Better Than: Wherever Bjork wasn’t (!!)
A punk show at Bowery Ballroom (in this day and age, anyway) is always more show than punk. Especially when the bill stirs the hearts of critics yearning for a spiritual rebirth of the genres that have fed them since childhood; especially when industry types catch wind and flock to the gig to hang out indifferently in the basement bar even during headlining sets; especially when the bands themselves are adjusting their brand of rage to account for their growing success. Especially when the sold-out crowd is moshing and Vine-ing in equal measures. Still, if that mélange has any power whatsoever in the era of buzz bands, Saturday night’s stacked bill showcased the best of it.
One-off openers Burial (from Germany, we think?) maintained an admirable energy throughout their short set; despite their apoplectic efforts, however, the hardcore rage that seemed more used to whipping up a club full of European teens was a little lost on the smattering of capital-A Adults who had arrived early, perhaps in the vain hope that the act listed on the bill was actually, by some bizarre/impossible confluence of events, the Burial you get when you Google “Burial.” (Alas, what they got instead: greasy hair, sweatbands, and a wildly ambitious double-bass pedal.)
Parquet Courts, on the other hand, delivered a fairly bulletproof set despite being unabashed acolytes of the Post-Punk Golden Age of Indie. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, task to be good at something once beloved and now often pegged as mediocre. In the post-Brooklyn-“indie rock” era (because let’s face it, that bubble burst a few magazine covers ago) a standard Brooklyn band like Parquet Courts has a sizeable hurdle to vault, especially when supporting incendiary acts like White Lung and Iceage. But the quartet wielded the blunt force of likeability (as well as some substantial tastemaker buzz) and accomplished the jump with their near-perfect combination of order and disregard; guitarist Austin Brown leaned into haphazard yet bizarrely effective solos while bassist Sean Yeaton tested the limits of his neck with frenzied head-banging. The pedestal on which Iceage’s former labelmates are flailing may be built partly on archetype, sure, but it’s also just flat-out enjoyable, and a crowd that howls with disappointment upon the announcement of a last song foretells they’ll have some time to grow beyond their influences.
“I already regret wearing this dress,” White Lung frontwoman Mish Way announced next, referring to the short, mobility-hindering skirt she’d chosen for the band’s last show supporting Iceage. That awkwardness, combined with being an instrument-free singer of an aggressive punk band, didn’t go unnoticed during the band’s first few songs, but by the time the band’s set arrived at arguably their biggest song, “Glue,” she’d sussed out a few cheats by pounding her hips with a fist and dropping onto her knees to scream in the front row’s faces, and the crowd thanked her by quickly commencing a pit that didn’t stop moshing until the set was over.
Over the past year or so, White Lung has been gathering speed and art; last night’s performance showed off their developed ability to enthrall an audience in a large space despite their upbringing in smaller ones. Every member’s contribution to the band’s delivery was equally explosive and wholly necessary; even drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s hair played a part, literally blowing away from her face not by some bullshit Van Halen-grade effects fan, but by the sheer force of her sticks and feet pounding her kit. The band’s pummeling shrieks, for all their rage, probably have more potential than even the night’s headliners if they continue tweaking their brand of metal-punk with the pop that’s made their songs so infectious and cathartic.
And finally, after a good three hours of pulse quickening prep work, there was Iceage. The Danish quartet has finally gotten a handle on how to deliver its youthfully sinister pessimism in the context of above-ground fame. In a stroke of genius, they kept stage lights shut off, opting to play in near-complete darkness save the sporadic red steady-lights then spastic flashes from the audience’s cameras. The effect was spot-on in a venue where the intimate rage of an Iceage set was in danger of dilution.
Despite the April 20th “holiday,” frontman Elias Rønnenfelt, wearing a Hawaiian shirt that made him look like a bedraggled Luhrmann-era DiCaprio, seemed surprisingly soberer than usual — either that, or the past few weeks of heavy touring have honed his usual desperate oscillations into a more purposeful performance. The band (or at least Rønnenfelt, who shoulders most of the entertainment) has learned how to fill a stage with their echoing despair and command an audience more completely than ever; with a theatrical authority like theirs, it’s hard to tell what they enjoy more: playing the music or making their mark. Either way, the fact that they are doing both with increasing finesse is rather thrilling.
Critical bias: White Lung’s sophomore record Sorry was in my top 10 albums of 2012
Random notebook dump: Does a show review on 4/20 require a handicap?