Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Liturgy, Doomtree, Guns 'N' Roses, a benefit for Tibet House, and more
"Whoever wants music instead of noise…finds no home in this trivial world of ours."
So wrote Hermann Hesse, clearly without foreseeing that there would be a time decades down the line when the two desires, instead of fighting, would overlap. Example? The two-week showcase at the Stone curated by Hospital Productions (Feb. 15, The Stone), the record label owned and operated by Dominck Fernow, who has recorded a string of garrulous, menacing records as Prurient. The showcase closes with a pair of acts true to the label's spirit: John Mannion, who creates groaning, scraping collages of static that he occasionally wraps around eerie snatches of spoken-word poetry, and Lussuria, whose songs consist of the kind of atmospheric rumbles, odd whistles and unearthly groans you might hear inside a haunted castle. Though at least superficially similar, the impact of their work is very different; Mannion's are the stomach-churning noises you'd hear in deep space in some lost solar system; Lussuria's are the soundtrack to a 16th-century graveyard.
Music and noise collide at another show this week. On the first few albums she recorded as Zola Jesus (Feb. 18, Webster Hall), Nika Roza Danilova sang from behind a screeching curtain of static, as if she were trying use her grand, spectral bellow to pierce the digital fog. With each successive record, she's refined her focus, sweeping away the cobwebs, clearing out the clatter and instead, placing her ruby-red alto at the front of a series of majestic goth-pop ballads. Her latest, last year's Conatus, is her most assured to date, Danilova piloting her operatic howl above beds of milky synth and thumping drum machine, resulting in songs that feel deeply passionate and yearning. She's sharing the stage with Liturgy, the New York band who have earned scorn from some quarters for appropriating the brutal aesthetics of black metal—heart-attack drum beats, growled vocals, and thick washes of guitar—without subscribing to the genre's nihilistic belief system. The notion of unworthy artists copping a cool pose isn't a new complaint in rock, but it seems particularly ludicrous in Liturgy's case. Get past the harsh sonics and the band has more in common with the surging waves of sound favored by ambient music. That they are using guitars instead of stacks of synths is the primary difference.
Liturgy joins Zola Jesus at Webster Hall after spending several days on the road with Sleigh Bells (Feb. 18, Terminal 5) another band who knows something about mixing pop with noise. Their upcoming record Reign of Terror opens with a nasty shriek from frontwoman Alexis Krauss and a blast of metallic guitar before hurtling headlong into the same intoxicatingly toxic combination of grinding riffs and walloping drum machines that characterized their debut. Without Krauss's voice, the music would be as alienating as Liturgy's. Guitarist Derek Miller's power chords snap like a rattler lunging for a bare arm and the percussion detonates as loudly and haphazardly as a land mine. But add Krauss, and the songs suddenly become more sinister than threatening, tempting with fluttering lashes before refusing with a swift kick. It's like someone pouring cherry syrup over a bomb.
It's similar to the approach taken by the hard rock band Junius (Feb. 18, The Knitting Factory), whose 2010 album The Martyrdom of a Catastrophist blended hard rock brawn with the kind of aching choruses typically found on albums by the Cure. That album explored the life of outcast philosopher Immanuel Velikovsky, but their new album, Reports From the Threshhold of Death has even weightier things on its mind. As the title implies, each song is a narrative written seconds away from the afterlife, all of them quaking with both the panic and the resignation that arrives in life's final seconds. It's material perfectly suited to the band's approach, in which vocalist Joseph E. Martinez steers his pained alto across big, crashing black waves of guitar. But what characterizes these songs about death more than anything else is a persistent sense of astonishment: each chord is a melodic half-step up from the one that preceded it, creating a heightened sense of both wonder and anxiety; ghostly choirs swoop in and out like iridescent angels and Martinez, alternately baleful and awestruck, struggles to make sense of it all. It's the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey in song.
The natural predecessor to all of these noisemakers, of course, are Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, who will join a group of likeminded obstinate experimentalists at Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House Benefit (Feb. 13, Carnegie Hall) concert. The event, which raises money for the New York–based institution for the preservation of Tibetan culture, has a long history of booking performers that flirt with the avant-garde, but this year's billing is more eclectic than most. There's Glass, whose deeply-felt compositions pioneered the same emotional terrain currently occupied by Junius, and Anderson, whose doomy, spoken-word-and-synth compositions are at least the spiritual if not the sonic godmothers to Sleigh Bells and Zola Jesus; but there's also James Blake, the dubstep performer fond of interrupting soothing, lullaby-like vocals with blasts of depth-charge percussion, and the rowdy hip-hop group Das Racist, who cloak pointed barbs about race and nationalism in the benign guise of comedy rap. The bill is rounded out by Antony Hegarty—a paragon of experimental elegance if ever there was one.
