Math rock can go one of two ways. At best, it has the capacity to challenge the mind with dense interplay and inventive songwriting. At worst, it’s an opaque mass of notes and rhythms that lacks coherence and serves as a backdrop for tech-nerd wanking. There aren’t a whole lot of “bad” math rock bands–the exigencies of playing math rock tend to weed out the shitty instrumentalists–but this is to say that there are plenty of boring and unchallenging ones.
The three bands at the Casbah last night, New York’s Marnie Stern and San Diego’s Sleeping People and Japandi, all fall into the former category, and all do so in different ways. Japandi, who opened the show, did so with a little more emphasis on song structure and groove. Japandi are painfully young; I think their drummer is 19. He certainly didn’t play like it.
Aside from the drumming (I am a drummer, what can I say), the rest of the band was more than capable. About the only thing I could say about them in the way of criticism is that some of their songs seem like they could easily be made into more conventional songs (i.e. with the addition of lyrics). All that means is that there’s still more room for experimentation within the sound that they’re working with.
Sleeping People are probably San Diego’s best math rockers. They seem to be well liked in other places, due to a phenomenon known in the 1990s as “touring.” Of all the bands doing this kind of dense, complex instrumental stuff, Sleeping People probably do the best job of creating strange, tense head space with their music. It’s hard to say something sounds paranoid, but that’s exactly what it made me feel. Dark. Even playful sometimes. The whole band is kickass, from Casey and Joi on guitar to Kenseth Thibideau bass and Brandon (Brandini) Relf on drums, they are all at the top of their game. Bradon’s some kind of savant. He simply plays like no one else I’ve ever seen.
Later in their set, Rob Crow joined them for guest vocals on the track they’ve contributed to the Black Box compilation. In related news, the release shows for the comp are August 23 and 24 at the Casbah. A two night affair, eh?
In between bands I chatted with Andrea, a fixture in many of the pictures taken by Rosie at sddialedin. Just ’cause Rosie’s taking the night off (or rather, taking in the Republic of Letters in Solana Beach) doesn’t mean your off the dropped-name hook.
Marnie Stern is, apparently, both a band and a person. The person is Marnie Stern, who plays guitar in a way that tends almost exclusively to the type of two-hand tapping that Eddie Van Halen made famous and Ian Williams of Don Cab reclaimed for indie rockers everywhere. Marnie Stern also counts on Josh and Zak Hill of Hella for instrumental support. The latter Hill is one of the craziest drummers I’ve witnessed. Playing a set that looks like it had been tortured, he was all over the place. His right foot might be the fastest thing on the planet. Remember when Roadrunner would really get to hauling ass and his feet would blur into what looked like a giant blue tank tread? Yeah, Zak’s foot sorta looked like that. The band/she is doing a series of dates on the west coast, with tonight’s stop in LA and tomorrow’s in San Francisco. Ostensibly, that’s where they reconnect with the magic spaceship that put them here.
Adding to the fun is the fact that Marnie actually sings. When she does, it’s some bizarre, left-field stuff. If this makes any sense, her music sounds little like Gwen Stefani took a bunch of mushrooms and made some weird, Robert Johnson like deal with the devil to become an insane guitar monster. Somewhere, there’s a reader who’s got the Go! Team, Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien and Hella in their car’s disc changer. Congratulations: you just found your new favorite band.