometh forth. His audience bows in deference. The Test Your Strength meter reads an unprecedented Iron Man before crumbling into a pile of dust. — Carla Spartos