Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Empty promises


It seems my first impressions of the Regal, for last month's Rolo Tomassi gig, were more than a little deceptive. The reason it felt so small then was that, unbeknown to me, they were essentially playing on a stage erected in the bar, with the rest of the venue shut off. Tonight, though, we venture behind the curtain and down the ramp - and what a magnificent performance space it is.

Sadly, though, the room's cavernous proportions are only emphasised by the fact that it's virtually empty. Not only does that do the venue and the bands a disservice, it's also a disappointment for Shelter, as tonight is an Audioscope gig aimed at raising both money and awareness of the cause of those living in poor housing or vulnerable conditions (also performing at other Audioscope shows this year are Kid606, That Fucking Tank and Action Beat, amongst others). It doesn't help that Fucked Up's Pink Eyes is busy ripping the Zodiac a new arsehole on the same night, but even still, surely more intrigued members of Oxford's noise/post-rock community could have been expected to turn up?

But if the lack of attendance does the venue a disservice, then the same is true of the venue with regard to those who HAVE turned out. For some bizarre reason, the main bar only has a theatre licence, meaning they can't serve alcoholic drinks except during scheduled "intervals" - if you want to wet your whistle at any other time, you have to traipse out of the door and up the stairs to the smaller bar, far out of range of the bands, to discover there's very little available on draught except Guinness that's kept badly and poured even worse.

And the disappointment doesn't end there - oh no.

It's something of a concern when pieces about a band focus more intently on the knobtwiddlers and their pedigree than on the musicians themselves, and so it is with Secondsmile. A quick Googletrawl brings up countless references to the fact that their second album Years, released this summer, was produced by Andrew Schneider and mastered by Greg Calbi (if you don't know who they are, look Secondsmile up and you'll soon find out). The issue is that a sprinkling of studio and post-production magic can't save the day if the material isn't good enough in the first place, and while the Dorset quintet certainly aren't bad, nothing in their moodily melodic thrashings - post-hardcore in a 1995 Radiohead T-shirt - quite catches.

I was going to refer to Hreda as "inveterate gig whores", who always seem to be out supporting and/or checking up on the competition, but then that would very definitely be a case of someone in a glass house calling the kettle black. Of the countless times I've rubbed shoulders with them over the course of the year, twice they've been performing - with Vessels in January and then with Jonquil in April, both times at the Cellar.

That they're on tonight's bill I'd completely forgotten, but - though it's a shame my favourite track 'KHTC' seems to have been dropped from the set and they're starting to sound a touch more derivative (more Explosions In The Sky), to me at least - a new song promises much and set closer 'New Pastures' carries such a hefty clout you feel like you've been clipped around the ear by King Kong.

This isn't a comparison I suspect many people will have made, but the 2008 model of Don Caballero is in many ways like the 2008 model of Guns 'N' Roses. OK, so there's no kilt-wearing going on, and they haven't just released their first studio album for 17 years - but they too count among their number only one founder member, and as a result they too are eyed with suspicion by fans yearning for the original incarnation.

In truth, Don Caballero never had a settled line-up, so when drummer extraordinaire Damon Che resurrected the name in 2003 after a three year hiatus and recruited new guitarist Gene Doyle and new bassist Jason Jouver, it could be argued that this was only the latest in a seemingly endless procession of personnel changes. All the same, though, without Ian Williams - now busy creating a whole new genre of music with Battles (Che must have been gutted to have discovered he'd lost his guitarist to a drummer with an even bigger kit, Helmet's John Stanier) - they're not really the same band anymore.

More influential than outright popular, Don Caballero were revered by critics and fellow musicians alike for fusing elements of punk and metal with the spidery guitar work and drumming rhythms of Slint, thereby giving birth to the sort of math-rock that plays incessantly on Mike Patton's internal jukebox. New album Punkgasm - their second since the reformation, from which the vast majority of tonight's material is taken - places slightly greater emphasis on noisy aggression without really compromising its cleverness.

The problem is that for the uninitiated (and I count myself as such, together with the large proportion of the crowd drawn by the band's repute alone) their music is hard to engage with and not easy to appreciate or, yes, like instantly - and for the seasoned and expectant fans (like my companion) the narrow focus on new material and deliberate ignoring of a considerable back catalogue is equally alienating. Worse still is that for the most part ('Awe Man That's Jive Skip' being one exception) the performance is neither particularly tight nor fluid and feels half-arsed at best - a consequence of there being very little positive feedback from the paltry crowd, perhaps, but all the same we could be forgiven for expecting better.

While Doyle and Jouver gurn their way through the set without giving much sense that they're doing anything other than fulfilling a prior obligation, master of ceremonies Che - dressed in T-shirt, shorts and white socks like the American tourist he is - proves himself to be a highly capable drummer, but (as with Stanier and Battles) for me there's a line beyond which wizardry becomes wankery and it's definitely crossed tonight.

The silences between songs are painful rather than respectful, and as Che comments sarcastically that he's falling in love with the low hum of the amps I reflect that, while some nights everything is in perfect alignment, the opposite can also be true.


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