If Antony is operatic opulence, Frank (Just Frank) (Feb. 16, Glasslands) falls at the other end of the spectrum. Ruthlessly chilly and stubbornly minimal, his songs fall somewhere inside the newly re-emergent "coldwave" genre. It is as it sounds—most of its acts are characterized by spare, icy synths, rigid percussion, and dour vocals. Frank is no exception. The songs on his beguiling album The Brutal Wave never crack a smile. They stagger forward like robots, perfectly programmed and ruthlessly unfeeling. Magik Markers (Feb. 18, Death by Audio) are ruthless in a different way. More overtly noisy than Frank, their songs range from snarling, guitar-driven sound tornadoes to unsettling ambient drones that would slot nicely alongside the Hospital Records roster. If all that's too abstract to take in, a better bet is Teengirl Fantasy (Feb 18., 285 Kent) who leaven spacious, formless synths with impassioned vocals inspired by contemporary R&B. It's an unlikely combination, but it works; on songs like the hallucinogenic "Dancing in Slow Motion," Shannon Funchness's vocals are as shimmery as a negligee, fluttering alluringly in the soft, breezy electronics. They suggest mystery and sexuality at once.
So do Other Lives (Feb. 17, Bowery Ballroom), whose underrated 2011 album, Tamer Animals, settles in like fog on midnight London streets. The band is from Oklahoma, but their music radiates the same kind of gloom and foreboding as British bands like Radiohead—for whom they're opening in an upcoming tour—and '80s act Felt. Frontman Jesse Tabish, an awoved Philip Glass acolyte, shares his hero's penchant for mournful melodies. The songs on Tamer Animals are composed of stormy strings and ethereal piano; they pitch and roll, Tabish delivering image-laden lyrics that read like extracts from Revelations. "The wrath of the sea/ does not concern me/ all of your city lights/ turn your brightest days into sleepless nights," he warns on the suffocating "Desert." It's an apocalypse that's personal as much as global.
There's something prophetic about hip-hop collective Doomtree (Feb. 16, Bowery Ballroom) too. The Minneapolis group sings of violence both present and future in cold, unsparing terms. "They set the stakes with loaded dice," goes a line on their thundering song "Own Yours," "Shout on high that the end is night, but I don't mind." Like Liturgy and Magik Markers, they have a thing for bucking convention. Early last year, they released a mixtape called Wugazi, which combined classic verses from Wu-Tang Clan with the brittle punk rock of Fugazi. It makes sense—their music essentially does the same kind of mixing and matching. Where other rappers choose production that nods either toward nightclubs or the R&B of yesteryear, Doomtree's music is grounded in sinewy punk rock. Drop in on any track on last year's No Kings and hear the sound of the sky falling—queasy guitars heave and pitch like falling trees, percussion erupts like sudden earthquakes. There's a tension and persistence to their music that's difficult to shake.
Of course, people have been crying Apocalypse in pop music for years, and none more famously than Guns 'N' Roses. (Feb 10 – 24, multiple venues). Anyone who grew up in the 1980s knows every last shriek and holler of "Welcome to the Jungle," the song that functions as both the band's calling card and sums up the general mood of their music—which is, essentially, hooligans taking spray cans to the walls of a burning city. Their story over the past two decades has been well-told—massive lineup changes, Axl Rose's disappearance from the public eye, and a disappointing record it took them 14 years to make. But after a series of successful tours and legitimately great live performances, the notion of the band (or, more specifically, Rose) as petulant, out of touch enfants terribles is beginning to fade. Their shows this week seem specifically designed to celebrate their legacy; on the 15th, they'll play Webster Hall, formerly The Ritz, the site of a 1988 live performance broadcast by MTV that solidified the group's legacy. Rose still likes to keep audiences waiting—at a show in November at the Izod Center, they began a full hour after their opener ended—but it's now become more of an endearing tic than a genuine hassle. What's a few minutes when the entire world is going up in flames?